Looking back I wonder if I was an insomniac child. I don’t know enough or much at all, really, about human child development to know what’s normal. But I do know that, for as much of my childhood as I can remember, it always took me hours to fall asleep at night. On further thought, I don’t think it was insomnia, but rather the childhood state of a future night owl, which I decidedly am. Regardless, I wasn’t allowed to keep a reading light on indefinitely, lights-out time was a firmly enforced rule. Once my bedroom went dark I turned to solo games to entertain my sleepless self. At first I’d simply play pretend and imagine myself elsewhere, but as soon as I got carried away with that parental warnings would come telling me to be quiet. Then I’d write and draw on my bedside wall with my fingertips for a little while. I fancied I could see the words and designs left behind where my fingers had been.
My other tried-and-true diversion was trying to imagine what it was like to be dead. I’ve been fascinated by mortality and most things morbid and macabre for about as long as I’ve known that I’m queer. And this little game is one of the reasons I know it’s simply always been part of my mindset. I did not grow up in a religious household, so there was no talk of an afterlife, no heaven, hell, or reincarnation, etc. I was told that death was simply the end of existence. But that concept confounded me, so at night I would lie in bed and try to imagine what it must be like to be dead. I’d start with the physical – lying as still as possible, imagining being completely inert, breathing as slowly and shallowly as I could until I fancied I wasn’t breathing anymore, and visualizing each part of my body going quiet and still. That was the easy part. Then came the process of quieting my head, stilling my thoughts, trying to un-be. Every time I went through this portion of the exercise I felt like I could only get so far. I just couldn’t quite wrap my head around not having a single solitary thought. Of everything that is me just…stopping. At the time it was terribly frustrating. I felt like I was so close to understanding and that gaining that understanding would bring some tremendous breakthrough. But now I don’t think that’s the case at all. I just recognize how hard I was trying to creatively and privately fathom the unfathomable.
In recent years I’ve grown to understand why I was trying so hard in the first place. Despite a natural inclination toward the morbid, I didn’t see much of death growing up, so I was always looking for it in hopes of better comprehending it. I grew up in a family scattered across this country and separated by an ocean. When family deaths occurred I didn’t travel to view a body and/or attend a service. There were only words imparting the information. I remember the terribly untimely summertime death of a high school classmate, but I didn’t know her personally. I glimpsed her friends grieving and could sense the enormity of their loss and felt very sad for them, but otherwise I felt very disconnected from it.
I attended three funerals as an adolescent: two for mothers of friends of mine and one for a friend’s older sister. I attended viewings for both women and recall they were each so heavily made up that they didn’t look real, let alone like the people I’d met in life. I remember how separate they felt from everyone in attendance. Obviously the dead are irrevocably separated from the living, but that’s not what I mean. I was simply a school friend in attendance at these ceremonies, so I spent most of my time, as I still so often do in social situations, observing from off to one side. People entered and greeted the grieving family, briefly visited the body in her casket, and then went and sat down or milled about with others while waiting until it was time to move along to the cemetery for the funeral. The one exception I recall was my friend’s little sister, who couldn’t have been more than 6 or 7 years old at the time. She repeatedly went over to the casket, climbed a step or three, and embraced and kissed her mother as well as she could with the woman tucked into the voluminous padding and drapery inside the casket. I remember being struck by the tender boldness of her behavior, which seemed unusual simply because she was the only person doing it.
