CHAPTER 11

Death Rooms (Mortality)

Teach us to number our days,

that we may gain a heart of wisdom.

—Psalm 90:12

We live between two graveyards. A few doors down to the left sits Hopewell Church with a large fenced-in grassy knoll containing a couple hundred stone markers. This cemetery remains neatly kept by landscapers, and there are still several burials that take place there each year. A few doors down to the right of our house is the Blackburn family graveyard at what was once the site of the Blackburn family homestead and original Hopewell Church building. Trees hang low over the grave sites. Roots have cracked and upended the stone markers, most of which are too rubbed down by time and weather to read. A few kindhearted neighbors run a weed eater over the graves several times a year, but by all accounts, this graveyard is not far from succumbing to the overgrowth.

On any given evening, Jane and I will walk down our driveway to the road, and I’ll ask her which way she wants to walk. Whichever way she chooses, a graveyard is the destination. She meanders giggling through the moss-covered headstones and examines the carvings: a rose for a beloved mother, a Scripture passage, a lamb for a little child, a finger pointing toward the sky.

These hills are dotted with small cemeteries. Early Appalachian families would bury their dead high up on ridges, areas too steep for building homes or farming. These grassy slopes that served as the resting place for loved ones towered over homes, barns, and gardens. Family cemeteries often grew to become community cemeteries where kin and neighbors were laid to rest together. Some graveyards were placed next to a church, or sometimes a church was built next to a graveyard. Communities would worship, get married, go to school, and meet for socials all within sight of the dead. Mortality was always on the purview. As my friend Justin Lonas, who also lives next to a cemetery, writes, “In every season, the cemetery is a present, patient, faithful memento mori that demands it not be passed off as a mere park.”1

Beliefs about the proper place to bury the dead have changed throughout history. Most cultures of antiquity regarded corpses as unclean, so places of burial were generally far removed from the community, most often outside the city walls. This changed when Christendom began to expand. The belief in the resurrection of the body and the veneration of martyrs and their tombs created a comfort, even an enthusiasm for the nearness of burial sites. Cemeterial basilicas honoring the dead were constructed and later became central hubs for powerful abbeys. Residential communities grew up around these basilicas and pretty soon, every church, whether inside or outside the city walls, made space for the dead.2 Seventeenth-century ecclesiastical writer Louis Thomassin wrote,

Since the Son of God has not only sanctified, but crucified death itself, not only in his own person but in his members, not only by his own resurrection but by the hope he gives to us, by the instilling in our mortal bodies his quickening spirit, which is the source of eternal life, the tombs of those who died for him have been regarded as sources of life and sanctity. This is why they have been placed in churches.3

But the churchyard burial ground fell out of favor for many reasons. As populations grew, graveyards became overcrowded. Some burials were five or six coffins deep. Floods would sometimes break walls and coffins would crack open. During epidemics, graveyards were seen as breeding grounds for diseases. It was decided that the dead, once again, should be moved outside the city where there was plenty of space. In fact, these early memorial parks were designed at a time when there were few public parks for leisure and relaxation. People used to go to these cemeteries and enjoy the fragrant gardens and artistic sculptures. They would host hunting and sporting events there. People would picnic among the dead, play among the dead, and sip tea among the dead.4

These days we rarely play football or baseball at cemeteries. We are more like our ancestors of antiquity. Whether we admit it or not, the dead seem unclean, uncomfortable. They remain in a realm far removed from our living spaces. We visit graveyards infrequently, for a burial, or maybe the anniversary of a death.

Unless you are like little Jane, who likes to play hide-and-seek among the tombstones.

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During the last century the dead have not only been relegated to parks outside the city walls. The whole process of dying, from illness to interment, has been outsourced to hospitals and funeral homes. This became abundantly clear to me in my study of grief rituals, but it took me some time to understand how and when this change in our engagement with death and the dying occurred.

