When my father passed away, he drew his last breath at home with family by his side which was very much how people departed life three hundred years ago in America. However, unlike those who died in the early days of this country, within several minutes of Daddy's final breath mortuary professionals were at our door and set to work to remove his remains, relieving us of the obligation to prepare his body for burial. These men, though strangers to us, knew just what to do and undertook their task with quiet efficiency, allowing us to withdraw from the necessary practicalities following a death in the family which several generations before would have seemed perfectly natural for the loved ones of the deceased to do.
Looking back and remembering how utterly grief stricken that we were at the time, I cannot imagine doing much of anything considering how emotionally paralyzed that we were. Even though my father had been under hospice care and we had been told to expect the end, it still hit us hard. Daddy was gone and all that was left of him was the cold physical shell which served as a very real reminder that Death had recently paid an unwelcome visit to our home. And, in stark contrast to the experiences of our forefathers, we were not so intimately familiar with death. In fact, the last death in our family prior to my father's passing had occurred more than twelve years before, long enough for us to comfortably push it to the back of our minds.
As sad as we were that my father had died, it was nevertheless something of a relief when his worn-out body was expertly gathered up and whisked off in the night to the funeral home for, after the last breath, we no longer considered the body to be Daddy and we were therefore able to relinquish his lifeless remains to the care of those who were specially trained in the mortuary sciences.
The hours and days which followed were a blur of making funeral arrangements, notifying relatives, hosting family, and slowly adjusting to a very big change in our lives. On top of it all, both my mother and I came down with the flu which didn't make things any easier. We had not had much sleep in the weeks preceding my father's passing because we had taken turns watching him throughout the night, always listening for his ragged breath and hoping against hope that maybe, just maybe, there'd be a miracle and he'd pull through. So, when the end did come, we were emotionally and physically exhausted yet still we pushed ourselves to coordinate burial plans with the mortuary and to do our best to graciously acknowledge all of the many expressions of sympathy from friends and family.
I truly don't think that we could have done anything more than this at the time yet just 8 or 9 generations before, women in a situation such as ours would have not only been mourning their loss but also cleansing the deceased's body, clothing it in a shroud, organizing the wake, sitting up with the body prior to the burial, making sure that the coffin was made to the right measurements, and arranging for the local pastor to oversee the funeral ceremony. It all seems rather overwhelming at the very least but that is exactly what was expected of the women in the household when anyone died during colonial times up until the middle of the 19th century at which point the care of the dead transformed from a domestic duty into big business.
Those same women were also well aware that post-mortem bodies would twitch, make odd noises, and dispel bodily fluids. In today's world, with the exception of those in the mortuary profession, few of us are aware that these are normal functions because we are sheltered from them. From the moment of death until burial, we typically see nothing of the body and as a result are completely ignorant as to what it does when no longer animated. And, with cosmetic restoration, the face which we see at the viewing disguises the effects of death and provides further alienation from the realities of physical decay.
Although death will always be a part of life, and grief will always accompany death, how we as a society respond to death changes over time. Our collective response to death is reflected in the way in which we take care of the dead and, as such, it brings up a lot of questions. Did the close relationship that our ancestors had with death, given the frequency of it, cause them to view their lives differently than we do our own? Does the distance that our society puts between death and ourselves signify an unwillingness on our part to accept our own mortality? Do we love our dear ones any less because we entrust their remains to strangers?
With more than 6700 deaths each day in the U.S. alone, tens of thousands of people every 24 hours will find themselves faced with the effects of death and in contact with morticians or funeral directors. More likely than not, they will be happy to pay for the service of having a loved one's remains prepared for the grave by a professional and will not want to know all of the details of what will be done to the body. Could it be that this is perfectly acceptable in today's world because in large part we don't want to be reminded that someday we will be facing our own last breath? Whether that is the case or not, a few hundred years ago it would have seemed unbelievable.