Nobody Has (Or Will) Say That Facing Death is Easy

Facing Death

Recently, a follower of the Order made a comment to the effect of “it’s wrong for you to make it seem like working with death is easy.”

Easy? Record-skip. No. Dear god no. There is a difference between making facing death look worthwhile, and making facing death look easy.  Hell no it isn’t easy— but it is worthwhile.  If you’re doing it right (and by “right” I mean not attempting to deny death) coming to terms with your own mortality will be the most difficult thing you ever do.

After finishing War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy began to read the great philosophers, trying to summon the desire to endure the death and destruction that plagued human existence.  He wasn’t an old man. He was young and healthy, a successful writer with a wife and family, at the highest point of vigor.  He just could not accept that death could (and very easily would) take it all away from him.

Young Leo Tolstoy

Tolstoy wrote in his “Notes of a Madman” that he awoke at two o’clock in the morning and was suddenly “seized by a despair, a fear, a terror such as I have never known before.” Here he questions himself:

“This is ridiculous,’ I told myself. ‘Why am I so depressed, what am I afraid of?’

‘Of me,’ answered Death. ‘I am here.’

‘A cold shudder ran over my skin. Yes, Death.  It will come, it is already here, even though it has nothing to do with me now… My whole being ached with the need to live, the right to live, and, at the same moment I felt death at work.  And it was awful, being torn apart inside. I tried to shake off my terror. I found the stump of a candle in a brass candlestick and lighted it. The reddish flame, the candle, shorter than the candlestick, all told me the same story: there is nothing in life, nothing exists but death, and death should not be!”

Tolstoy thought he was a rational man.  When I started working in the funeral industry I thought I was a rational woman.  But faced with the understanding of death in its true, raw form, there is sometimes nothing to do but vomit, spit, cry.  As we both did, him in a dark room at an inn in Arzamas, Russia, me at a crematory in Northern California.

Dancing Wind

Even today it is difficult for me to understand those who insist they don’t need to think about death because, “I’ve thought about it, it’s really no big deal for me.” If you have really thought about it, mourned yourself, all you love, the human race, the world, then you must feel as Tolstoy’s man before death.  Trembling. Terrified. Humbled.

But that doesn’t mean it is not also a glorious thing.  Making us more self aware, making us stronger creatures, creatures that live and rejoice in the fierce realities of life.

May we all come to the point where we see dying as Lebanese poet Kahlil Gibran did.

“For what is it to die, but to stand in the sun and melt into the wind? And when the Earth has claimed our limbs, then we shall truly dance.”

To dance with death is a not an uptight waltz, but a frenetic dance, full of ups and downs, swirls and violence.  I would never pretend it was anything but.  If you are attempting to face your own mortality you should take your own stability and mental health very seriously.  I do. And I would never tell you otherwise.

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  • Jet

    Beautifully said.

  • HS

    I always enjoy your commentary, but this one is superb! Death is something to be both welcomed and feared, hated and loved. Most don’t even want to think of it so they don’t have to face the reality of their own demise. In truth, death is inevitable; death is beautiful and ugly at the same time. It is normal and natural, and yet, also mysterious and often times, the corpse faces “unnatural” treatment. And yet, the absolute truth is, NO ONE escapes death. It is as normal as the first breath we take. It is magical as the first time we suckle or wiggle. It just simply IS. The question is that will we embrace it as a normal, natural occurrence for all humanity, or will we fight it and hide it under make up and fragrance? Having grown up on a farm, I recognize that death is as normal a life – everything lives, has usefulness, and then dies so new creatures can take their place. The truth is that death is hidden for the many, especially in the US, where death is described as “passed away” or “gone to heaven”. We leave our dead to be cared for in strangers’ hands because we can’t face it ourselves. I take a different path. I want to know, see, love my departed as I did in life. I want to comb their hair, embrace their cold body, lovingly acknowledge their life as I knew it. I promise you mom, when the time comes, I will be there for you, just as I have been in life. I will go along your journey as far as I can.

  • ajboll

    Another wonderfully written post. Thank you!

  • Dianne Porter

    This is a truth I agree with. Thankyou for sharing it.

  • Shayna R

    Amen, sisterfriend.
    Before doing removals one weekend, I was so afraid I wouldn’t be able to handle it — What if one of the old ladies resembles my grandma? What if the family is mourning hysterically and I just want to hug them? But I held it together fine, and shrouded the dead with the most caring, gentle hands ever. Then after transporting them to the mortuary, and seeing a dozen people all prepared and just laying there, I had a hard time processing what I was seeing and translating the stillness and quiet of a roomful of people into the strange reality it was. The following week was full of crazy emotional outbursts, including crying when I saw birds flying through the sky at sunset. I still don’t think I’ve fully come to terms with my mortality. I’m selfish. Even if I live to be 100 and I see every single sunset until then, it won’t be enough sunsets…

  • URNS BY ARTISTS

    Beautifully said.

  • Beth Rich

    Just now discovered your post, and your videos. I haven’t gotten any work done for an hour, and that is glorious. I’m now a follower for sure.

  • David Saunders

    Working in a hospital and as a volunteer fire fighter, I have seen death many times. It is a part of the work I do, “it is what it is”, and it can be as simple as this, as explained in something I recently read. (Love the book).

    I remember my first trip to the mortuary like it was yesterday. I knew that day what it meant to be hot under the collar, I was sweating! I simply didn’t know what to expect. The moment the door opened on the cooler and I ended up seeing and handling that first body, a calm came over me.

    It was in one sense just a part of the job, a set of tasks to be completed. This sense has been with me ever since, both in the clinical side at the hospital and when confronted with the newly dead at incidents with the fire service. There was a peace to it as well. A respect, acknowledgement, beauty and love for the work and the people I care for that really focuses me.

    The work and the dealings are never easy (some simpler than others, maybe). Relatives, mess, customs, weight, hours, etc etc…. But it can be rewarding. A learning experience. A beautiful thing. If I can’t help someone to keep breathing and going on, than I am thankful that I have the ability and constitution to do what I can for the dead and those left behind.