Early Christians were the first to establish institutions similar to what we now know as hospitals. These were places of hospitality designed to care for the sick and the dying who had been abandoned by society. They also provided assistance in the way of food and shelter to widows, orphans, and the poor. Monasteries sometimes added wards to treat and tend to the sick and, later, institutions arose to quarantine and house people with contagious diseases.5

For most of history, hospitals were a place only the destitute or abandoned went to for medical help. If a person became ill, care was typically rendered by family members using folk medicine or home remedies. The wealthy could afford to have servants provide assistance or could possibly pay for a doctor to conduct a home visit. Doctors were mobile and made house calls to treat sick people in their own bedrooms, in their own beds. But as medical sophistication grew, families dispersed, and capitalism monetized health care, there was a gradual shift to the institution of medicine within the walls of a designated facility. According to Dr. Lydia S. Dugdale, in 1873, there existed fewer than two hundred hospitals in the United States. By 1920, there were more than six thousand.6 Hospitals are now the place where we come into the world and the place where we go out of it.

The first home Tim and I ever bought together was a small brick cottage in a wooded hollow—or “holler,” as they say here—about ten minutes from Boone. Just down the road from us was an old cabin inhabited by a ninety-four-year-old named Miss Mary. She had never married and so she lived there on her own after her father passed away. She cooked on a woodstove and, having no indoor plumbing, fetched her water from a well and used an outhouse.

Miss Mary was a sweet lady who had a spry sense of humor, a love for Coca-Cola and banjo music, and a fear of hospitals and medicine. On our first visit, she pointed to the antique bed and said, “I was born right over there in that corner,” and she smiled. “Don’t worry, I’ve changed the bed since then!” Several years after we met her, at the ripe old age of ninety-eight, she died as she had requested: at home, in the same cabin where she had been born.

Miss Mary is in the minority. These days, only 1 out of 5 Americans die at home.7

The funeral industry began to grow around the same time that hospital usage was expanding. Between 1850 and 1950, people began to believe that caring for the dead was something only a professional could do. This was in large part due to the growth in the popularity of embalming, a practice that was never before embraced so extensively in the Western world. In the past, the vast majority of people who died were simply washed and dressed prior to being buried. That all changed during the Civil War.

Between 1861 and 1865, hundreds of thousands of soldiers died miles and miles away from their homes. Many were simply left on the battlefields where they fell or piled into mass graves. But some prominent families made arrangements to have their fallen loved ones returned home to be properly mourned and buried.8 The practice of chemical embalming, which had been developed in the early part of the nineteenth century for the purpose of preserving bodies for scientific study, made this possible.

Embalming grew in popularity during and immediately after the Civil War, with undertakers becoming the primary practitioners. Chemical companies and casket makers capitalized on the growing demand, and full-fledged institutes that taught embalming techniques arose. In 1882, the first meeting of the National Funeral Directors Association took place.9 Now, no other country in the world embalms the dead at a rate even close to that of the US.10

Before the turn of the century, funeral directors would often conduct the embalming in homes, and so the dead continued to be displayed in living spaces for visiting family and friends. At some point, many funeral directors began to open their own homes for embalming and visitations, and eventually what we know as the modern-day funeral parlor or funeral home was born.11

Funeral directors now take great pride in providing an atmosphere of calm serenity where a family can view the dead and friends can visit and pay their respects before a funeral. Visitations typically last no more than two hours and are conducted either the night before or just prior to a funeral service. After the service, a funeral director and his assistants close the casket lid, wheel the body out into a hearse, and drive it to the cemetery, where it is set up on a lowering device to be put into the ground after a brief graveside service.

This total outsourcing of death to the industries of medicine and funeral homes has, I fear, inadvertently led to the deeply held notion that we do our living in our homes, but we do our dying somewhere else. Somewhere far away. We live with our families, but we die with a doctor. We live in community, but we are buried outside the walls of the city. We ignore death as long as we can, until we are abruptly confronted with it and somehow have to deal with it. And then we pay through the nose to not have to look at it, to hear it, to smell it. The average cost of a funeral in America is between $6,000 and $9,000.12

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In 1963, Jessica Mitford published The American Way of Death, a scathing exposé of the funeral business in the United States. It became a surprise best seller and led to congressional hearings on the funeral industry. She was deeply critical of funeral directors and claimed they monetize death, taking advantage of grief-stricken mourners, convincing them to pay a fortune to honor their loved ones.

