The Way It Was| Part 6

Being deeply loved by someone gives you strength.
While loving someone deeply gives you courage.
Lao Tzu

Editor’s Note: Above is a quote Eshrink found while doing research for this series of blog posts: The Way It Was (a glimpse into how he saw life growing up during The Depression and WWII). He said it might be his all time favorite quote so I decided to put it at the top of each post in this series as a reminder of the power of words and the power of love. Eshrink’s writing illustrates the power of both! In case you missed earlier posts in this series, I’ve provided links below.

Introduction: Welcome to Part 6 of The Way It Was from Eshrink. In Post 5, Eshrink wrote about his memories of the late 1930s (pre-war for Americans, but wartime for Europe). He also described everyday life, the values and customs of the day, as well as working conditions that he remembers from his dad’s stories working at a tile factory. In Part 6: Eshrink will write about his first experience with death, which is one reason he posits that he remembers this pre-war period so clearly.

The Way It Was: Part 6

Death | Funerals | Customs

Meanwhile,  ”across the pond,” the German panzers were on their way to achieving their goal of world domination.  In October 1939 Hitler invaded Poland. I recall the name Neville Chamberlain being disparaged, but later learned that his sin was in attempting to appease Hitler in order to spare England from attack.

chamberlain and hitler dads blogIt seemed that everyone except him knew that there would be no stopping the Germans until they had punished all of Europe for Germany ‘s defeat in WWI.  Those dates are remembered by me since the death of my paternal Grandfather was during the Russian invasion of Finland, which happened three months after Germany conquered Poland.  As we listened to the news, I was enthralled by stories of how, although hopelessly outnumbered, a few brave Fins had held off the entire Russian army with soldiers attacking on skis.  That would not be the last propaganda we would hear designed to bolster our spirits.

FInns on skis fighting russians dads blogDeath

My Grandfather’s death was illuminating in several ways.  This was my first experience in dealing with death, and I didn’t like it.  I visited him with Dad just two days before his death.  He was on his death bed as the saying goes and suffering from pneumonia, which has been called the “old man’s friend.”  In years to come, I would hear Dad express regrets that he had not complied with his Father’s last wish to bring him a bottle of Muscatel wine.  As was the custom, when my grandfather died, he was laid out in the parlor for all to see. There was a steady stream of visitors to offer both regrets and food.  In spite of the sadness of the occasion, I was enamored with all those goodies the ladies left on the kitchen table.

The burial was scheduled for three days after his death, which I have been told is just in case of a resurrection.  Ostensibly, for the same reason, it was mandatory that someone stay with the body night and day during the “showing.”  In this case, his children and their spouses took turns standing guard.  I have since read that the custom actually originated due to the fear that rats might undermine the undertaker’s efforts and spoil the whole show.  This particular death is also memorable because it was the only time I ever saw my Father cry.

It was customary to “take leave,” an exercise which took me by complete surprise!  The entire family was herded into the parlor, the door was closed, and suddenly as if on cue, everyone began to sob.  It was so loud that I cringed, and one of my aunts, who was famous for fainting at every opportunity, slipped from her husband’s arms and fell to the floor.  Just as I thought of a way to escape, the sobbing suddenly stopped. Again, as if on cue, eyes were dried, the undertaker closed the casket, and we headed for church where Scud’s virtues were briefly extoled and we made ready for the short walk to the graveyard behind the church (grandad’s real name was Jesse but known in the community as Scud).  Most of his friends would probably not even know his real name.  One’s given name was only to be used by strangers.  It had been a tough day, but all that pie and cake back at the house almost made up for it.

One of my regrets is that I feel as if I had never known either of my Dad’s parents very well in spite of having vague memories of visits there.  Although Grandad apparently had serious problems with alcohol, it now seems to me that he has not been given credit for some major accomplishments.  My one fond memory of him was when he introduced me to sugar on my tomatoes, which converted me to a tomato lover.  At the viewing, one of his acquaintances referred to him as a “tough old bird” which might contribute to him becoming the subject of another blog in the future.   It seems strange that I remember Grandma’s sister but little about Grandma.  The sister hosted the annual family reunion at the large dairy farm where she lived in a grand farmhouse.  We looked forward to these celebrations as they were great fun.  There were cousins galore and an abundance of the participants’ favorite recipes.  One of the highlights of the day was the performance by my great Uncle, who was an award winning “old time fiddler.”

Pre-War America as I Remember It.

