tagReviews & EssaysDeath and Dying

Death and Dying


I see dead people.

An odd phenomenon is happening now that I'm getting older. Suddenly, I know more dead people than I do living people, a not so subtle reminder of what's in store for me, later than sooner, I hope. It occurred to me when an old friend from high school suddenly died of a heart attack the other day. It hit home because he was my age. He could have been me.

Even though I haven't seen him since the tenth anniversary of our high school graduation at the reunion dance, it seems like yesterday we were hitting on cheerleaders after winning the high school football game. I remember him as being so young, so virile, and now he's so dead. When did we all get so old?

Between car accidents, freak accidents, plane crashes, cancer, drowning, suicide, and now heart attack, he was the thirteenth friend, relative and/or acquaintance who died in a year. They're dropping like flies.

When I was younger, I always had a house full of people ready to party. With the testosterone raging and making us as high as the alcohol we drank and the drugs we took that made us do crazy things, we always had a good time. We were all so young and, in hindsight, so stupid. We never stopped laughing. We never stopped having fun, that is, until now. It's not fun now, watching everyone you know die while you wait for your turn.

Back then, none of us thought about death and dying, but I do now. With the passing of yet another friend, relative or acquaintance, the reality of passing time makes me realize that I've already lived more of it than I have left to live. It's a scary thought to dwell on my imminent demise, but it's difficult not to do that when someone I knew and who was my age or younger has died. Their death makes me reflect on my life and all those things that I've yet to do. There are those who say, I don't worry about dying. When it's my time to go, there's nothing that I can do. Yet, everyone thinks about it. Everyone wonders if there is something else after you die.

I don't want to die. Unless you are suicidal, who does? I don't want to go to that unknown abyss. Is this the best of what we can expect? So many believe that Hell is right here on Earth, while in the background Peggy Lee sings Is That All There Is? Still, not being much of a gambler, I'd rather take my chances with the life that I have left to live rather than to dwell on the thoughts of the unknown of death, which will come sooner than later. It's all so depressing that I try not to think about it. Yet, sticking my head in the sand doesn't make death and dying go away. Soon, it will come for me, too.

It used to be I was always on the phone making plans for the weekend. Back then, God forbid I stayed home on a Friday or Saturday night. Now, no one calls or no comes to see me, just as I don't call or go to see anyone. Between jobs, moving, marriages, children, divorces, and all those people who have come and who have gone in my life, I lost touch with so many of my old friends. The fun, the love, and the laughing that brought us all together died with the pain, the hardships, and suffering of living life and now, besides the memories, all that's left of those who endeared me to their hearts is the big empty hole that reality has created.

Now, even though, I admit, I look forward to laying low and kicking back on the weekend after stressing over my job during the week, it would be a refreshing change to see some of the old gang, that is, those who are still alive. Only, it's all changed. Nothing is the same. Sadly, just as I wouldn't recognize them if they passed me by on the street, they wouldn't recognize me either.

It used to be that I attended more graduations, weddings, and christenings than I did wakes and funerals. Now, it's the other way around. Maybe it's just my immediate circle of people that I know, but it seems to me that people are dying young. Is it their diet or lack of exercise, or is today's world with the economy the way that it is and has been for the past thirty years, that makes people prematurely die? Is living life today so stressful that few of us will make it to the golden age? Yet, for whatever the reason, everyone around me is dropping dead in their thirties, forties, and fifties instead of in their seventies, eighties, and nineties.

In my youth, as soon as I opened the newspaper, I turned to the sports pages before scanning the headlines. Now, I open the obituaries first, a section of the newspaper I never even read before. At first, as a wakeup call to better take care of myself, I read the obits to see how many people who died were my age or younger. Now, I open the obituaries to see if I recognize anyone who died. Often I do recognize someone and must take the time for another wake and funeral.

Much like how when there's a car crash, they seldom publish the years, makes, and models of cars that crashed, they seldom publish how the person died. Just as it would be helpful to know which type of car crashed and which type of car you are more able to survive an accident in, even though there is statistics for that, it would still be helpful to know what the person died of, so that we could avoid the same fate by not following the same lifestyle. Most often they write that he or she died peacefully at home. Is that to say that he or she died in their sleep or while watching American Idol or is that to say that he put a gun in his mouth and blew his head off or that she drowned herself in a bathtub of warm water after taking an overdose of sleeping pills?

