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Death is on our minds 



Published: 8/27/2020 3:00:08 PM

When I was a child, we visited the graves of relatives. Not obsessively. Just two or three times a year and generally on a Sunday.

We spent more time at the grave of my paternal grandmother, Rose Kozal Wozniak, than at any other. She was interred at Holy Cross Catholic Cemetery in Detroit, a shabby, unkempt place. We never brought flowers, as some visitors did. I do not remember being told to pray. We simply looked at the headstone and were told to think of Gramma Rose.

We also attended wakes, where the dead were extravagantly made up and dressed in their finest clothes. We first walked to the open casket, then positioned ourselves on the velvet upholstered kneelers. Here, my brothers and I were told to say a prayer.

After college, when I was a welfare case worker and one of my friends was in medical school, we sometimes had lunch together. Once, she asked, “Have you ever been in a Gross Anatomy Lab?” Of course, I hadn’t, but, I followed her and put on the white lab coat she handed me, hoping she wasn’t going to suggest I try cutting. She unwrapped her cadaver and quizzed me on body parts. Her subject looked to have been a muscular man in his mid-30s. After seeing the makeup free face, the exposed tendons and blood vessels, the dried irises like blue tissue paper, I had had enough. “Let’s go,” I said. In the corridor, I began to laugh hysterically. My friend was genuinely frightened. The corridor was lined with faculty offices and I did not want someone to walk out and proscribe a straight jacket for me.

Dissection aside, a dead body is not attractive. At least not to those who live in the West. As someone with a fascination for archaeology, I know that throughout time, humans have disposed of their dead in varying ways. Besides burial, mummification and cremation, there is also the exposure of the dead to the elements and raptors. Recently, archaeologists in England have theorized that the choice between burial and cremation seems to have been personal and family-based, rather than culture-based.

Care for a dead relative usually fell to the women. Indeed, women have been the main players in both the arrival of a new human and the departure of an elderly or sick or wounded human. They wash bodies at both ends of the timeline. They announce the newborn. They keen the departure of a soul and may even tear their hair and/or their garments and scratch their faces.

Fear of the dead existed across the world. Slavic peoples often buried the dead on the islands due to a belief that spirits cannot cross water. Suspected vampires were buried with stones on their chests or wooden or iron stakes through the chests. There are also mythic figures associated with death, like the Banshee.

On the other hand, there are cultures where the dead remain at home for years, their connection to their families is maintained as the clothing of the dead is changed daily and family members continue to hold conversations with them.

Death is on our minds as a pandemic we cannot control rolls over the world, and, closer to home, we find ourselves unable to erase images of the murder of George Floyd. Some of us, in fits of dark humor, quote from the Monty Python skit about bubonic plague. “Bring out your dead.” However, we know that disposal of the COVID dead could become a serious problem.

Once, a woman selling woven wicker baskets, lined with a linen shroud, displayed her goods at the Tuesday market. I admit to having found the semi-sheer shroud that loosely filled the “coffin,” difficult to look at. However, the idea of a green burial makes more sense than the heavy, cushioned and metal-bound casket does. Furthermore, the simplification of the disposal of the dead is becoming a need and the green burial is simpler.

You may have heard of Caitlin Doughty, either through her organization, The Order of the Good Death, or her website, Ask A Mortician. Her goal is to simplify the procedures that surround the loss of a loved one for the family and friends, and to create a sense of inclusion for the survivors. Doughty delivers her message in a Monty Python manner. But, I believe she sincerely wants to end a natural fear of the dead and to allow those who are grieving to accept their loss.

(A note: As of April, the CDC only acknowledges that the usual ways of transmitting the coronavirus do not apply to the dead.)

Susan Wozniak can be reached at columnists@gazettenet.com.



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