As a teenager, I didn’t hang around in graveyards wearing black, listening to Bauhaus and smoking clove cigarettes. I have never been a smoker. I grew up in the suburbs, in profoundly and blessedly uninteresting times. I was a kid, then a teenager, then a twenty-something, who led a relatively safe life. I experienced no traumatic deaths.
And I didn’t just wake up one morning and decide on a whim to start finding out all I could about cooling boards, cremation, and Victorian mourning jewelry made from human hair.
But what did happen is I was watching this TV show, maybe you remember it, called Six Feet Under. I was obsessed and didn’t know why. And that actually led to my writing an article about a green burial cemetery, the nation’s first, near Westminster, S.C. In a green burial cemetery, nothing that doesn’t biodegrade completely is allowed to be buried. That means no embalming and no metal clasps on caskets.
I thought I was doing the story because it was kind of quirky and fun—you know: all those jokes that emerge when the preacher, the priest and the rabbi meet up at the Pearly Gates. And there is a dark humor inherent in any death road-trip—including the one that I found myself taking as more and more people started telling me their personal stories, and as I immersed myself in American death customs past and present.
I ended up collecting stories from ordinary people who find themselves involved with death—those who proffered various memorial choices, and those forced to make them. A funeral voyage on the Atlantic, a klatch of obituary writers meeting in the desert, and a Midwestern museum that introduces us to our death-obsessed forebears: the details in these personal stories build upon one another to reveal a landscape that’s usually hidden in our ordinary lives—until the day it’s not.
However, as I worked, I realized something. I was having a hard time with tone. Tone is defined as the narrator’s attitude toward her subject matter. The earliest chapters I’d completed were filled with ha-ha humor, a sort of put-upon wackiness that, as time passed, made me cringe more and more as I read them. Because there’s the gallows humor that shows up all by itself—and then the there’s humor you add in when you’re not comfortable.
And I wasn’t comfortable.
So, the book was stuck. I was stuck, too.
Here’s why—and it’s something I’ll tell you now, at my own, superstitious risk. Like so many Americans my age (now mid-thirties), I am still a death virgin. I’ve lost two grandmothers and borne witness to who-knows-how-many violent movie and television deaths. But closing an intimate relative’s eyes, shutting his mouth, and digging his grave–that’s the stuff of my real nightmares.
Sure, I talked a blue streak (and still will) to anyone who would listen about things like bizarre early ads for embalming fluids and colonial funereal fads. But then I engaged in other conversations: with the memorial photographer who created moments, fixed in film, of true connection between parents and their dead or dying newborn children. The forty-something woman who tended to a roadside memorial for the daughter who’d died in an auto accident at the age of twenty.
Obviously, not wacky. Not funny. All of a sudden, it seemed, instead of investigating Death as an abstract cultural concept, I was mired in actual loss. In grief. In questions provoked by true absence. And it scared me. It still scares me.
It took coming to terms with that fear to find the authentic voice of this work. I was able to start separating the humor that belonged in these stories from that which was me, dancing around and trying hard to assure everyone that none of this was real.
Because it is real. Long conversations with people really working with grief turned into conversations about what it means to lose someone. What it means to be left—and to continue living—until you stop, too. All of this went into the book, now. It had to. Changed now, the book went on. It was still funny in places, but actually funny, not defensively, aggressively so.
It’s been more than five years since I took the plunge and started writing about why Americans make the choices we do when it comes to remembering our dead, and I still don’t have all the answers. I’m not a grief counselor or a minister or a funeral director. I’m not even a mourner. Not yet. But I will be. And so will you.
It’s this knowledge that stalls and paralyzes us very often, but isn’t it also what keeps us going? Keeps us asking the questions so big that their abstraction makes them sound hopelessly trite? What’s next? Why are we here? What’s the right way to mark all this?
We find the answers only in glimpses, writ-small, in particulars we can touch and taste and smell. This moment with the people we love. That glorious view at dawn. The smell of the city after it rains. After all, this sensory life is our only means of accessing any abstract Truth. In that larger sense, we are all wandering blind. And I think that’s rather beautiful.