Sometimes, if they solicit donations to this fund or that fund, you can figure out that they died of heart disease or cancer. Maybe they don't publish how the person died in sensitivity to the family, but after reading about how they are survived by Aunt Ida in Idaho and Uncle Jake in Detroit, I'm more curious to know how they died than which family members are left to grieve their loss or inherit their wealth. It seems to me that if an obituary in a newspaper is reporting that someone died, they should report how they died. I mean, if it was from a malfunctioning toaster or crossing the street without looking or taking a header down the cellar stairs, knowing how they died would make me more careful not to befall the same fate in the daily course of living my life.

I remember when my Mom was alive; the only time she left the house was to attend a wedding, wake or funeral. Some nationalities are funny like that. Weddings, wakes and funerals are the only time they socialize. It didn't matter that she hadn't seen or talked with the person who died in thirty years, it didn't matter that I didn't even know the person who died, she'd make me put on my dark suit to accompany her to pay our last respects. Attending the wake and the funeral of the deceased and saying her goodbye to the one who died, even though they were dead and wouldn't know she was even there, was important to her.

Then, she'd spend the next two weeks reminiscing about the person who died and all the people who were at the funeral and all those who weren't. Always, after not having seen or talked to some of these people in years, she promised to reconnect with old friends and distant cousins, but she never did because, other than to go grocery shopping, she never left the house, that is, until the next wake and funeral.

Maybe because she was in her eighties when she died and all those she knew were already dead or were too old to remember her and/or too feeble to attend, but no one attended her wake and funeral. Maybe others don't feel as strongly as she did about attending wakes and funerals to pay their last respects. Yet, when she died, there was only the immediate family paying their last respects at her wake and funeral. It was a sad and lonely departure for someone who had faithfully attended so many wakes and funerals to be alone at her wake and funeral. Nonetheless, we gave the one so big on attending wakes and funerals a fittingly fair send off. Perhaps, had she died 30 years earlier, there would have been a huge crowd in attendance. She would have liked that.

Yet, certainly, she wouldn't know if she was alone at her wake and funeral, she was dead. Still, her family knew and if all the relatives and friends of those people who she had attended their wakes and funerals had attended her wake and funeral, there would have been quite the overflowing crowd paying her their last respects. Maybe, those who are all up in Heaven thanked her for attending their wake and funeral and apologized for not being able to attend her wake and funeral.

I spent my childhood accompanying my Mom to wakes and funerals and I spent a good part of my life listening to her going on about how she read that this friend or that relative had died before making us attend their wake and funeral. Actually, it was fun to listen to her reminiscence about this friend and that relative. In that regard, she relived her youth and shared her memories with us whenever someone died. Maybe sharing her memories of that now deceased person was how she dealt with her grief and pain and how she handled her consternation about confronting her inevitable reality of death. I couldn't help but feel her sadness in knowing that we'd all realize the same inevitable fate of death and dying one day ourselves.

Now, perhaps because funerals are so expensive, more people are choosing to have their remains cremated. I think, just incase I go to Heaven instead of Hell; there is no need for me to prematurely experience the flames of fire by being incinerated on Earth. I mean, what if there is a remote chance that I'm still alive. How awful would that be to be trapped in an oven? Yeah, I know they drain your blood and inject chemicals through your body and if you weren't dead before, you certainly are dead now, but just the thought of burning in an oven so much like a lump of coal is not appealing to my sense of having lived a full and fruitful life. Besides who wants to show up in Heaven all charred? There may be some hot angels up there and even though I'd be dead, I'd still want to look my best.

Moreover, how do they know those are my ashes? What if they mixed my ashes with someone else's ashes? What if they don't even clean the oven in between burnings? C'mon, think about it. Who is checking the oven ash cleaning guy to make sure he's doing his job? How would they even know? For all I know, this guy could be a chain smoker and could be dropping his cigarette ashes in my sacred incinerated ashes. Further, for all I know there may be no bathroom facilities in the incineration room and rather than walk upstairs to use the men's room, maybe he pisses all over my damn ashes. I'm dead anyway, burnt to a crisp, what do I care? Yet, just the thought of someone desecrating my remains like that is so appalling to me that I don't want to be incinerated.

