What to Expect When Death Comes
In the wake of Covid-19, we are all grieving. How can we come to terms with death — and what does it teach us about living?
In 2015, I published a book. It began like this:
“A wake,” my mother said. “To sit with the dead.”
We were on our way to West Virginia, to an unremarkable two-story colonial where my grandfather’s remains had been washed and laid out for viewing. It had been raining all night, but apparently no one in this homey funeral parlor had been sleeping. They’d been sitting up with the body. Sitting up — with the body — all night.
There are no good adjectives to describe my feelings about this. I was seventeen and grieving, but I wasn’t horrified. Shocked, yes, but the idea was strangely enticing, even fascinating. Really? We do that? This wasn’t my first family death, after all, but it was the first time I’d encountered the intimacy of this ritual.
It was also the first time I’d considered the buzzing activity that surrounds the newly dead. I asked myself what seemed like suddenly obvious questions — Why wash a body before putting it in the dirt? Why sit awake with someone now permanently asleep? Even the practice of embalming the body (which prevents decay) before interring it in the ground (where it is supposed to decay) struck me as a very strange kind of ritual. With only a minor leap of morbid imagination, care of the newly dead began to resemble care of the newly born. But it also brings us face to face with our own mortality.
When we witness death, we must grapple with its finality, but also with the knowledge that one day we, too, must die. Where once this was understood as the natural order of things, we now find ourselves conflicted and less willing to see death as “natural.” If anything, death breaks into our lives as an unexpected surprise.
We are not used to death and dying in the West, and most particularly not in the modern United States. The Victorians (in the U.S. and U.K.) had incredibly complex mourning rituals, including mourning jewelry, photographs of the recently dead (momento mori photography), and the public wearing of mourning clothing.