I actually deeply respect the work of funeral directors. They have the courage and fortitude to embrace a vocation that revolves around death. I don’t blame them for our loss of rituals or our distaste for the reality of mortality. In fact, I appreciate the ways in which they seek to preserve our few remaining rituals of mourning and honor lost loved ones and their families. As with anything, it’s hard to know if funeral directors adjusted their practices to accommodate changes in society’s desires or if their actions actually molded those desires. Either way, they do what many of us are afraid to do: tangibly encounter mortality and suffering on a daily basis.

I am also incredibly thankful for hospitals. When I was eighteen, I developed a life-threatening inflammation of the colon, and had it not been for my access to a hospital, I probably would have died. All kinds of people, young and old, have brushes with death. Doctors and nurses working in the hospital context with the tools of modern medicine are able to treat and cure, adding years, sometimes decades, to our lives. Sometimes we go to the hospital to die because there’s a possibility that we might not die.

I just wonder if, in losing the tactile, palpable nature of caring for the dying and the deceased within our own spaces of living, we have lost our grasp of the reality of death and grief. In the past, it was simply a given that loved ones and neighbors would carry the heavy burden of caring for the sick or the aged in their final days. In spite of the exhausting, putrid, demoralizing nature of that work, it was considered part of life, a duty that was expected and embraced. Once the end finally came, the body would remain in the home and be prepared by those same friends, family members, and neighbors. It was lovingly washed and dressed in shrouds or nice clothing. People didn’t just “do life” together. They “did death” together as well.

In parts of Appalachia, bodies were laid out on what was called a “cooling board” or a “laying out board.” The long, straight board was a good alternative to sunken-in mattresses, which caused the body to bow as rigor mortis set in. The cooling board was made of a hardwood and was about the size of a twin bed. It was placed on either two chairs or two sawhorses. The body was then stretched out straight onto the cooling board, and there it was prepared for burial. It was said that each family had a cooling board that was used by several generations and passed down through the family. When it wasn’t being used to prepare a body, it was cleaned and used as a trestle table at church picnics or barn raisings.13 Once again, we see the traditions of death and life woven together into a seamless tapestry.

It was common throughout the United States and Europe to leave the body on display for a period of time before the burial so that friends, neighbors, and relatives could pay their respects. Sometimes the body was left in a bedroom, covered in clean sheets, and surrounded by flowers. Oftentimes, the body was displayed in the front room or the parlor.

In the Victorian home the parlor was a formal space for receiving guests. It was where ceremonial family events took place, like weddings and holiday celebrations. It was also the place where bodies were displayed for visitation and wakes were held. Because of the frequency of death in those times, some people even think the parlor may have been referred to as the “death room.” According to legend, the term “living room” emerged from an article published in the Ladies’ Home Journal in the early 1900s. The article suggested that with decreasing mortality rates, the front parlor should no longer be a death room but should be a place for the living, a space where families should relax and forgo formalities. And so, the fable says, the modern-day living room was born.14

Funeral parlors eventually aided to this end by providing an alternative place to display a body and receive visitors. Death had officially moved out of our living spaces. Dugdale writes that sometime in the 1950s, “death came to replace sex as the ultimate ‘unmentionable.’… Death was sequestered from public view and dismissed as a subject of polite conversation. Doctors failed to mention it. Families failed to witness it. The hospital promised to conquer it.”15 The death room no longer exists within the walls of our homes, and mortality no longer occupies our consciousness. The speakable has become unspeakable.

