Several years ago there was an article about the trial of Josef Fritzl, the German man who kept his daughter locked in the basement for 24 years. When called to testify, Fritzl was asked if he had any friends as an adult. He replied, “I had no friends. You need to nurture friendships and I had no time for that.”
Fritzl, for all his monstrosity, was correct. Relationships require constant nurturing and upkeep — like flowers in a garden. Ignored, they will wither and die. Death is the most important relationship you will ever have. It will not do to ignore it.
When I first began working at a mortuary four years ago, I was faced with mortality fears I hadn’t even realized were there. The cold, dead bodies told me that everyone I knew, from my mother to my dear friends to myself, were going to die. Some sooner rather than later. Cruelly annihilated out of my life. It is hard to begin a relationship with someone you consider so capricious and unfair.
If Death were a man, my friends would tell me to break up with him. But alas, with Death there is no such option. We must do the best we can. There are countless How-to-Wikihow-Cosmo-Seventeen magazine articles on the vast interweb that give us steps to a better relationship. I share with you now the hokey but useful ones that I used to improve my relationship with death and my own mortality.
Discover what makes the other person tick.
I cannot stress this enough. There is absolutely nothing wrong with being interested in mortality and death. Don’t let anyone ever tell you you are “sick” or “morbid” or “deviant.” It is patently untrue. Death is where every single one of us will end up. To feign disinterest in such a fundamental thing is denial, plain and simple. Read everything you can about death. Read the philosophers, read the scientists. Figure out what you (not your culture or your religion) believe happens to a body after death and what rituals make sense to you. In this case, ignorance is not bliss. With death, ignorance is fear.
Forgive one another.
Forgive Death. As much as it feels like it’s aimed at you… it’s just — well — not. Death doesn’t play favorites. Just as God isn’t really present for every football touchdown, Death is not truly a vengeful creature lying in wait for a chance to murder your happiness. Natural disasters or accidents are just that — natural or accidents. It’s not Death smiting you specifically. The mere fact that today could be the day you die is what makes life beautiful.
Review your expectations.
What is it that you want out of your own death? Because the universe won’t know if you don’t tell it.
I want to die with my affairs in order.
I want to die with my family and friends knowing how much I love them.
I want to die having made peace with death.
Those are my expectations. But knowing what you want out of a “good death” is not enough. It’s up to you to make sure that it happens. It’s my responsibility to have my funeral arrangements in place and my bank statements stored neatly and my friends recently told that they are strange delirious perfection. I make my own good death. That is power.
Spend quality time together.
The last few months I’ve been so busy I haven’t been spending time with Death like I used to. This was obvious last weekend when the thought came to mind of finding out I had terminal cancer and would be dead in four months. I was horrified. I sat for two hours, first being angry and scared and then shifting to how I could perhaps use four months of life. How I could make videos addressing the end of life, how I would get to see all my old friends in a sort of weirdo Victorian hospice visitor’s salon, how one of my best friends just bought a 1969 seafoam green Land Cruiser which could be used to drive my body up to the natural burial cemetery in Marin when I died. I sat with the thought until I reconciled myself to it. I sat with it until the anxiety went away and I was once again at peace with it. Be with your death anxiety until you move through it. As they say, the only way out is through. Many of us have thoughts of death, but we don’t see them to the end. We get stuck in loops, reliving the scary part over and over, but never the resolution.
Do not be afraid to delight in death. Of course I do not mean you are happy when someone dies, or happy to see someone in pain or mourning. But the vast majority of your life isn’t spent in mourning. It’s spent living. And while you’re living, it will not hurt you to have a fun, positive relationship with Death. Death is fascinating. Chaotic and ordered at the same time. There are strange rituals and art to be explored. The never-ending cultural entertainment of what death does to people, to relationships, to society. I don’t just pretend to love death. I really do love death. I bet you would too if you got to know him.