The landline rang as I was preparing supper. The timing alone suggested a telemarketer, but the number was local so I picked up.
“Hello sir, is Cathy Bartha there?” inquired the male caller. (Cathy Bartha was my wife.)
“No” I repled, “She’s not available.”
“Well perhaps I can leave a message” the man continued hurriedly.
“My name is Mark, and I belong to the Carlton University Alumni Association. We haven’t heard from Cathy in a while and I am hoping she’s able to attend our fall get together in Victoria. Will you pass on some information?”
I was somewhat piqued. The guy was interrupting my dinner preparations, he was essentially a telemarketer and he’d inadvertently touched a nerve that was still sore from an earlier trauma.
“No, I won’t pass anything on,” I said “ Cathy has been dead for a year and a half.”
Except for a low “ahhhhh, errr…” Mark was silent for a few seconds,
“I’m terribly sorry.” he finally stammered. “Please excuse the interruption.”
“No worries” I replied. “You couldn’t have known. Just please take Cathy’s name off your list”
He agreed to do so, and rang off.
Over the past 18 months I’ve had countless conversations like that one. At first I would try to break the news gently. “Cathy lost her battle with cancer….” (A euphemism I always disliked. Why do we simplify illnesses or infirmities into “battles”?) Or, “I’m sorry you haven’t heard but Cathy has passed away….” etc. I don’t soft sell things any longer. It’s partly because I’m tired of softening a blow for other people, when I’ve had to deal with the stark reality of death myself. It’s partly because I’ve decided that if people haven’t heard by now they aren’t not close enough for me to worry about shocking them. And make no mistake, death shocks most people particularly when the person was fairly young. The words “Cathy died last year.” shuts conversation down cold. Death is one of the few things that’s rarely discussed in polite company. The fact is, it scares most of us … wait for it…to death.
If you do a quick Google search, you’ll come up with literally hundreds of euphemisms for death.
Some of them are quite funny. Here’s a quick sample: Bereft of life, Bit the dust, Bite the Big One, Bought the Farm, Checked into the Horizontal Hilton, Checked into the Motel Deep 6, Immortality-challenged, Kicked the bucket, Kicked the Can, Kicked the Oxygen Habit, Rung down the curtain and joined the choir invisible, Shuffled off the Mortal Coil, Passed, Toes up, and Went to be with the Lord. As a Christian the last one is my personal favourite. But Monty Python’s “This is an Ex-Parrot” is a close second. Each and every one of those phrases is an example of using language to distance us from the painfully brutal reality of death.
By now you’re probably thinking that I need counselling. Or maybe just some good drugs. But I do have a point to make. Western society denies death. We rarely talk about it, or plan for it, or even recognize that it’s a fate awaiting us all. We warehouse many of our elderly in “old age homes”, seemingly to get the old people out of the way so we aren’t reminded of our own fates. Two of my uncles recently died in one of these facilities. Both over 90 years old. Both formerly vigorous men who spent their final days in a small room staring out of a window into a parkinglot. They were constantly stoned on a variety of meds designed to “keep them comfortable”. The drugs also had the effect of keeping the men malleable and cooperative for the facilities staff. With an aging population Canada needs to become much more active in planning for how to accommodate the elderly and that starts with recognizing death as an important part of life.
In Mexico there is a holiday called “Dia de Muertos” or Day of the Dead. Depending on the location the festival can last several days. Families celebrate by building private altars honouring their deceased, using sugar skulls and the favourite foods and beverages of the dead. Families spend time visiting graves with these gifts and can also leave some of the deceased persons possessions at their graves. There are similar traditions in Europe and Asia and all these celebrations are designed to connect the living to the dead. I can’t think of a similar celebration in North American. Yes we have Halloween, which began as All Saints Eve. (All Saints day being similar to Dia de Muertos) But in typical North American fashion we have turned Halloween into a commercial event. Halloween is now one of the main retail sales events of the year with more than 8 billion dollars of sales expected this year in the US.
I’ve never been crazy about the darker side of Halloween but the costumes and parties are fun. The depictions of death are usually heavy on the gore and horror movie side of things. And perhaps that’s all we can take psychologically. It takes a certain amount of cultural strength to deal with subjects like death.
I admit to some hypocrisy in my treatise on dying. I rarely visit my parents graves and I don’t like to dwell on the idea that my time will come too. I’d rather think about temporal things, what I may build or buy or do. But the occasional phone call or an encounter with an old friend drags me back to the reality that this long strange trip will eventually end. That fact no longer frightens me, or angers me or makes me anxious. My spiritual beliefs help with that side of things. But even from an agnostic point of view, by ignoring death we inevitably lose a little joie de vive. If there is one thing I’ve learned from my personal experience is that death can accentuate life.
This spring I had the good fortune to visit Spain. One day I found myself sitting at an outdoor cafe with 3 other men, a Brit, a German and an American. I’d met them before but it was the first time we’d actually sat down and had a conversation. It turned out that we were all widowers. After remarking about how fateful that was, we shared our stories. When the British guy finished his story he turned to me and said. “…I’m a happy widower!” I was a little taken aback. “Did you have a bad marriage?” I asked. “Are you glad the old lady is gone?”
“No, not at all” he continued,“I’m a happy widower for my wife. Her life was cut short and she would be very upset if I was morose and didn’t enjoy my remaining time. So that’s what I try to do.”
From death comes renewed life. Gee, those sound like words to live by.