The American Way of Death: A Checklist

Obsessive compulsive by nature, I’m the queen of lists. I am so OCD that even when I entertain, my friend’s son remarks as I prepare dinner, fuss over the table and urge him for the fifth time to serve himself plenty of food, “Thank you for being so obsessive compulsive about feeding us.”

But the other day when I got a checklist in the mail from my retirement fund in reference to being my husband’s beneficiary in the event of his death—something that actually hit too close to home recently with his Recession-induced heart palpitations—I was mortified by the oh-so-casual checklist. The only other time I truly feared my husband’s impending demise was when I was still sore from childbirth, holding a newborn, sleep deprived, full of such intense love I could barely breathe, suffocated by the imaginary prospect of raising this child I’d just introduced to the world without a father.

Unsettled, rereading the checklist, I realized even this queen of organization has some limits. I mean I’m all about being prepared, but jeez, are you kidding me? First on the list is the death certificate. Great. Exactly what I have in mind in the throes of grief. I suppose that’s the point, though. Better to know what to expect and have a list filed away so you can go on autopilot.

Okay, so I do get  the point. I’ve even been so bold as to advise someone dealing with a beloved one receiving hospice care to go ahead and write the obituary. Ugh. I actually said that, and they did. So how can I be so repulsed by this checklist? Aren’t I the one who nags my mother about having her affairs in order, asking her over lunch when she’s discussing her lifelong friend’s ailing health, what song she wants played at her funeral?  I have even asked her what she’s going to come back as so I know when she’s around. “A black crow,” she snapped. Hmm. Not the answer I wanted.

Strangely, I’ve always read the obituaries. Now that I’m hitting midlife and funerals are cropping up like mushrooms after a hard rain, I read them daily, that is until our local newspaper is only delivered three times a week. Reading the obituaries is a tactile experience, not an online one. I’ve always assumed studying the obituaries was simply the writer in me, scanning the horizon for a good story, intrigued by how we’ve lived our lives, how you sum it up in a few paragraphs. No, it’s more than that: my interest is partly due to how I, as an American, frame death.

How we do or don’t relate to death makes me think about about the essay, “The American Way of Death,” by Jessica Mitford that I read in my freshman reader in college, in which she describes the sterile business we Americans have made of funerals. We have quite an industry dealing with death after the fact, but we don’t prepare for it beforehand. Checklists notwithstanding.

Americans lack proper respect for death. We lack a unifying mythology of guides to take us across the river Styx and explain the process. We don’t have a Day of the Dead. In fact, it seems we do everything—spend too much, eat too much, drink too much—to numb ourselves to the fact of the matter that we are all on a boat in the ocean headed to that place on the horizon where it suddenly drops off and we’re plunged into the unknown. We acknowledge death only by our frenzied attempts to deny its ultimate power over us.

As my father was struggling with his last breaths, two nurses came in the hospital room to take him to his scheduled afternoon procedure. What that was now I’ve forgotten. My family was huddled around him, overcome with tears and shock, waves of powerlessness washing over us. I’m not a nurse but it was clear what we were experiencing, death rattle and all. However, one nurse kept trying to get him situated and ready to be wheeled down the hall for his procedure. It was time, darn it, and she had a schedule to keep. Death was staring her right in the eye and she didn’t see it. Finally, the other nurse caught this woman’s attention and gestured her hand across her throat. It’s over she signaled frantically before they left us in peace.

Before my father’s death, my greatest lessons about death came from my dogs. Seriously. With Samson, my husband and I were unable to face it and when we finally did, we were so stressed we didn’t create a calm environment for him to go, rushing him to the vet after work one day. When Delilah’s liver shut down, we couldn’t deny it was time, and we knew enough to insist the vet come to our house. Same with Chad who taught us when a dog lacks the will to get up from his bed to  do his business, it’s time. Our dog Max had a strange glint I would catch in his eye sometimes. We discovered he had a brain tumor. I learned then not to dismiss the odd things you notice.

When we first brought Sophie home, a full grown dog who’d lived in a cage her entire two years of life, I thought to myself as I watched her interact with the other dogs, I will have to bury her one day. Then I thought what a strange thought. We lost her a few months ago, but she gave us the gift of a beautiful, peaceful death. She showed us the best way to go: eat  your dinner and then crawl on your dog bed in your favorite spot in the kitchen and go to sleep surrounded by your family going about their evening as usual.

Why do I hate this checklist if I think we need to acknowledge death in a more thoughtful, ritualistic manner? Because it has no heart. It doesn’t reflect the magnitude of accepting the loss of someone we love. It doesn’t include what we will need most: a way to find ourselves again as we’re lost in our grief. When my father died, I tried to find books about grief. I found plenty of clinical studies but not any nonfiction about personal experiences. It’s sort of like childbirth in that way or even miscarriages. So many people go through this, but so few really tell their stories.

One book I read was Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking. I’ve recently  read a wonderful memoir, The Long Goodbye by Meghan O’Rourke, with incredible resources listed at the end. Both books are ones I’d recommend at anytime to read. A Grief Observed by C.S. Lewis is also a beautiful classic about his spiritual  journey following his wife’s tragic death.

Maybe if we are able to acknowledge and honor death in a more mindful, respectful manner that has nothing to do with checklists, we can accept it with more grace when we experience the inevitable losses in our own lives.

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