Nov 13, 2009

I (don’t) see dead people….

“Death is a lonely business”
(Ray Bradbury)

That it is, and never more so than in these modern times.

That thought hit me yesterday, after my becoming aware—via Google—of the death of a former associate. Here was a gentleman I worked with for several years, who I would see each day at our headquarters and with whom I hit the road on several occasions to places far and wide, by plane, train and car. Memories of a 40-hours-with-no-sleep project in Vegas followed by an impromptu lecture in proper blackjack strategy soon flooded by mind.

The recognition of his passing was not the surprise here; his ill health had been rumored for a bit. Instead, the length of time between his excusing himself from this earth and my notice of it having happened was the shocker. It was a 5-year gap.

Granted, the company for whom we tolled gave both of us the hook in the late 90’s; the result of a series of internal tribal wars that would make Afghani warlords proud. The departed and I were on opposite sides of most breeches, and we parted ways in a not-too-amiable manner. Still: five years? One would think a mutual acquaintance from the office or the country club would have flipped me an email, but then again, both of us left that scene without a lot of friends in tow.

Reading his archived obituary, I find the usual routine of the current end of life saga, with one’s final days spent in the realm of a particular son or daughter in a place far from what had long been home, eventually dying amongst strangers in a facility equipped for just that very challenge. So it went in this case.

Cremations, a memorial service that was no doubt attended by even more strangers and the scattering of ashes at a favored golf course in the Carolinas apparently followed. I doubt if few (if any) people from this area -- where this man spent his entire adult life -- attended any of the three events. I also wonder how many former friends and colleagues up here remain unaware, as had I until yesterday?

From a bigger picture POV, what we have here is evidence of the minimizing and sanitizing of the human death experience. As a society, we’ve conveniently framed our spiritual beliefs with a “they’ll always be here in spirit,” which in turn supports the current trend of basically ignoring the dead –- and death. Why bother with such an unpleasant event and with such unpleasant rituals? After all, the kids need to get to hockey practice!

Just a couple generations back, homes were built with a ‘second living room’, more commonly called a parlor. One of the primary functions of this space was to display the body of a departed family member to the neighborhood, who would trudge over to pay proper respects to both that person’s memory and to the grieving family (hence the term funeral parlor). Family grief was a public event, complete with community participation and support.

But that ritual was eventually outsourced to the burgeoning death industry. Thereafter, a departed individual’s earthly remains were hustled out the side door within minutes of drawing a last breath, taken away by certified and licensed professionals that would handle ‘the arrangements’ in an outside setting. Home re-modelers had a field day over the preceding decades, as those former residential funeral parlors could now be converted to dens, sun porches and dining rooms.

Fast forward to now, and we see another change taking place. More and more, public ceremonies are not even staged. When they are, it is often without a body even being present; with the onset of the age of the memorial service taking place a month after the fact, when everyone’s had time to compose him or herself a bit. Tidier, less emotional, much more…pleasant.

As the old saying goes: “Funerals aren’t for the dead; they are for the living.“ It looks like the living -- being too busy, too disinterested or too insecure in their own mortality--are saying ‘we’ll pass completely.’ So it goes.

In the meantime, I know whom I’ll be thinking of when I next hit a table in Vegas this winter.

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