Yes, I'm sure they have rules and regulations they must follow when incinerating one person before incinerating the next person but, in these cost cutting times, maybe the guy who was supposed to clean the oven in between incinerations was laid off. Maybe, now, the guy they count on to clean the ovens is the guy who cleans the offices and takes out the trash. Maybe, he feels that cleaning ovens of ashes is beneath him and isn't his job and he's not doing it. Maybe, he's pissed off because he didn't get his pay raise and now he's stuck down in the basement cleaning ovens during the day and offices after everyone leaves. Maybe this was the only job he could get. Maybe, the company, to save money is just dumping and burning all the bodies together. How would anyone know? Suddenly, I feel as paranoid as Woody Allen.

I can imagine my poor wife when presented with the ashes by the funeral director.

"Those aren't his ashes," said my grieving widow.

"I beg your pardon," said the funeral director.

"Those aren't his ashes," said my grief stricken wife. "I'd recognize his ashes anywhere."

"Madam, ashes are ashes. I assure you that these are the ashes of your deceased husband's remains. We have strict rules when—"

"Sorry, but his ashes would smell like stale cigarettes, strong, reheated coffee, donuts, day old beer breath, pizza, and two day old socks."

Besides, when I die, I'd rather have a gravesite in a proper graveyard with a tombstone. I'd like to be buried beneath a tree. I like trees. They give shade. I wouldn't want my gravesite to be open to all the elements of nature. The tree would shelter me from some of the heat of the sun, the cold of the wind, and the wet of the rain, sleet, and snow.

I'd like to have a proper tombstone that had a clever saying on it. Something that would make visitors stop to read my tombstone and remember me by discussing with other what they read on my tombstone.

"I told you I was sick," was attributed to someone named B. P. Roberts who had that inscribed on his tombstone. That's a good one, but it's been used before.

"I'll be back." If Harry Houdini doesn't already have that on his tombstone, then Arnold Schwarzenegger will.

"That's all folks." I'm sure that's already taken by Mel Blanc, the voice of Porky Pig and so many other cartoon characters.

I like what Edgar Allan Poe had inscribed on his tombstone, Quoth the Raven, "Nevermore."

Will Rogers's tombstone has a good one, too. "I never met a man I didn't like." Certainly, that tells you a lot about the kind of man he was in life and the kind of life he lived.

Jackie Gleason's tombstone reads, "And away we go."

I like the one written by an unknown gunfighter, "Here lies a man named Zeke, the second fastest gun in Silver Creek." One line tells you how he lived and how he died.

Another tombstone of another gunfighter, "Here lays Butch, we planted him in the raw. He was quick on the trigger but slow on the draw." That says a lot, too. He was quick to anger but slow to back up his mouth.

Then, there's Anna Hopewell's tombstone, "Here lies the body of our Anna, done to death by a banana. It wasn't the fruit that laid her low, but the skin of the thing that made her go." Now, because of this tombstone, I don't eat bananas much anymore. Matter of fact, I cross the street whenever I see a littered banana peel.

Harry Edsel Smith's, of Albany New York, tombstone reads, "Looked up the elevator shaft to see if the car was on the way down. It was." Can you imagine this poor guy? I'm just glad the elevators at work have doors that close and don't open until the elevator is there, I hope.

Rodney Dangerfield's tombstone reads, "There goes the neighborhood." He was a funny guy. Rest in peace Rodney, you made me laugh.

Merv Griffin's tombstone reads, "I will not be right back after this message." Now, that inscription is as appropriate as it is funny.

I haven't decided what I'd have inscribed on my tombstone. If any of you readers have an idea to share what I should write or what you are thinking about having inscribed on your tombstone, I'd like to know. I hope I think of it before I die, otherwise my tombstone may only have my name and the year of my birth and death. To me, having a tombstone that doesn't reveal much about the life of the person who died, other than the name and their dates of living, is a tragic waste of good advertising space. Here, with this tombstone, is our last opportunity to let others know something about us, about how we lived and how we died.

Just as I wrote above about all those inscriptions on the tombstones of others, I'd like to think that someone would include what I wrote on my tombstone years from now, if they should write a story about death and dying. Then, again, what if my relatives don't plant me in the ground? What if they don't use the insurance money received from the death of me to buy a tombstone? What if they use my death benefit to buy themselves a new car? What if they promise to bury me beneath a tree with a nice tombstone marking my grave and inscribe it with what I wanted others to read when I'm alive, but then incinerate me so much like old trash when I die?

I think I'd better write a will. Do I have time? I don't feel so well. I hope I'm not dying.

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