During those prewar days, Europe took little notice of my small part of the world, but we were very concerned about what was going on over there.  There was vigorous debate as to what extent the US should be involved.  FDR had managed to increase military spending, and wanted to sell weapons to England.  The isolationists were successful in their opposition to even peripheral involvement by US.  Their view was that we were safe from attack due to the 3,000+ miles of ocean between–an idea that was soon to be squashed.  FDR in one of his fireside chats announced that he was implementing a program he called “lend lease” in which we would lease rather than sell arms to England.   He thereby by-passed Congress and everyone knew that Hitler’s submarines would be gunning for any transport of arms to Europe, which would inevitably lead to war.  I was old enough to understand some of this, and listened to some heated debates on the subject.

Meanwhile, the Germans were gobbling up property as fast as their tanks could take it.  They were conquering France with little difficulty, along with lesser countries.  France had felt themselves impregnable due to the Maginot line; a series of fortifications lining their border with Germany.  Dunkirksoldier1It was a marvel of engineering which I had read about in history class, but its effectiveness was lost when the Huns simply went around it, picking up Belgium in the process.  With that they were able to surround the French and English forces leading to the disaster at Dunkirk as in the recent movie by that name.

 

 

 

LEST WE FORGET

In a previous blog I mentioned our local newspaper, and recounted “the good old days” when our small town had three competing daily papers. I subsequently made a number of disparaging remarks about our one remaining paper which was purchased some time ago by Gannett. Nevertheless, my day usually begins with a cup of coffee and a perusal of the Times Recorder. It doesn’t take long. The front page usually has some local human-interest story which I don’t find very interesting so I usually proceed to page 2 and the obituaries which is the real reason I continue to subscribe to the thing.

WHY THIS SUBJECT?
Barb insists that it is absolutely morbid that I choose obituaries as the subject of this blog, but I feel it is both important and timely. Long before he had reached my present age, my Father wrote his and my Mother’s obituaries. He was always one who liked to be in control and I am sure he did not have much faith in anyone getting it right. Regardless of his motivation, it turned out to be a blessing for we survivors.

As you may have surmised motivation for my daily obituary searches has much to do with the fact that at my age I now see more familiar names on page 2 than I have in the past. Indeed, my contemporaries are dying at an alarming rate. I have no plans to write my obituary as we have an experienced obituary writer in the family. Before leaving for less green but more lucrative pastures in the big city, Maggie was in charge of obituaries for the TR (don’t you hate acronyms?). She tells me it is standard practice to assign that job to cub reporters, which says much about journalistic priorities.

BORING!!!
Sadly, most obituaries are boring recitations which are little more than death notices which say little more than when and where he or she was born and died along with a brief chronicle of their life with a focus on their occupation. This is followed by a list of family members living and dead, and information about funeral arrangements. It does appear to me that those traditions are gradually being swept away as I see many instances in which there is only a graveside service restricted to family members, but that’s another story. For many families cost may be a factor in the length of obituaries as they usually charge per line of type. In larger cities it is much more expensive. For example, the New York Times charges $263 for the first 4 lines and $52 for each subsequent line. Each line contains only 28 characters and is printed in very small (7 point type).
WORTH REMEMBERING
In spite of the brevity of the average obituary in our paper there are some which give hints as to the nature of the subject’s life. Just this morning I read the obit of a 96 year old woman and found the loving portrait inspiring. She was said to have had a “long well-lived life.” She was described as a “feisty woman who lived life to the fullest and enjoyed the thrill of playing slot machines.” She also enjoyed her grandchildren, great grandchildren and great great grandchildren. She had worked in a factory all her adult life and attended church which was “just up the road from where she was born.” Most important was the statement “She was a loving woman who will be missed by family and friends throughout Morgan and Perry counties.” In my opinion, to be missed allows one’s life to continue in others’ thoughts; consequently no one wants to be forgotten.

FORGETTABLE
Throughout history it has been important to immortalize our heroes with statues and other icons so they will continue to inspire us, and not be forgotten. It is also not unusual for the living to build their own monuments. Likewise, it is common for people to prescribe in detail the hymns to be sung, the burial method and even the entire process of the funeral with the possible exception of the eulogy. This is done in spite of the realization that they will not be a witness to the festivities. In the old days one could easily identify the most affluent buried in the graveyard by the size of their gravestone. Now modern cemeteries are devoid of monuments expressly to be more egalitarian, but coincidently eliminating impediments to mowing the grass.

In spite of our best efforts, we will in all probability soon be forgotten. The odds of our being remembered for longer than a couple of generations is probably much less than winning the power-ball jackpot. Millions have gone before you and failing extinction of the species millions will follow. You will need to be very, very famous to stick out in such a crowd. Even a famous blogger is not likely to make the cut. Although your name will be recorded in various places you will have been long forgotten until someone encounters your name as they work on their genealogy, and they will wonder what it would have been like to-know you.

