Back in New York there are a few places that sell this very cool t-shirt emblazoned with the words THIS BODY WILL BE A CORPSE. I want one. I really, really want one. It’s not lost on me that craving for a t-shirt, one that hits the truth of impermanence out of the park, is just ludicrous, makes me feel like I’ve fallen into some sort of trap.
I was born into a family of funeral directors. One might think that this meant for honest and open, healthy dialogue around death and life and everything in between. It would have been an amazing container for such exploration but it was not like that at all. The times, the culture, the family dynamic all rallied against such an opportunity.
I do remember the smell of carnations and motor oil that permeated my grandfather's garage, the flowers delivered for funerals stockpiled next to the sedan, maybe even the Hurst, the scent of either makes me queasy to this day. I remember being in the casket and urn display room attached to the house / funeral home as my Pepere held me over a child-size coffin repeatedly asking “Are you ready to go?” I remember sifting through a box of shells I had found on the shelf in my grandparent's office and my grandmother telling me to put Mr. [Insert French Surname] back in the box and onto the shelf as his wife might be by to pick him up…eventually. I remember playing with toys on the carpet at my great Aunt's feet as she leaned into a casket to apply makeup to a dead man. I remember her running up the stairs to answer the ringing kitchen phone as I climbed the kneeler, reached in and lifted the eyelid of this fat, cold man who seemed to be staring back at me.
I remember dreaming of being chased whenever I slept in their apartment above the funeral home. Chased by death. Chased by the fear of death. Chased by this mystery of something so certain and powerful that even a family that made and lost a fortune in the business of it could not bring themselves to speak of it.
The only conversation around death was a regular mealtime weather report from my Memere about who died and in what part of the county and of what ailment, who their family was and how we know them or not. Is it gossip if the person you are talking about is dead? I suppose so. It was never malicious, just matter of fact, like the evening news. Oh and the occasional re-telling of the story that my mother as a child, went with my grandfather and a gaggle of nuns, in the Hurst to pick up a body of an older nun, and how my mother got car sick and threw up on all the nuns laps. That one was a laugh riot in a house that didn't see much laughter before 3pm when cocktails were permissible.
One might hope that a family dedicated to the business of grief might have a thriving life and deep connections with each other and the community. My grandfather legitimately did have the latter. He was more like a politician than a gravedigger as he shook hands and patted the backs of fellow French Catholics at church services every Sunday. He gave opportunities to the youth of the neighborhood and gave breaks to families who needed them. He showed his love in private gestures, not in big hugs and loud exclamations.
Anyway, what I really wanted to talk about how I was able to sidestep coming to grips with the existential crisis of the human awareness of our own demise. I did this incredibly well for 40 years. Ahhhh, just one HUGE benefit of alcohol. The effects of dedicated and sustained massive alcohol consumption all pretty much wear off except for one; becoming an alcoholic. When one realizes he or she has become an alcoholic there are three choices; stay an alcoholic, recover from alcoholism or die.
I chose the second and it’s working so far. I recommend it wholeheartedly. When I got sober, though, I remembered what I was trying to forget; that I was going to die. I woke up each and every morning of my first 4 years of sobriety in sheer and utter panic; death was coming and seemingly a lot sooner than I hoped. This was not recovery I realized; it was more like just waiting around for the big power down…in dread. Unacceptable.
We are going to die anyway and that news might be rough, but I refused to let that awareness bleed (no pun intended) into the rest of my living life.
Thus began the courtship. Keep your enemies closer, turn toward the pain, the fear, and get curious. I began taking the Five Remembrances to heart and taped copies to mirrors and cabinets in my home and meditated on them regularly:
I am of the nature to grow old. There is no way to escape growing old.
I am of the nature to have ill health. There is no way to escape ill health.
I am of the nature to die. There is no way to escape death.
All things that are dear to me, and everyone I love, are of the nature to change. There is no way to escape being separated from them.
My actions are my only true possessions. I cannot escape the consequences of my actions. My actions are the ground upon which I stand.
I pulled my copy of Mary Roach’s book Stiff from my shelf and found the beautiful book Smoke Gets In Your Eyes by Caitlin Doughty. In time I found myself in training for Hospice Care work with the wonderful New York Zen Center for Contemplative Care. I was privileged to be placed for chaplaincy training at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City. There I was able to meet and speak with so many wonderful people, from the broken toed to the broken hearted, from the actively addicted to the actively dying, from the cancer ward to the psychiatric ward, we laughed, sang, meditated and prayed together and I started to melt, just a little, around the edges. My anxiety began to diminish perhaps with the realization that it’s not death that I need to make friends with, it’s life. Yes, there are businessy things that can be done to prepare to die, logistical details and signatures on papers and executors appointed perhaps, and I highly recommend getting this crap done asap. Then there’s the business of living - connecting - honing curiosity, so that when it’s nearly over we’re not wondering what we’ve missed.
We’re all hanging over our coffins; Are you ready to go?