When a body is placed in a bag, or on a stretcher or in a casket, an unnerving change happens to our perceptions of existence. We realize the stark and unambiguous reality that something as large as life can be contained in an incredibly small space. Professor James Kugel in his book In the Valley of the Shadowruminations on the foundations of religion into which he weaves his personal trial with cancerwrites that he is always "astonished by the smallness of the freshly dug, open holes you see here and there in the cemetery grounds. Can a whole human being fit in there, a whole human life? Yes. No problem."
We caneach of usbe contained in a small spit of earth. The hole reduces all of human life to a dark, containable, insignificant space. I lingered on Kugel's words,"a whole human life,"having just had the same thought when a beloved friend, a pediatric oncologist, died of cancer himself. He was a larger-than-life sort of fellow. He loved to eat and talk and teach. He was exuberant. And so, in some wrong irony of the universe, he got thyroid cancer and could not eat and could not talk and could not teach. And then I saw the hole they dug at the cemetery to bury him. Could it possibly contain him? It did. When he was fifty-one, cancer had made him smaller and smaller, and he shrunk right out of his life, two weeks before becoming a grandfather. Gone. I remember a light rain mixed with the afternoon sun right after the burial. A rainbow spread across the cemetery. One of his children said,"That was just the sort of thing that Dad would have planned."He was a colorful person who seemed to have choreographed his own end. A rainbow was perfect. It just made sense.
I understood from the shakiness in Diane's voice that she and Roy could not be alone, so I promised to be there soon and booked a oneway ticket. From a distance, my husband and I made calls to morgues, the police station, detectives, and the pathologist's office to try to understand what had happened and when the body would be released. We wanted to spare Diane and Roy the anguish of these conversations. They had enough pain to manage. I tried desperately to secure a rabbi to visit the home, and, through an internet search and various connections, someone showed up late that evening. Suddenly the need for rituals was profound, but it's hard to conjure up a spiritual cushion quickly. Religious communities have a way of stepping in to do death, directing us and pushing us forward into the abyss of pain with a safety net of company and highly choreographed behaviors. Death rituals in all faiths are small, meaningful acts of emotional closure that are attempted but never guaranteed. But Diane and Roy were not part of a faith community. Jews bury the dead as close to the time of death as possible. We tried to have Alyssa's body released in a timely way. Like so many people unprepared for death, they did not know what to do. The next twenty-four hours were a surreal slap of American death, an unimaginable walk through a really bad movie. It was the very opposite of a good death. It came with price tags and quick, uncomfortable decisions that were permanent, with virtually no time to think and made in the dense, emotional fog of loss.
I only fully understood that death is often accompanied by a slickhaired salesman when Alyssa died. Death is big business. The average amount spent on a funeral today ranges between $5,000 and $10,000. An estate lawyer I know told me that the family of one of his deceased clients spent $45,000 on his funeral, $19,000 of it on an elaborate mausoleum. "It's what they needed to do. It seems like things weren't going so well for them as a family. "Guilt over a bad relationship can be costly, and no one knows how to exploit that guilt better than some funeral home directors.
Although no one can put a price on a life, death does have a price. Jessica Mitford, whose revolutionary book The American Way of Death questioned just about every assumption we have about the way we were "doing death" in America, was outraged by the price of dying. Her husband, a labor lawyer, was angry about exploitation in the funeral industry and got his wife, a writer, fired up about it. Mitford bought a pile of trade magazines and carefully read the articles and the ads, discovering a world of sales she never knew existed. One ad said that keeping up with the Joneses was not only about the high status of living but the high status of dying. Other ads appealed to the search for excellence. Why settle for anything less than the craftsmanship, beauty, comfort and durability you expect in a living room set when it comes to your casket?
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