I had a dream last night with my brother in it. He looked great, smiling, dressed sharply, and I was so happy to see him. Especially because when I have a dream with my brother in it, I am always slightly aware that it’s the only way I can see my brother these days, and that it will be fleeting, as dreams are. He died just over six years ago, and losing him helped me understand what legacy really means.
When someone goes away, it can be such a shock to those left behind because of all that a person means to the people they know and love. I found myself unable to accept that my brother was no longer here and a part of my life, and I realized that the thing I held on to and continue to hold on to is his love.
So for my own legacy, I hope that what I leave behind is a powerfully felt love. I hope that through my life I can fulfill my potential, improve this world and the lives of people in it, and raise children that are healthy and fulfilled. But those are things that I think will be meaningful for me during my life. When I am gone, I hope that what people are left with is a palpable love. I know am not as generous with love as my brother was, and that I continue to have so much to learn from him. But I hope that I have time enough to learn how to love more freely, and to enjoy this beautiful life that I’ve been given.
As a volunteer docent at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, I love bringing visitors to the bis poles (also known as ancestor poles) in the Oceanic Art galleries (see picture below). Towering eighteen feet high, featuring a community’s worth of miniature men standing on each other’s shoulders and displaying large, exposed genitalia, they’re quite different from what most guests expect when touring a world-class museum. Monet’s Water Lilies these are not.
The Asmat people—a remote, water-based society in New Guinea—started creating bis poles in the 1950s. The poles reflect their philosophy on death and the afterlife. Like many societies, they believe the spirits of the dead co-exist with the living and can create good or ill in the community, depending whether or not a balance of souls has been achieved.
Importantly, they believe that (except for the very young and the very old) no death is “natural”—it must be caused by an enemy. As a result, after the death of a critical mass of men, village elders (again, men) host a feast to honor and avenge them. In preparation, they go out to “hunt” mangrove trees, chopping at them as they would an enemy in battle (the trees ooze a blood-red sap once the bark is pierced) and carrying them back to their village, where the women welcome them back with shouts and songs.
The village’s most talented wood carvers then craft the Bis poles from the mangrove trees, removing the bark and all but one of the roots. Each tree is inverted and its base carved into a point so it can be driven into the ground to remain erect.
Because the Asmat believe the bis poles help the souls of the dead reach the afterworld, many are carved with a canoe (known as ci). Higher up are portraits of the actual deceased, their individuality depicted not in their faces, but rather through the scars on their bodies. The jutting phallus—known as cemen—represents fertility and reproduction.
After the poles were completed, the Asmat went on headhunting raids in nearby tribes and engaged in cannibalism. Some scholars believe they would hang human heads would from the cemen at the ceremony’s closing to avenge their departed community members (the most extreme of these activities ended in the 1960s after to a crackdown by the national government and the arrival of Christian missionaries in the region).
At the end of the ceremony, the men took down the bis poles, leaving them to rot among the sago palm trees, the Asmat’s primary source of food. It was thought that the poles’ magical powers would seep into the ground and guarantee an abundant harvest. As for so many societies, for the Asmat death is part of a virtuous circle that reinforces life.
This June I was sitting in a Chicago coffee shop reading Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking. The barista commented on it when she brought over my fancy hand-pressed cup of coffee. She was young, perhaps not even thirty, blond. I told her I was a mortician, so people had been telling me to read this seminal book on grief for years.
The barista, suddenly enthused, started with some standard questions, “do you put makeup on the bodies?” and “did you have to go to school for that?” Then, as if testing the waters, she told me the book had been sitting on her bedside table for months. People had been telling her to read it for years as well. “Really, why?” I asked. “Well, two years ago my fiancé and his best friend were murdered.”
People talk to me about death. Not just at work. On airplanes, at parties, at coffee shops. The barista told me that for months she would go from therapist to therapist, hoping someone would help with her grief—explain why she felt she was going crazy. Some went as far as to tell her there was nothing they could do for her. Nothing they could do for her. As if grief is a fatal disease or a sold-out Xbox 360 game.
When I walk into a home to deliver an urn, I often ask the griever how they’re doing. Sometimes their answer is simply, “hanging in there.” I don’t press them. But more often than not, the response is like a floodgate bursting. Like the woman who was sure her husband hadn’t really been dead when she called the funeral home, and that she’d killed him by having him taken away. Or the son who found his father hanging from the rafters and lied to his sister in South Carolina, saying it was a natural death.
No matter what the tale of woe, horrific or simple, all you can do is listen. You can’t fix anything at that moment, when it seems like nothing will be fixable ever again.
