The Order of the Good Death

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In my novel, Willows of Fate, Desdemona meets death head on in the preparation room of a funeral home. For that scene, I did research on decomposition, embalming, and funeral homes. I even looked at photos of corpses, though before this I’ve long been fascinated by Victorian postmortem photography. Personally, I’ve been at bedsides of the recently deceased and have attended a lot of funerals from the time I was four. I’ve been around plenty of dead pets and animals killed for eating. Am I, then, accustomed to death and comfortable with all its forms?

The answer to that would be no.

My father-in-law was diagnosed with an aggressive form of lymphoma in the spring of this year. However, after some chemotherapy, he went into remission. Even his oncologist was amazed at his recovery. Everyone breathed a sigh of relief. Then, he began experiencing severe headaches last month. After examination, they discovered the cancer had returned and was now in his brain and spinal fluid. A more rigorous chemo was prescribed but he wasn’t doing as well this time around. I kept thinking about a great-aunt I had who died of brain cancer. She wasn’t wholly sane by the time she passed and I feared the same would happen to my father-in-law.

Two weeks ago, on a Sunday evening, I went to check on my father-in-law and found him dead on his bathroom floor. The coroner later said he had been gone for about 24 hours.

He wasn’t in a sterile, controlled environment. It wasn’t a visitation in a funeral home. It was the bathroom of a house he kept as warm as a sauna. It was death in its starkest and most real form. I’m generally a pretty stoic person when faced with a crisis but I wasn’t stoic that night. I’ll spare my readers the details but suffice it to say that I was fairly close to hysteria for a bit before shifting into mild shock.

I tried to look at it clinically. I tried to recall to my mind everything I had researched and looked at over the years. But there’s intellectually knowing a reality and then having that reality sitting propped up against a bathroom door. There’s reading about the smell of a decomposing body and then there’s experiencing it. (Why do they describe the smell as sickly-sweet? Because there was nothing sweet about it. I’ll never be able to experience a marsh in the same way again.)

Once upon a time, the deceased were the responsibility of the family. They washed and dressed the corpse. They set the corpse up in the living room or parlor. They made arrangements for burial and took pictures (if a camera was available). It was heartbreaking, just as it is today. I’m sure a lot of crying went on during all of this. But everyone was fully aware of death and what happens afterward. There are those of us (myself included until recently) who like to say, “Oh, I’m cool with death. I’ve been to over ten funerals and was there in the hospital when Grandma Jane died and then there was the time Mr. Kitty McKittyton passed into the great beyond under a bush.”

No. No, you’re not cool with death. Unless you work in healthcare or in the mortuary business, what you’re actually “cool with” is the modern, sanitized version of death that puts it at a distance, behind flowers, make up, and lined, boxy coffins.

There’s a mortician by the name of Caitlin Doughty who creates hilarious Youtube videos on death and who is attached to The Order of the Good Death. The mission of the Order of the Good Death is “exploring ways to prepare a death phobic culture for their inevitable mortality”. Doughty’s videos (about everything from Ebola-ridden corpses to what really goes on in a crematory) reflect that philosophy. As a traditionally-minded Catholic, I’ve done my share of meditations and reflections on death, so the Order’s mission statement is something I can get behind, though I don’t always agree with everything Doughty says in her videos or things I’ve read on the Order’s website.

I honestly believe that it was those meditations I’ve done and watching her videos that kept me from going into full-blown hysteria and having a panic attack. My experience also makes me more firm than ever in my belief that we all should become familiar with death. We need to accept the reality of what does happen to all of us. I rather wish now that I had been exposed to the messier, more true aspects of human death, because then maybe the experience of finding my father-in-law would have gone better.

Yes, I didn’t freak out as much as I could have, but I did go hide in the living room. I was in minor shock for a few days. If I had been more comfortable, I could have sat beside his body and mourned, rather than treating it like the scene out of a horror movie when it wasn’t. It was simply the ending of one stage for him and the beginning of another, which is something that happens to us all.

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