Dealing with Death as Though it Were a $.25 Toy in a Plastic Bubble

There’s been an average amount of death in my life. My parents didn’t die in a tragic car crash when I was five. My brothers and sisters are all alive and well. All of my puppies really did just run away.

Of course, 3 out of 4 of my grandparents are dead (I’m 28). The first, my dad’s father, died when I was maybe 10 or 11. I remember watching all of the adults crying and playing “Don’t Break the Sugar Bowl” with my cousins. One of us would inevitably end up cracking up laughing and so everyone would commence shouting “You lose!” and a roar of childish laughter would be retaliated against with the piercing looks of adults who apparently didn’t hear the preacher when he said we were “gathered here for this celebration of life.”

My grandfather and grandmother on my mom’s side died only a couple of years ago, within a few months of one another. At their individual services, the preacher who gave the eulogy talked about my gram at my grandfather’s funeral and vice versa. He barely knew them.

I was the weakest of four pallbearers who carried my grandmother, in her casket, to her grave. All of us were cousins, one of us were drunk. We got out to the cemetery—a small family plot where my uncle was buried when I was 14 and before that had been sort of a taboo playground for these very same cousins and I, barely kept up, with grass growing over the worn over stones, one hundred years of rain and erosion to blur the names of great great great grandfathers and their wives, sisters and children—only to find the ground to soaked through with the late Fall wet and found ourselves hoisting grandma, in her box, up onto the drunken cousin’s truck bed. He had to throw a few empty Budweiser cans into the cab so that the casket wouldn’t bang into them on its way up. The machine to lower her into her grave had a hard time in the mud, and more than once it seemed like they might mess up and drop the thing outright. No one but the grandchildren were there to see it all. I wanted to throw some dirt onto the casket when it finally was laid down, but I didn’t. We all told jokes on the walk back out and I thought that this was closer to how a funeral should be, awkward, comical, difficult but because of the act of burying someone, not for losing them to this world. Old people are supposed to die, anyway.

There was also the uncle that died, previously mentioned, and a friend who was killed by a school bus a year later. One of my cousins, who I barely knew, died a few months after that. I tried to cry, thought that I should, maybe even genuinely welled up a bit for some of them, but it always seemed forced.

I just don’t see death as the tragic thing that most people see it as. In the wake of my son’s mother dying, I’ve been thinking about it all quite a bit. I believe in reincarnation as much as I believe in Heaven. That is to say, I don’t believe in either anymore than I’ve experienced one or the other. Both seem like great, fresh starts to me, though. So when I see a feeble old man who’s lost his ability to walk and see and is slowly going completely mad, I’m happy for him to die. I’m also happy that I won’t have to look at him like that anymore, that this part of his life won’t taint the rest of my memories for him. I’d like to think that a woman who’s struggled with heroin and cocaine for the past ten years of her life would welcome death. Maybe she’ll come back as a butterfly. Or a tsunami.

Then I see the weeping, lost and devastated souls around me. A friend who had been forced to move back to our hometown after she lost her husband—the father of her daughter—to a car accident said to me “No one understands, they’ve all gone on with their lives, for them everything has gone back to normal. But for me, I lost everything – my job, my house, my friends, my husband.” I wondered who I could lose that would affect me as much.

But for every death, only one or maybe two people are so harshly affected. Children can usually bounce back, parents or spouses often take it the hardest, but friends and other family all move on. A week or a month later and we may be thinking about the person now and then, remembering, reminiscing, but we’ve all since gone back to our jobs, meatloaf Tuesdays and laughing at the latest Adam Sandler flick. Or was that a serious one? I can never keep up with him, what an actor. My point exactly.

At the funeral, we all act as though the person in the coffin is one of those toys you get for a quarter as you’re leaving the grocery store. You crack open the plastic bubble that it was in, so that it could slide out of the machine as neatly and smoothly as possible. Deal with the mechanics as little as is absolutely necessary, just get to the procession, the ritual. The formality. Then you’re left with the toy itself, the cheap toy that doesn’t do much of anything but is there, and you feel obligated to know what to do with it, but since it doesn’t do anything but lay there you eventually set it to the side and forget about it.

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