Yet we cannot help lobbing softballs at grieving people—“he’s in a better place” or “he doesn’t suffer anymore now he’s passed on”—when the truth is he’s finally begun to decompose after dying from an illness with more suffering than a human body should ever be required to experience.
Euphemisms are like putting a children’s band-aid on a gaping wound that requires surgery. Perhaps it makes you feel better, like you’re doing something, but it doesn’t help. The best thing you can say is nothing—I don’t mean stay silent and pretend it didn’t happen. I mean ask a simple question and then listen. Or say, “I’m sorry, that’s awful, I can’t imagine.” Because you can’t.
I’ve spoken to someone about death every single day for three and a half years. I don’t get tired of it. True, it makes me more desperate than I’d like sometimes. Desperate to love, interact, move on it now. But every day is a cocktail of passion and honor, humor and despair. A life worth its weight in corpses.
This is an edited version of an essay by Caitlin Doughty, a mortician and writer. For more, go to: www.orderofthegooddeath.com
The human urge to fulfil the wishes of the dead is an astonishingly powerful one. If they’ve asked to be scattered on top of a mountain, we’ll climb mountains to meet that request. If they want a burial at sea, we’ll track down a boat and an accommodating crew. Why? The dead cannot repay us for this favour. And since they’re dead, they cannot reprimand us if we fail to honour their wishes. Yet we do so anyway.
Elliott Templeton, the charismatic character from Somerset Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge, had firm ideas about what he wanted from death. Leaving instructions that his coffin should be simple (“unpretentious but suitable to my position”), he asked that he should be dressed in the costume of his ancestor, the Count de Lauria, with the count’s sword by his side and the order of the Golden Fleece on his breast.
Maugham, who casts himself as a character in the book, describes the “gruesome business” of dressing Elliott. With difficulty he and his companion slip the old man’s long legs into white silk stockings, push his arms through the sleeves of the doublet. “We fixed the great starched ruff and draped the satin cape over his shoulders,” writes Maugham. “Finally we placed the flat velvet cap on his head and the collar of the Golden Fleece round his neck … Elliott, the costume large now for his emaciated frame, looked like a chorus man in an early opera of Verdi’s. The sad Don Quixote of a worthless purpose.”
At the Hotel Azucenas, the small hotel I set up 13 years ago, we’re an international bunch. I’m a Canadian-American and as guests we’ve got Canadians, Americans, Mexicans, Europeans, Australians and the occasional Brazilian or Japanese. Every year, we put up an altar for Los Dias de Muertos – the Days of the Dead.
Most homes, businesses, schools and offices put up some kind of an altar – from something simple on a side table to grand affairs occupying a whole room. They share common elements: an arch of fresh sugarcane, COVERED with flowers, fruits and vegetables; pan de muerto (egg bread, often decorated and made especially for this celebration); photos of dearly departed; offerings of food or drink the dead would appreciate; incense and candles.
In the early days, to get all this for our altar, we’d go to the Central de Abastos (the HUGE wholesale market that’s crazy full of shoppers in the days when everyone’s preparing their altar). Then one year, we asked a great big male guest to come along, enjoy the whole thing and help us carry it all. In subsequent years, we again asked guests to help in the process, from shopping to construction. They loved it, so we started writing to guests in advance of their arrival, inviting them to bring photos for the altar.
It doesn’t have to be a religious thing. It’s a chance for people to remember, with great affection, those they’ve lost, and to think about what they’d liked. Now, every year, we have photos from all over the world pinned up under our arch of cane and flowers.
This year I put up a photo of my young daughter-in-law. She died last year, leaving my son with a not-quite three-year-old to raise alone. As offerings, I put a Buzz Lightyear Pez dispenser, as she’d had a large collection of dispensers and her son adores Buzz. (Can you imagine how hard it is to find a Pez dispenser in Oaxaca!!) I also knew she loved the donuts from local Soriana supermarket, and baked custard flan. If she came back for a look, I think she’d be pleased with what we put out for her.
My dad’s photo is also there – a picture taken with friends in Oaxaca’s Zocalo, twenty-five years ago – and photos of dear departed cats (with a bowl of kibble). There’s a picture of my wonderful traffic-yellow 1988 Chevy van that made the Canada-Oaxaca trip twenty-three times (with a liter of 20/50 motor oil – her favorite kind). Oaxacans laugh at these offerings, but nobody seems insulted. In fact, it all feels very good.
Hotel Azucenas, www.hotelazucenas.com