Coffins, Dying, and Trying Not To
Everyday in California is sun. It rarely rains, and I appreciate this weather for many reasons, one of which is that driving is easy. There is no snow to sludge through, black ice to be wary of, or rain to obstruct my view. I can drive to and from my office on autopilot, and despite what your mother might tell you, "driving on autopilot" is not dangerous, and actually occurs quite regularly with myriad, everyday tasks.
If you play "The Final Countdown" on the trumpet over and over, you will eventually play on autopilot, too. Autopilot mode is determined by a set of brain structures called the Default Mode Network (DMN), and was first discovered in the early 1990's. DMN provided the first evidence that our brains are active even when we aren't consciously thinking about something. "Autopilot" is nothing more than our brain functioning efficiently.
One day, I was driving home from work on autopilot, and was shaken back to reality by a white bike on the side of the road, adorned with flowers and notes—a biker was struck and killed there only a few years ago. Now, this white bike reminds motorists every day that someone’s daughter, wife, mother, aunt, coworker, best friend is no longer with us. We’ve all seen monuments like this before: crosses alongside the road where motorists were killed for one reason or another. Each time I see one, I am struck by the tragedy of such a symbol, by the temporal nature of my life, how I could easily wind up in a car crash due to carelessness on my own part, or of the hundreds of motorists I share my morning and evening commute with.
As I drove the last few miles home, my brain was decidedly not on autopilot. If I were to crash and my body were badly mangled would they still put it in a coffin? Or would my family choose to cremate? Should I begin writing my will, so I can determine this ahead of time? How old is too young to start planning one’s death?
Did you know that there is a weight limit for cremation? The ovens used cannot handle the heat of too much incinerating fat. Larger bodies must be buried, often in specially made, extra-large coffins.
If I were more interested in job security, I would have worked in the business of dead people, creating custom coffins for: large people, children, pets, low-income families, high-income families, hippies, Christians, you name it, there’s a coffin for that.
Death will always happen. I am not immune to the sensitivity surrounding this topic: it is an uncomfortable one for many, and deeply tragic for most. Death is most jarring when you don’t see it coming: the biker for instance, or victims of natural disasters, shootings, car accidents, heart attacks, or a host of other health ailments. When we speak of being afraid of death, I think what we really mean is that we are afraid of not living life.
The way we have been taught to approach death is backward: we fear it, avoid it, give into it, mourn death, and commemorate the dead with engraved granite and flowers. There is something touching about planting life at the feet of death. There is something poetic and discomfiting about how silent a graveyard is, and there is something cyclical about the whole dance. Ignoring death is like ignoring history: rash, immature, and leading nowhere expect…back to death, or backwards in history.
We can only look forward so long until there is no more forward. Someday, I will [hopefully] be a very old woman, full of wrinkles and laugh lines, good experiences, and bad ideas. I will imagine a decade in the future, knowing that I won’t be there to see it. Who will be president? What styles will come back into fashion? Will my great niece ever stop cutting her own hair?
We celebrate birth because a life is just beginning. We mourn death for a life that has ended, without appreciating that one cannot occur without the other. Instead of fearing death, we should learn that it is only one small slice of the cycle of life. Accepting the inevitability of death does not make it any less traumatic or painful, but it can help us come to terms with our own mortality. Most of all, it can help us appreciate life.