I have vivid memories of finding dead wild animals as a child, being sorrowful for their solitude and also fascinated by their utterly lifeless bodies. In situations where I was able (read: alone), I held little ceremonies for them and buried them. The death of family pets was terribly upsetting, but usually there were no bodies to be seen. They were just gone, having been taken to the vet for euthanasia. It wasn’t until I was a young adult that I experienced firsthand being present for the euthanasia of a beloved cat, stroking his body as he passed, and later still watching an ailing guinea pig die in my partner’s hands. As a child, the disconnect of good-bye and then absent made it hard to understand what had actually taken place. Pet burials took place in the backyard, but they were something my father solemnly went and took care of. If I was offered the opportunity to look at a dead pet and say goodbye, I don’t recall it. Sadly it never occurred to me to ask to participate. I suspect I probably would’ve been permitted to do so, but at the time it was inconceivable. Knowing what I do know about death rituals and grieving, I think about the value of inviting one’s child to see and interact with their dead pet so as to comprehend that what remains is an empty vessel, still soft to the touch, but…vacant. I understand that this is how we can begin to learn how to accept death as a natural part of life. By being present. Seeing it. Touching it. Participating in it. By caring for our dead, be it alone, or as blood or chosen family.
As I review what I’ve written here I want to acknowledge my awareness that my childhood was very fortunate compared to anyone who’s suffered death-related tragedy firsthand and I’m in no way trying to paint a pitiful picture of myself or actively complain about a lack of death in my life growing up. Death is a very real, very unwelcome presence in the lives of those who’ve somehow had loved ones snatched from them and at no point did I long for such occurrences. But I did want to share some personal experiences that contributed to and helped shape my ongoing fascination with death that, this past September, found me attending Death Salon Seattle.
I’ve longed to attend a Death Salon event since I first learned about the organization years ago. In case you you aren’t already familiar with it…
In the spirit of the eighteenth-century salon – informal gatherings of intellectuals [historians, writers, artists, musicians, death professionals, and armchair researchers, academics and non-academics] – Death Salon encourages conversations on mortality and mourning and their resonating effects on our culture and history. We hold public events and provide an online community (through both Death Salon and our sister organization, The Order of the Good Death) to increase discussion on this often-ignored subject, focusing more on ideas and the broader cultural impacts of death than one’s personal interactions with mortality.
This year’s Death Salon happened to take place just a few hours from my home so there was no way I was going to miss the opportunity. And I’m indescribably glad I went. It wasn’t just fascinating, it felt like a homecoming. Topically. Emotionally. Socially. Everything clicked. Although Death Salon Seattle took place in early September, I’m still actively processing the experience. I don’t think that’s going to stop. In fact, the more I think about it, the more I feel that this has less to do with ongoing processing of my first Death Salon than it does the beginnings of a personal awakening.
Death Salon’s annual main event takes the form of an academic conference. This year, in addition to a cemetery tour, theatre performance, and an evening fundraiser cocktail party, there were two full days of talks and panels given by and involving people somehow involved with death, including a wide variety of death professionals, academics, creatives, educators, and social activists.
Heading into Death Salon, having read the program numerous times, I thought I was prepared for the emotional elements of many of the presentations. It turns out that I was not, but there was something beautiful and cathartic about experiencing so many profoundly poignant moments, whether stirred by empathy or personal experience. If I had to encapsulate the weekend in a single line I would describe it as one seemingly endless frisson. I had tears in my eyes and goosebumps all over for the better part of two days. (Note to self: next year bring more tissues)
I’ve wrestled with how to best describe the presentations themselves. Attempting to summarize each of them would make this essay unwieldy, but only devoting a sentence or two to each feels like a tremendous disservice to the efforts of the presenters and the rich quality of their thoughtful content. Instead I’ll share some highlights, things I learned and experienced:
A simple yet effective exercise to acquaint yourself with your own mortality: practice saying “when I die” not “if I die.”
For many, the fear of grief is greater than the fear of death.
Racial inequality extends into the realm of death. How we die, how we view death, how we mourn and grieve, all of these things are deeply influenced by history, heritage, and socio-economic status.
The Death Positive Movement needs to work to include diverse voices and look out for the needs of marginalized peoples, for whom even being able to consider, let alone access options for having a good death and incorporating death positivity into one’s life are currently matters of privilege.
Those who think they don’t care about advance directives or what happens to their body after their die, in actuality probably do. Finding the right setting or context greatly helps encourage the discussion of such things. Art, theatre, even a movie can be what it takes to start the conversation.
