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Death becomes…easier.

Posted in Life & Love

A Victorian death mask of a child
A Victorian death mask of a child

The Egyptians and the Victorians, in their own different ways, were rather obsessed with death. The Egyptians sent their departed on to the afterlife embalmed and equipped with anything they might need. The Victorians were keen on remembering their loved ones by casting masks directly from the face of the deceased, masks that were kept around the house, in lieu of photographs, I suppose, the most famous of which can now be admired at the National Portrait Gallery in London.

Every culture has imprinted its take on death over the millennia but, during the course of the 20th century, Western society started dispensing with the business of death altogether. Oh, we kept on dying but far less often in our own beds, bodies swiftly whisked away to funerary parlors where unseen hands would take care of the washing, dressing and other procedures to make the cadaver more…lifelike. Families went from a last breath they might or might not have witnessed to a nicely dressed corpse in a casket. Grief took place away from the recently departed.

Things, though, might be slowly beginning to change. Societal trends that seemed unthinkable only 60 or 70 years ago are becoming more commonplace: cremation, for example, which could surpass burials in the next few decades. Less religiosity overall leading to alternative funeral arrangements, away from churches or temples, and a movement towards green burials.

With the advent of photography, post-mortem photos became popular
With the advent of photography, post-mortem photos became popular

At a birthday party a couple of months ago I ran into a neighbor I hadn’t seen in a long while and I learnt her husband had passed away after a long illness. While remembering her husband, she mentioned the funeral she had at home. You can do that? I asked. Apparently, in the majority of American states, you can. I was intrigued, mostly because my neighbor spoke of the ceremony, of her husband’s body who never left the house and of how much the whole process helped her detach herself from him, with a serenity and an openness rarely found in people who are grieving. A few days later, I called her and asked her whether she would be willing to share more. Very generously, she invited me over to her house to chat and to show me the 15 minute video of the “home funeral”.

For the first time, I came across a profession I did not know existed: the death midwife.
My neighbour, whose husband had expressed the wish to die at home, first met the death midwife who was to accompany them through the experience while taking a course in home hospice care. In general, during the last few months of a patient’s decline, a midwife stops by once a week, to check in, to discuss any last wishes, how the dying person envisages his/her last journey to be. The midwife also coaches the family on the bureaucracy: on how to have the death certified without removing the corpse (if someone dies in a hospital, and the cause of death does not require an autopsy, the body can be transported back to the house).

Benjamin Disraeli: before and after
Benjamin Disraeli: before and after

Both the midwife and my friend were at the bedside when the husband passed: together they washed the body, dressed him according to his choice of clothing and placed him on dry ice that was changed every day for three days, while a procession of friends and family came to pay their respects. My friend felt that, by having her husband’s body still close by, it was easier to accept the idea that his spirit was slowly leaving. “It wasn’t as traumatic as having him taken away from me immediately.” After three days, the body was placed in a simple cardboard casket that those attending the funeral were encouraged to decorate with drawings, or thoughts.

On the third day, people convened at the house and spoke, remembered their friend, played music, ate together and walked the casket to the end of the driveway, where an attendant from the Neptune Society was waiting to take him away for cremation. I was moved by the images: by the sense of peace and, daresay, even joy on the faces of the participants. Absent were the formalities of a church; the dark clothes; the long faces.

Green burial in Seattle - photo courtesy of Vice
Green burial in Seattle – photo courtesy of Vice

When we are born, there is only one certainty waiting for us at the other end, and it’s death. We go about life both dreading or ignoring our fate, railing against misfortune when someone close is taken away. By making the process of saying goodbye more in tune with the way we live, less clinical, less artificial, maybe we can lessen, if not the pain – that never goes away – the hardship of acceptance.


On death midwifery

On green burials

One of our most popular posts was on biodegradable urns

The average cost of a home funeral in the U.S. is $2,000.

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  1. silvia

    That’s exactly how I feel it should be. The trend of our times is to distance if not remove the concept of death from our lives as much as possible but I think it’s contradictory and pointless.

    June 1, 2015
  2. camparigirl

    I love Highgate cemetery! I wasn’t familiar with the Chinese custom – it’s a nice image, easing one’s passing into a possible afterlife with the idea of material possessions that endure on the other side. Now, if I can start believing into an afterlife…

    May 31, 2015
  3. I can understand how people obsess over death like the Victorians. The super successful mourning clothes exhibition at the Met is a fine example of this. Maybe it’s because we’re attracted to the macabre beauty surrounding the images, clothes, rituals so that we keep the nasty grizzly inevitable business of death, ours and that of our loved ones, at a distance.

    May 29, 2015
    • camparigirl

      I am terrified of very few things but deaths is one of them and I find that, the more I explore the concept, the easier it becomes to accept it.

      May 31, 2015
  4. If you ever come back to London, do (re?)visit the Highgate Cemetery. It’s a great reminder of how Victorians obsessed over death (and how at one point they wanted to emulate the Egyptians.)

    In China, funerals have an interesting ritual: you pay an artisan to make a paper house complete with all the modern things one might need in the afterlife, and sometimes even a car; when time comes, everything is burnt so it can materialise on the ‘Other Side’ for the comfort of the deceased. Also, lots of a type of ‘ afterlife money’ is regularly burnt so the dead can buy more things. This was back in the 80s, and I wonder if now they’ve replaced the mini square paper televisions with flat screens…

    May 26, 2015

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