It’s a curious quirk of American culture, that so much hands on attention is spent on the beginning of life, and so little on the end.
Instead, there is a whole set of ideas and mentalities and the industries that have sprung forth from these ideologies, conscious or not, on the concealment of aging, the denial of death.
There is a number of broadly accepted practices that exist solely on our fear and avoidance of the most natural counterpart of life: death. From botox shots and other anti-aging treatments to hospice care and embalming. The aging process and death care is literally buried under a set of multimillion dollar industries, designed to help us escape the inescapable.
The truth is, we don’t know how to deal with death.
We are never taught how to. We are never taught how to talk about it, prepare for it, help others with their death or help those who are left behind. At best, we attend a funeral, send our condolences or support a mourner, not unlike how we would support a recent divorcee.
The Victorians had a myriad of culturally sanctioned and encouraged ways of expressing their grief, even in their quiet, repressed but dignified way. A new widow would spent her hours weaving her late husband’s locks into delicate and intricate hair designs, preserved in gold lockets and tied into bracelets. At night, she would collect her tears into a lacrymal vial and then set it on her dresser. When the collected tears vanished with time, she would take that as a sign to slowly come out her deep mourning and rejoin society. The structured rituals of grief and mourning provided solace and guidance to the recently bereaved, when they needed it the most.
I know first hand that there is a certain level of disorientation and disengagement with daily life that you become plagued with when you lose a loved one. Those are the times that a finicky, delicate and meditative labor of love is exactly what a frazzled grieving mind needs. Those are the times that regimented daily rituals and societal niceties, allow you to be on autopilot, because that is all the presence of mind you can master.
But we no longer have that. Instead, we have costly and largely pointless embalming, overpriced caskets and funerals, and cremation. The time one should have to say goodbye and grieve is spend scrambling to pay to embalm a body that will end up in the ground. As a fan of preservation and display of human remains for educational purposes, I find the idea of embalming and burying the embalmed wasteful and its perceived need, artificial.
The stronghold of the practice in the U.S has its origins to Civil War times when embalming was needful, in order to transport the bodies of soldiers hundred of miles back home from the battlefield, for burial among their loved ones. There are occasions where transportation of human remains is needed and embalming becomes a necessity. For the grand majority of us and our dead however, embalming is scarcely a necessity. We embalm to deny death, to preserve and present our loved ones in a state of “quiet slumber” that turns a blind eye on the realities of human decomposition. It is not difficult to assume that the pretense of “eternal slumber” does not aid the grieving with accepting their loss.
And so we go on, having said our goodbyes to a waxy, static, but perfectly manicured husk of our loved one, that repels the touch for fear of it crumbling. By denying death, we are denying ourselves the luxury of facing it and accepting as what it is; a natural part of life. In the age of home births and dried placenta preparations, delivery room videotaping and extravagant baby showers, the reality of death, messy as it may be, is brushed under the rug. Yet, as proponents of The Good Death have shown fairly recently, death can actually be a dignified and even jubilant experience, an occasion to celebrate a loved one’s life and say your goodbyes while allowing them to let go, especially in cases of a long term terminal illness.
I’d like to believe that the American public’s attitudes towards death are shifting, as "diy death" practices like green burials and home death care slowly gain more traction.