As children, we proceed through life untrained in the ways of death and grief. Before I went to Iraq, I could probably count on one hand the number of dead bodies I’d seen. In the last one hundred years, as the average age of death rose significantly, perhaps the need to educate people on how to handle death seemed less urgent. Somehow death, while it is the inevitable fate of every human being, seems so… rare. Uncommon. Out of the ordinary. Watching a baby, watching a teenager, and watching an old man at our field hospital die was surreal and horrifying to me, not just because war was foreign to me, but also because death was foreign to me.

The worst moments of my life have taken place either in a hospital room or in a funeral home. Everyone present—the doctors, the nurses, the funeral directors—all did their best to create as safe a space around my personal tragedies as they could. I listened to them go through a mental Rolodex of polite statements, things you say during times of crisis: “Unfortunately, we have no options left. I’m so sorry for your loss. May I request a visit from the chaplain? Everything is in order. I think you’ll find her appearance quite pleasing and peaceful.” They did the best they could, but there is no fixing what is so terribly broken. Kindness and professionalism are all you can bring to moments like that, and I appreciated it. They made the necessary arrangements as I stumbled in my shock and grief across the thresholds of their spaces and back home to try to make sense of what had happened.

I’d prefer to keep those images, those smells, those sounds as far away from my everyday reality as I can. For me, death happened in a heavily curtained, thickly potpourried parlor with ambient worship music playing faintly in the background. It felt like a dream, like a sanitized, saccharine nightmare. And I just can’t decide. Am I grateful for the sequestered nature of that experience? Or do I wish it had been stark? Blunt. Rank. Intrusive. Indecent. Would it have been a better reflection of reality? Because we can outsource a body to a mortician, but we cannot outsource our grief. We can put a corpse in a funeral home, but our grief goes with us wherever we go. It abides with us in our spaces of living.

And would allowing death into my everyday space help familiarize me, prepare me for next time? Prepare me for my own time?

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The only poem of the psalter attributed to Moses is Psalm 90. This ancient, barefaced piece of writing is a meditation on the precarity, brevity, and wretchedness of life. Moses, who was born amid an infanticide, who knew what it was to take another man’s life, who witnessed plague and pestilence, who buried his sister Miriam and his brother Aaron. Moses, who wandered with the wayward people of Israel for forty years in the wilderness and never reached the final destination. Moses knew death. He knew the bitterness of fruitless labor, the miscarriage of hope and purpose.

The poem is a list of contrasts, of Moses bemoaning the transient nature of human life and labor with the timeless dominion of God. Our sins are met with God’s fury and our lives are snuffed out. The conclusion Moses reaches is that the root of wisdom is to acknowledge the transience of our time on earth: “Teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom” (Ps. 90:12). As James 4:15 reminds us centuries later in the New Testament, we are a mist. Only “if it is the Lord’s will” do we live.

The other conclusion Moses comes to in Psalm 90 is that we should ask God for happiness. Outright. “Make us glad for as many days as you have afflicted us, for as many years as we have seen trouble” (v. 15). And “establish the work of our hands for us—yes, establish the work of our hands” (v. 17). If God can take life, then He can give it in abundance too. If He can raze our work, then He can root it and prosper it as well.

This psalm is humiliating from start to finish. Moses, a tired, defeated man who failed in his final mission, approaches the God of all glory, who existed before the mountains were born. Moses names his personal sin and the communal sins of Israel. He admits that we are but dust; cut grass, withered and dry. Then he begs, like a convicted criminal, for mercy and pity. He begs, like a child, for happiness. How shameful! How mortifying!

I’ve written before about the holy humiliation that I experienced with death and grief. To this day, it is this embarrassment that is the most perplexing emotion I’ve felt in response to death. I know this might sound strange and, frankly, I find it impossible to even describe. But I felt like a failure. I felt like I’d been caught unaware, like I’d been ambushed. I felt irresponsible somehow, like I’d let my guard down or been naive. I look at old pictures of my family—smiling, happy, and blissfully unaware of the catastrophe that would befall us. And I think, We were so stupid. We were such suckers. How did we not see it coming? Why weren’t we prepared? Why didn’t we build a bunker or something?

