“Hi there. This is the ‘local’ town cemetery.”
“Ya. Could you come pick up your daughter? Again.”
This sounds like some type of dialogue from your typical 1980’s, angsty teen flick, however and to the shock of no one, it isn’t. This was me. This was me as a teenager. Yes, I have spent many hours in cemeteries. No, I’m not a grave robber and you can’t prove it. Hold on, that’s an entirely different story — let’s continue this one.
As a teenager, I was often chased out my local cemetery. My reason(s) for being there were innocent enough, I was there to read. Just to read. I didn’t go there to cause issues, it wasn’t out of a reason of morbidity, though many would think my desire to sit in a cemetery to read, was morbid, weird — inappropriate. I didn’t feel what I was doing, was any of those reasons. I went because I felt comfortable, at ease and safe there. Being close to the dead brought me a sense of calm and peace, it still does. However, circumstances weren’t as simple as me wandering into a cemetery one day and discovering this, it was more complicated than that. The journey was much darker, grimmer and yes, this is where the morbid part really fits in. It all started at the age of ten when I was introduced to death. Confused? Intrigued? Stick around, I’ll explain.
The first time I experienced the death of someone I was close to, was when my Great Grandpa Bill ‘passed away’ — died. Before that, the only death I can remember was when my beloved German Shepherd Queenie, ‘went to the farm’. Yes, those are the words I was told. Until my Great Grandfather died, I actually thought she was running around, chasing squirrels in some farmer’s field. After my Great Grandfather’s death, this changed, my life changed.
I was incredibly close to my Great Grandfather, he was someone who was my best friend and constant companion. He lived with us and I got to see him every day — until he got sick. A mild heart attack lead to a stroke. The stroke caused his death. He had been in the hospital for a few weeks before he died. I, in my ten-year-old head, figured he would eventually get better and come home. He didn’t. I don’t remember how I was told about him dying. I’m not sure why I don’t remember any of that, maybe I wasn’t told. Maybe, I just became part of the process, being swept along with everything that happened up until the part I do remember.
My first experience with a corpse was seeing him in his open casket. When I saw him, I was confused. He didn’t look like my Grandfather. He was wearing weird makeup, rouge, and lipstick. He didn’t look real. Everyone kept referring to him, to the man in the casket as Great Grandpa Bill. I couldn’t make the connection. It just didn’t look like him. It wasn’t registering in my adolescent mind. This is when the questions started. About my Great Grandfather, the man in the casket and about death.
I was a shy, introverted child. I spent my time hidden away in my room or corners, reading, doing art, daydreaming. My Great Grandfather took the time to talk to me, tell me stories, coax me out of my room. We went on adventures together. When he passed away, I became confused, then curious about what had happened to him, why it happened and what would happen to him afterward. At the funeral home, a lot of questions were asked by me. Why was he wearing weird makeup and lipstick? Why didn’t look real? I became upset when no one would answer me. No one would explain. I wasn’t allowed to go to his funeral because of this. My actions were considered inappropriate, I was distracting and likely causing an embarrassment. I was expected to be quiet, well-behaved and sedate. I may have been hushed that day, that however, wasn’t going to stop me from asking questions.
Avoiding a child’s questions and dismissing them will have consequences. They will either stop asking questions altogether or go to the other extreme. The latter happened to me. When my parents didn’t give me the answers I sought, I went elsewhere. I freaked out teachers and librarians. Especially the librarians. They would cringe when they saw me knowing I would ask them to help me find books on death. I’m sure that getting a call from the principal’s office about this, delighted my parents. I became relentless. I wasn’t going to stop until I had an answer, an understanding. I needed to know everything about death. Did it hurt, what happened after you died? Was death final? Was there an afterlife? What happened to your body after you died, after you were buried? What happened if you weren’t dead when they buried you? (thanks urban legends) The questions were endless and I needed to know all of the answers.
Since that day, I have been death-obsessed. No, I’m not suicidal, I’m not looking for ways to end my life. I just trying to seek all the knowledge I can about death. My childhood death-obsession also lead me down my current path. I’m a writer and performer. I write in the horror genre and am working on a novel that is a semi-biographical ghost story. I have spent many hours researching death rituals of different cultures, past and present. How other societies celebrate it, what their customs are, how they view it. I have spent a lifetime thinking about it, writing about it, obsessing about it, talking about it.
Recently I have been inspired to start openly talking about death again and to more than just two people. I’m sure Sarrah and Zoltan will be relieved about this. After years of being shut down and told that I was being morbid or hearing the standard, ‘Ha ha. Guess that’s why you love horror.’, I’m finally motivated to talk openly about it again. Normally, my outlet has been writing, now I finally feel free enough to talk to many others. You see, a couple of weeks ago, I discovered a channel on YouTube that advocates The Good Death. The channel I am talking about is Caitlin Doughty’s Ask A Mortician. Finding this channel was like reconnecting with a long lost, beloved friend. I found Death again.
More now than ever, I think it’s important to start talking about death. To open up about it.; start the conversation. Recently a cousin of mine died. He was only one year older than me and I was shocked by his death. When someone this young dies, you start to question your own mortality. I’m not afraid of dying or death. Years of trying to learn everything about it, my education, has removed that romantic notion that I will live forever. We all die, there is no way around it. His recent death is just another push to ensure I do all things in life I want to do. Live my dreams. Make every moment count. Don’t let time run out. We all need to start the conversation about our own impending death. The one thing that Caitlin talks about often, is making sure you get the death you want, The Good Death. I’ve started thinking about what I want to be done with my body when I die. I don’t want a funeral, or a casket or an embalmed body that is preserved against what is supposed to happen naturally. I want to be wrapped in a shroud and buried in a shallow grave. A green burial. The perfect end and burial for a horror writer. It’s also an environmentally friendly way to dispose of… erm… bury a body.
Something else that has become an important source of support and information is Death Cafes. A Death Cafe is a safe place to talk about death and dying. They have speakers who cover a variety of different topics relating to death. Most cities have them and Toronto has a few every month. I think they are brilliant and I will be going to the next one that is closest to me. Another event that has started to happen around the planet are Death Salons. The idea of holding a Death Salon also intrigues me. I’m thinking about how to put one on. More details on this soon. To find out more on what has inspired me, please click on the following link. https://deathsalon.org/
Will my obsession with death ever fade? No, if anything it will continue to grow. I will never stop reading about it, researching it, learning. I really wish that I had someone like Caitlin to talk to when I was ten. If I could go back and talk to that ten-year-old me, I’d assure her that it is ok to ask questions and that she should never stop. If your child or any other child asks about death, don’t dismiss them or avoid answering them. If you don’t know the answer, tell them you don’t and then find out the answer! Once you have that answer, go back to that child and have a conversation with them about their questions. Sheltering them from death and dying is not going to help them later in life.
I will always carry the ten-year-old around with me. She will always be there asking questions and expecting answers. I’m glad we live in a world that I can research from the comfort of my own living room. Living in Toronto has also made it easier for me to find the information and resources I need, without being pointed out as that weirdo wanting to talk about death. Let’s talk about it. Let’s start a conversation and keep it going. Don’t let the ten-year-olds, with questions about death, be swept away with the process.