People dealing with the death of a pet are often made to feel like owners of things, not people grieving for lost family members. Those who’ve experienced the death of an animal friend know that it is decidedly not a “lesser loss,” but it will take effort to raise awareness and change that perception on a societal scale, enabling people to memorialize and mourn as much as they need to, both in private and in public.
I depleted my supply of tissues during “The Unbreakable Bond: Pet Memorials,” Dr. Paul Koudounaris‘s heartbreakingly beautiful lecture about the history of pet cemeteries, both official and illegal, the extraordinary bond that exists between humans and our animal companions, and our desire to do right by them in death as in life. If you ever have the opportunity to attend one of his singular talks, don’t miss it.
Natural or green burial means burying an unembalmed body in the soil – sometimes simply shrouded, sometimes in a biodegradable coffin of some sort – so that it may decompose, recycling the body by allowing it to return to its base elements. For many people, modern life is divorced from the natural world and devoid of ritual. Natural burial offers opportunities for reconnection, the creation of new rituals, and for greater involvement in the funeral, such as helping to care for and transport the body to the grave, participating in the actual burial process, and planting trees and other plants on the gravesite, creating a living memorial that’s nourished by the body below, effecting a beautiful form of resurrection.
Death positivity is irrelevant if not downright offensive for those who’ve suffered untimely loss. Megan Divine‘s overwhelmingly moving and thought-provoking talk, “It’s OK that You’re not OK: Death Positivity in the Face of Grief,” began from an intensely personal place, addressed how to talk about unexpected and traumatic death, how to be death positive in the face of deaths that are anything but natural, and how to bear witness and support those who are grieving.
Megan’s talk had a profound impact on me. By the time it ended I could feel something vast and momentous beckoning, but I can’t articulate more than that just yet. It’s my hope that reading Megan’s new book, It’s OK That You’re Not OK: Meeting Grief and Loss in a Culture That Doesn’t Understand, helps me decipher what it is about grief support that strikes such a deep chord with me. We’re so awkward and uncomfortable with grief, yet it is something we all experience at some if not numerous points in our lives. Whether actively grieving, wanting to support someone else, or simply interested learning about this neglected aspect of what rightfully should be considered part of the Death Positive Movement, I suspect everyone has something invaluable to gain by reading Megan’s book. I also recommend checking out her website, Refuge In Grief.
Attending Death Salon meant finally getting to meet wonderful Melissa, The Modern Mortician, and her equally wonderful canine
familiar assistant, Kermit the Dog, aka the #deathpositivepup. Melissa graciously took these photos of me monopolizing Kermit’s attention between presentations. If you aren’t already familiar with this fabulous death positive duo, Kermit works alongside Melissa as a grief therapy dog – they’re the first Certified Therapy Team working in the Funeral Service in the state of Texas. You can (and probably should) follow them on Instagram or Facebook.
It was no surprise that pretty much everyone at Death Salon was eager to meet Melissa and Kermit, but what did surprise me was how Kermit’s sensitive soothing magic manifested between the weekend’s emotionally heavy presentations. At first I was simply ecstatic to meet him, but I soon realized that interacting with him genuinely helped us too.
Attending Death Salon helped elevate my lifelong fascination with mortality above the abstract. I’m no closer to being able to imagine what it’s like to be dead, but I’ve furthered my understanding of the importance of encouraging discussions about death and dying, helping people to plan for their own mortality, and helping all people die well. I learned about about a variety of ongoing efforts to innovate death care, increase post-mortem options and access to them, and to update the funeral industry in the face of a death care revolution. I also learned that this community is full of amazing humans doing phenomenal things and it was my privilege to get to meet some of them during this event.
At the conclusion of Death Salon Seattle, Caitlin Doughty announced the location of the 2018 Death Salon: in Boston at the historic, vast, and gorgeous Mount Auburn Cemetery. You can be sure I’ll be there. So will Melissa and Kermit. I hope some of you will consider joining us.