Tim likes to tease me because if ever I’m hosting a dinner party and the meal is a bit overdone, I like to announce garishly to the group: “I just want everyone to know that I know the food is burned!” The thought of serving a bad-tasting meal, of having broccoli in my teeth, or of having my pants zipper down without my knowledge is horrifying to me. I don’t exactly mind failing, but I like to do it on my own terms, undergirded by my own self-awareness. The thought of being oblivious petrifies me.

But death plays by no rules and doesn’t care how it might sully your reputation. No amount of self-awareness lessens its sting. It will come for you and the ones you love the most, whether you are oblivious or if you see it coming a million miles away.

Somehow, I’ve got to learn how to hold the lives of my loved ones openhandedly, as James reminds us to do, without constantly rehearsing their deaths in my mind. “Anxiety is inefficient,” Tim is good to remind me. Anxiety demands that we experience the pain of a loss before it even happens and then again if and when it actually does happen. To remember our mortality without worrying requires a mental and emotional dexterity only the truly wise acquire.

Most of us struggle more to absorb the reality of our own impermanence than the impermanence of the people we love. We all live as if we are immortal. Even though I know in my head that death is real—that a car wreck or cancer or old age will take me out of this world—in my heart I live and operate as if I’m going to be the one person in history who is able to overcome death and live forever. I expect tomorrow to come again and again, on and on into eternity. The thought of my soul leaving my body is simply incomprehensible.

Maybe Moses, with all his failures, had learned that true understanding comes only with this holy humiliation that is mortality. This is why I’m convinced that the rituals of repentance—ash, wailing, sackcloth—must mirror the rituals of grief. Sin and death reduce us to a humiliating dependence on God and a dismantling of our own prideful ego. But there is wisdom in this. For isn’t it better to surrender your life to the providence of a good and unfailing God than to a mere mortal?

So we pray. So we beg. God, give us joy. Watch over us. Establish the work of our hands. Please, God. Please.

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Other cultures throughout history have found creative ways to invite death into their lives and spaces of living. The Día de los Muertos, or the Day of the Dead, is recognized most significantly in Mexican culture. Observed on the first and second of November, dates that correspond with the Catholic celebration of All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day, the Day of the Dead is a holiday that honors loved ones who have died. Altars dedicated to the deceased are set up in homes and graves are visited. Funny stories and an abundance of food are shared. And while the purpose of the holiday is to remember the dead, there is a festive, joyful nature to it.

In America, every year we celebrate Halloween on the eve of All Saints’ Day. As I write this, I’m sitting in a university library that has been decorated for Halloween. The checkout desk has been covered in spiderwebs, and bats and plastic skulls hang from the ceiling. Most people believe that our Halloween traditions are rooted in pagan Roman harvest festivals, Catholic observances of All Saints’ and All Souls’ Day, and the Celtic festival of Samhain, which recognizes summer’s end and winter’s beginning. Halloween as we know it embodies a more cartoonish version of death, with ghouls, goblins, ghosts, and witches. In America, we don’t mind being periodically spooked, as long as we are being entertained in the process.

I remember how strange it was to experience Halloween so soon after my sister died. The Styrofoam tombstones that went up in people’s yards and the skeletons that hung from people’s porches were a cruel reminder of what I’d just experienced. I watched all the trick-or-treaters gorging on their candy and taking selfies in their costumes and I wanted to scream at them, “This is not a joke! Death is for real! Mortality is no party!”

We intermittently expose ourselves to death in movies and television shows. But I’ve heard from many people that their tolerance for violence or tragedy in their entertainment was greatly diminished after they experienced significant grief in their own lives. Television is inherently ill-suited to teach us to grieve. When death is on a screen, we can simply change the channel or swipe away the image. The discomfort passes and we move on with our lives. Not so with grief. No wonder our bodies experience such shock when we find that we cannot bypass or compartmentalize true sorrow.