FAVORITE OBITS
It is true that obituaries have a certain utilitarian value in that they not only announce the death but list those to whom you might want to send a sympathy card, provide the time and place of the funeral, etc., but I find little information which would help me to know the person. There have been some examples in which anecdotal information has provided me with an idea as to a person’s identity, and a feeling that I would like to have known them. One such case was a single statement in an otherwise generic obit of an elderly woman as follows: “Edna’s family gathered at her home for Sunday dinner at 1 o’clock every week for over 60 years and welcomed all guests with open arms. Edna will be remembered for her peach-pecan and pumpkin pies, noodles, and birthday cakes, her patience, kindness, and unwavering and unconditional love for others, and most of all, her heart of gold.” In the annals of motherhood, it is difficult to imagine anyone topping that record of nurturing. I felt as if I would like to have known Edna. Maybe I could even have wrangled an invitation to Sunday dinner.
My all-time favorite obituary was one which kept me laughing. It was written by a daughter who began with a quest for anyone interested in dinner plates. It turned out that her mother had been a collector of all kinds of different items, including dinner plates, and the daughter was overwhelmed. She went on to describe all her mother’s quirks in a most loving and tender but funny way. It was my all time favorite and I consider it a masterpiece. I tried to save it, but since we have a rule in this house to never lose anything unless it is important it has disappeared.
WHY THE IMPORTANCE
For those of us who will not have a bronze likeness in the courthouse square, our obituary will be the most lasting chronicle of our lives. It will probably be written or directed by someone who loved us and thus emphasize our better natures providing a template for living a full life. Obituaries remind us of our mortality which is not always a bad thing as such awareness can be a powerful motivator.
Obituaries have been with us since Roman times but as print media is replaced by the internet, obituaries are likely to follow suite. One such example is “The Blog of Death” written by Jade Walker who was formerly a chronicler of the deaths of the rich and famous in the New York Times. She was also hailed for producing a publication of the obits for all the victims of the nine eleven attacks. She describes her blog as: “…featuring the famous, infamous and interesting unknowns.” Undoubtedly, major newspapers will continue to publish obituaries deemed newsworthy. One often cited example is the Los Angeles Times preparation of Elizabeth Taylor’s obituary two years before her death presumably in order to be ready for the great event. Ironically, the person who wrote it died before it was published.
With the demise of local newspapers throughout the country, I assume that their archives containing millions of obituaries will be lost. There are organizations which profess to have access to nearly a century of published obituaries; however I am not sure how that is done, e.g., do they simply access newspaper archives? For most of us our obituary is all that remains of us to be remembered for longer than a few years.

SAVED BY THE CLOUD
As Jade Walker points out, the internet provides opportunity to include pictures, personal anecdotes, and experiences which could allow us to relate to lives that are gone. In an era when there is data available to unravel the human genome, keep track of who and where we are, who we talk to, and what we buy, it does not seem unreasonable to catalog obituaries. Perhaps the information could be managed by the Library of Congress, and the millions of wondrous stories which are now literally buried could be available for all to see. It could even contain the recipe for Edna’s peach-pecan pie

LIFE AND DEATH

Last night I happened upon a documentary about death on PBS. It included an introductory presentation by a woman who reports that she had found resolution to her fear of death by directly confronting it. She had made a point of viewing dead bodies at every opportunity and had even taken a job at a crematorium, which seemed like overkill to me. To complete her story, a vignette of that entire process was shown. I did not find watching the incineration of bodies as particularly entertaining, and Barb left the room saying she was repulsed. In spite of my interest, (I had always wondered how this procedure was done), I shared Barb’s feelings perhaps even more intensely for this is the method I had chosen for my disposal.

 

THE BIG QUESTION
Many years ago, I think it was the late 60s, Peggy Lee recorded a song titled: IS THAT ALL THERE IS? which has haunted me all these years for it expresses to me the most fundamental existential questions. What is life, where did it come from, why are we here, how did it happen, who or what caused it? When the answers to these questions seem almost within our reach, new questions arise and we end up confounded all over again. We humans are undoubtedly unique in our ability to even ponder such questions. As a matter of fact, we have no clear idea what life is let alone what it is all about. Our definitions of life are simplistic and do little to help us understand what it is. For example, for some time there have been efforts underway to actually synthesize a living cell, but those involved in such efforts cannot agree on the criteria for determining when something is alive.

