In my very first memory, I’m visiting my great-baba at her home in Vegreville, Alberta, Canada (home of the world’s largest Ukrainian Easter egg). She’s cooing at my little brother in Ukrainian and I’m fascinated by the vortex of the spiral ramp just outside her room. In my very second memory, my brother and I are in our car seats watching my great-baba’s interment through the blur of rain in the car window.
One would think that this single experience might be enough to explain my fascination with death and grieving; to explain why I was the girl on the train reading a book about death and burial, and maybe it is enough. But the fact is that there is much, much more.
My family has always been pretty open to discussions of death – at least, that was how I always saw it. It turns out we might actually have a small obsession with the subject, according to the outside world that we must let in as our little clan expands. It’s not until someone at the dinner table visibly flinches at the topic that you realize just how frequently it comes up.
Dead people. Dead pets. Animals my dad hunted. Blurred out bodies on the news. Deaths from our contemporary family history. Deaths from my parents’ time, and even their parents’ time. It comes up a lot, and casually, so we were at a bit of a loss to find out that it is not what one would qualify as “polite conversation.”
Maybe it’s because my dad wanted to be a mortician when he grew up, and was a talented taxidermist for a number of years. Maybe it’s because my mom was named after her father’s sister, who tragically died in childhood. Maybe it’s because of that Eastern European sensibility that causes my baba to mention her impending death at every visit for at least the last twenty-three years. Maybe it’s because I’ve been to what qualifies as an “abnormal” number of funerals, many of them over the course of my formative junior high and high school years.
I knew then that I was, perhaps, a bit odd. I told my friends that someone had passed away, that I would be missing a day of school, and could I please borrow their notes the next day. From my friends, I received as much comfort as eighth graders are equipped to give. From most everyone else, I got stares.
“You’re going to another funeral?” my classmates would ask.
“Oh. I’ve never been to a funeral.”
Then it was my turn to stare. “Never?”
I honestly could not fathom how people my age had never been to a funeral, when I had already been to three by the sixth grade. Sometimes, in conversation, I found out that they had known people who had died, had lost family members or family friends.
“Didn’t you go to the funeral?” I’d ask.
“No, my parents didn’t make me.”
Make you?! I kept this little monologue to myself. You know that the funeral is for you, the living, grieving people, right? To be with those you love, in a safe environment to express you grief, right?
And while the other fourteen-year-olds were wondering what the hell was wrong with me, the girl who attended funerals on a nearly-annual basis, I was wondering what the hell was wrong with them that they equated funerals with boring, familial obligation.
So clearly school was not a good environment for me to express my many feelings about death. That’s what the family dinner table was for. And, eventually, writing classes.
I hope you aren’t thinking that my family talks about death because we’re desensitized to it. Talking about it has just always been our way of coping with it, accepting it. It’s not as if not talking about it will make it go away. After all, our parents talked to us about sex and drugs (much more awkward conversations, if you ask me), because they are facts of life and it is responsible to prepare your children for those things. Death is a part of growing up – whether you go to the funeral or not – and I don’t understand why it is just buried six feet underground and never spoken of.
Death has informed my creativity as much as it has informed the rest of my life. In most of my works, someone is grieving, and their grief is often a major plot point. Like my dad with his mortician dreams, I want to understand, to help people work through the grieving process. Only my people are fictional.
Which brings me, in a roundabout way, to Death and Burial in Medieval England, which I found to be a fascinating and very informative read. (I was reading it for actual book-related research, but it also happened to suit my general interests just fine.) Even before reading the book, I always had an appreciation for the fact that, historically, death was not such a taboo subject. You cared for the dying yourself, you washed and dressed dead family members, you carried them to the church, to the cemetery. I think there’s a great amount of peace to be found in that.
If you’ve made it this far through the post without heading for the hills, I think you’ve more than earned some medieval death facts!
1. Jane Seymour was the only one of Henry VIII’s wives to be embalmed.
2. Christians believed that Christians could not die by drowning, because Jesus could walk on water, which made it awkward when people did die by drowning. (Especially awkward when that person was William, heir to the English throne, who died when crossing from France to England on the White Ship in 1120. I will now shamelessly plug Pillars of the Earth. READ IT. And then watch the miniseries.)
3. Suicides were buried at a crossroads with a stake through their chests so that it would be difficult to rise from the grave. If they did manage it, they wouldn’t know which way to go.
4. People were buried with their head to the west and their feet to the east so that when they were risen at the Second Coming, they would be looking right at Jesus’ glory in the eastern sky. If you were buried any other way (north-south, or even face-down) it was to punish you eternally.
5. If blood was spilled in a cemetery, no burials could take place until the ground had been reconsecrated.
6. Eleanor of Aquitane’s burial effigy shows her laying down, reading a book. My kind of girl!
If you, too, are interested in contemporary death and grieving, you will find many kindred spirits at the Order of the Good Death (the link is also at the bottom of my website).
The moral of the story is, if you are invited to my house for dinner, you were warned. Happy Wednesday!
(I was born on a Wednesday, so maybe there’s some truth in “Wednesday’s child is full of woe”…)
**Writer’s note: my mom would like to add that she contributes to the family morbidity in her own special way by harshing my buzz whenever we hear a good song by saying: Can you play this at my funeral?