We are all going to die.
I’m not talking about an impending apocalypse. Human mortality is a fact. We will all die, though presumably not all at the same time. Are you ready?
I’ve been to a number of funerals recently, which got me thinking about what I want to happen following my own demise. Or any euphemism you want to use — pass on, cross over, give up the ghost. Shuffle off this mortal coil.
Our reluctance to say someone “died” only begins to hint at our culture’s discomfort with death. My dad died suddenly nine years ago, and I still have trouble using the word. In the past few months, I have attended a Presbyterian funeral, a Catholic funeral Mass and a rousing memorial service at the Bismarck Elks Lodge. I am still in my 30s, but this year I lost a dear college friend and a high school classmate. No matter how many wise choices we make, or medical advancements we develop, death remains inevitable.
Today few people expect to die at home. Bodies are transferred directly from hospital to funeral home, often to be embalmed and prepared for viewing in an expensive casket, and later sealed into a vault in the ground. The funeral home industry markets a “tradition” that has arisen only within the past century, and many cemetery policies are erroneously assumed to be law. However, new and reclaimed options are beginning to emerge.
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Last fall I was privileged to meet Caitlin Doughty, a mortician and author of “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,” her memoir of working in a crematory. Part of Doughty’s message, which she shared at Bismarck’s GameChanger ideas festival, is to become more comfortable with death and dying as a natural process, and reclaim communal rituals we have lost. This might include keeping dying people at home and preparing bodies for burial ourselves, just as our ancestors did. Regardless of religious tradition, as participants in American culture, we must relearn how to accept death and grieving as part of life.
A few generations ago, my rural ancestors laid out deceased family members at home, surrounded by community, to be interred in a simple wooden casket or directly into the earth without embalming. This practice is slowly being reclaimed as natural (or “green”) burial, which rejects the attempt to preserve a body meant to decompose. Legal restrictions vary by state, but North Dakota Century Code is more permissive than you might assume. Green burial allows us to return to dust, nourishing other life.
Cremation also has seen an upswing in recent years, both as a more economic option and as religious and cultural views shift. Certain traditions have historically ritualized cremation, like Hindus; as a college student visiting India, I witnessed bodies burning on funeral pyres on the banks of the Ganges. Within Christian practice, the hope for “bodily resurrection” initially discouraged cremation, and the Roman Catholic Church banned it outright until the 1960s. But Christian practice also has begun to change. A friend of mine, a Baptist minister in Denver, has a columbarium at her church surrounded by a meditation garden. There are myriad ways to ritualize death and grieve together as a community.
I encourage you to think about options, and talk about death and end-of-life preferences with family and friends. In spite of what several industries want to sell you, eternal youth is not possible. Acknowledging our own mortality and addressing our collective anxiety around death is wise and necessary for valuing our remaining time together.