Staying with the body

I have an American writer friend called Bernie, who is 80 years old. I’ve known him for more than 25 years, known his three children and two of his wives and, perhaps in all that time, I only heard once that there weren’t just three children – there had actually been four. His first-born son, he once remarked, had died at birth.

And that’s all I knew until recently. There had never been a grave or even a funeral. Perhaps prompted by the terrorist attacks in New York, he and his family, including his by-now almost middle-aged surviving children, felt it was time to bury the dead. A few months ago, they had a ceremony to honour – and finally acknowledge – Joab (see Second Opinion, p 12).

The passage of time – and if Joab had lived, he’d be 45 now – did not lessen the poignancy of the situation. Perhaps most touching of all were the words of Bernie’s youngest son Adam. He owed his very life to Joab’s death. If Joab hadn’t died, Adam realised, his parents, in their compulsion to try to replace the irreplaceable, might never have conceived him.

Bernie’s story made me think about the sanitised nature of death and loss, and how modern medicine, in the guise of helping, often denies us that most necessary purgative to our grief: an actual body. We die in sterile hospitals because it is considered to be easier on our loved ones to have brisk professionals whisk away the sheeted corpse. Within hours, a funeral home goes into high gear, selecting clothes, coffins, the final resting place – all practices, we think, that are welcome distractions.

For many of us – perhaps most of us – this entire process robs us of a final chance to see our loved ones, to understand viscerally the enormity of what has come to pass and, most important of all, to have that opportunity, face to face, to say goodbye.

This happened with my father’s death. My dad died in a terrible accident when I was 25. He was welding something and, wedged into a tight space, was not wearing his helmet. In the baking Florida summer midday sun, he must have passed out and accidentally electrocuted himself.

He was found by his best friend who, in a misguided desire to spare my mother the pain of identifying her dead husband, had the body taken away. The funeral director warned us that my father was slightly disfigured and that they’d had to do some work on his face for the wake. My brother and I were brought over to have a look. The body in the coffin looked nothing like him.

Once again, to spare my mother, we held the wake with a most uncharacteristic turn for an American Catholic family: a closed coffin.

The upshot was that, ostensibly to ‘be protected’, my mother had kissed her 60-year-old husband off to work one morning and never saw him again.

This lack of a tangible body, or any material evidence of a life that had finished, was one of the elements I’m convinced that shortened her own life.

When cancer claimed her some years later, she was frail and thin, more closely resembling my grandmother than my mother. The tactful decision for the wake was to close the coffin to spare all those who remembered her old animated self.

Nevertheless, by this time, my brother and I had learned a thing or two about grief. The coffin remained flamboyantly open. Next to it, we asked to have a large bulletin board with blown-up photographs of her through the various stages of her life, looking healthy, vibrant, alive. We celebrated her life in her death. We invited our friends to come look at her and also at the photographs. We wanted everyone to know that we were not afraid to look at the body.

There is something worse than death. It is being denied the chance to embrace and know it as nothing to be frightened of.

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Written by What Doctors Don't Tell You

Explore Wellness in 2021