There’s an old folk song popular in Appalachia called “Oh Death.” There is a bit of mystery surrounding the origins of the song, which was famously featured in the movie O Brother, Where Art Thou?. Many mountain folks assert it was written by a preacher named Lloyd Chandler, who claims the song was given to him in a vision from God after a weekend of “sinning and shining” in 1916.16 At its core, the song is an exchange, a discussion between a dying person and Death himself. The traditional lyrics are as follows:

Well what is this that I can’t see

With icy hands takin’ hold of me

Well I am Death, none can excel

I’ll open the door to Heaven and Hell

O, Death, O, Death

Won’t you spare me over ’til another year?

The song resonated deeply with mountain communities, people who knew well the precarity of life that comes with living in the wilderness of the wild and windy highlands. Death was achingly familiar to them, and so through song, they found a way to approach death, to interact with it in an honest and open way.

This, to me, seems like the kind of relationship Moses is advocating for. It is an ever-present acknowledgment of our mortality, and an admittance of our need for mercy. Mercy from death. The mercy of God. Death should be approachable. It should be touchable, not like the untouchable corpses the ancients banished outside the city walls. Not like the obscured experience of a costumed, rowdy holiday. Not like the dreaded grief we displace from our living spaces and confine to a hospital room or a funeral parlor.

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I’ve written critically at times of the role the church has played in dismantling our grief rituals. But Jesus Himself entrusted to the church one of the most powerful, holy, and enduring rituals of grief that the world has ever known when He broke the bread and poured the wine in the Upper Room the night before His death. “Do this in remembrance of me,” He said (1 Cor. 11:24). But what are we remembering when we reenact this meal?

Through the ritual of Communion, we are remembering what is, to me, the most profound plot twist ever to be found in any religious tradition, divine chronicle, or sacred metanarrative. The all-powerful, all-knowing, all-consuming God subjected Himself to death. And not just death. A humiliating death on a cross. On that cross He bore the entirety of human history’s sin and sorrow. God became a body and allowed that body to die. Golgotha was “the place of the skull.” God was taken outside the walls of the Holy City of Jerusalem to be crucified. God died on the margins. God was put in the ground, out of sight. Our Apostles’ Creed tells us He even descended into hell.

God’s subjugation of His very self to death was what facilitated everlasting life for all of us. God’s approach to death was what made death forever approachable for us! It is the profundity and sacredness of this truth that has led to the careful stewardship of the ritual of Communion throughout the ages. The particulars of the practice are not void of controversy and disagreement. But I find it comforting to know that this simple act of eating bread and drinking wine has persisted through religious wars, cultural upheaval, and global catastrophes. It persists because the story of a God who chose to identify with us in death is simply too beautiful to ignore. It’s too unbelievable not to believe.

The church has other rituals that recognize mortality. We smear ashes on our foreheads every year at the start of Lent. We wear around our necks an instrument of execution. The cross of Christ and the ashes of Lent call us to bear in mind our own mortality as well as the call to lay down our own lives and make room for Christ’s sanctifying work. They also serve to remind us that we need not fear death. Death has been conquered. We have been offered mercy. Ours is the resurrection and the life!

But God’s ultimate defeat of death doesn’t mean we don’t dread death to some degree, that it doesn’t devastate us when it takes one of our loved ones. God’s unblinking confrontation with death does mean that we have hope. We never fully reconcile with death; maybe we just familiarize ourselves, expose ourselves in measured ways, similar to the inoculation of a virus. We build our ability to resist a total descent into darkness. We invite death into our spaces of living so it is no stranger to us when we ourselves go to die.

Death is part of life. Its cruelty is a reality we must accept. And until we die, we hope. We pray. We approach God. We beg. “God, make us glad for as many years as we have seen trouble.” And, I believe, once we make an acquaintance with death, we can approach it with that same familiarity, the same audacity, the same hopeful request. We can sing, as my ancestors did, “O, Death, won’t you spare me over ’til another year.” Please?

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