 

WHAT IS DEATH?
Death on the other hand is defined as the absence of life, but is it? At this time of the year, one third of the world’s population is celebrating their belief that life is eternal. Muslims likewise hold strong beliefs in an afterlife as do many other religions. Freud described religion as a symptom of neurosis or in some cases psychosis. Karl Marx famously insisted that religion was the opiate of the masses. Both saw religious dogma as a defense against the vicissitudes of life: for Freud, defense from anxiety, and for Marx defense from the pain of domination. In spite of his atheistic beliefs Freud was reported to have said during a prolonged, and painful terminal illness that he envied those who had strong religious beliefs.
As our brains evolved to become huge cauliflower like globs of neurons, we developed the ability to not only perceive reality but to predict future events. This ability has served us well, but there is a down side in that we became aware of our mortality. Floyd, my dog who sleeps at my feet as I write this, is able to predict certain outcomes. For example, he has learned some of the routines of the house and knows when I put on a coat that he might be able to bum a ride. He will undoubtedly see dead animals during his lifetime, may even experience grief, but I feel fairly certain that he does not realize that in a few short years he will die.

 

RELIGION AND THE DEATH PROBLEM
Back in my younger days when as an academic I knew almost everything about everything, I found that death was one of those things even I did not understand. I was especially interested in how our awareness of mortality affected our thinking, values, behaviors, personality development, and even our mental health. My research on the subject of attitudes toward death indicated that certain diagnostic categories of psychiatric patients had attitudes significantly different from the norm. All very interesting, but I was left with the classic chicken egg dilemma, did their illness cause their unique attitudes or did those attitudes contribute to the illness? But that’s how it is with any scientific endeavor, to answer one question will only lead to more questions.
The study did tend to confirm what everyone already knew in that some people look forward to death while others fear it. In the former category is the late Billy Graham who on multiple occasions insisted that he was looking forward to his earthly death, and the beginning of a new (much better) life. Muslims are so convinced of an afterlife in paradise that they are willing to martyr themselves to ensure their admission. As a matter of fact, all religions seem to have in common the pursuit of a solution to the death problem. Those of strong faith have been shown to have less fear of dying, but in one study those adherents uncertain of an after-life were even more fearful than atheists who were convinced that there was nothing after death.

 

DEATH OR RELIEF?
Death may also be attractive to those suffering from extreme pain either physical or mental. Patients whom I have known to have suffered both serious physical and emotional distress at various times in their lives invariably report the emotional pain to be more difficult to endure. When combined with feeling there is no hope, for such people suicide may seem their only option.

On one occasion in the days before Google, I was approached by a patient asking what would be the lethal dose of phenobarbital. He reported that his mother had been ill for several years with several surgeries leaving her without ability to speak, a horribly disfigured face, and severe pain. She was on large doses of pain medications, and her illness was terminal. She had told her family that after careful consideration she had decided she wished to die sooner rather than later and wanted her family to be with her as she died. Had she been a family pet her assisted suicide would have been declared merciful, but in her case it was criminal. Go figure. On the other hand many agree that to countenance euthanasia is to start down a slippery slope.

 

CLINGING TO LIFE. FIGHTING DEATH.
There are others for whom life is so precious, or is it that death is so threatening, that they cling to life in spite of enormous pain or disability. Such was the case with my daughter who shortly before her death said: “I don’t want to die Daddy.” Was she afraid? I will never know for my response was to reassure her she was not dying rather than to address her feelings about the death she knew was imminent. Thus, her cry for support was brushed off and she was left to deal with the most difficult time of her life alone. I should have known better. Sometimes it is difficult to practice what you preach.

 

A recent example of one who chose to follow Dylan Thomas’s advice to “Rage, rage the dying of the light…….” Is exemplified by the late Stephen Hawking, who was diagnosed with Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis as a graduate student and told he could not be expected to live more than two years. In spite of total paralysis and the loss of his ability to speak, he went on to become a major contributor to the science of cosmology and was described by some as a modern day Isaac Newton. He was a prolific writer in both the scientific and lay literature in spite of limited ability to communicate. In his later years, he gave lectures all over the world with the use of a voice synthesizer operated by his only remaining functioning muscle group which was in his cheek.

 

LETTING GO
Sometimes death can be viewed as an opportunity to be reunited with a loved one. One very personal example of this was with the death of my Mother. My Father had been dead for a couple of years and Mother was staying with us. Her only known medical problem was a few episodes of cardiac arrhythmia one of which had resulted in hospitalization and successful treatment. I suspected she would be discharged the following day and stopped in to see her as I made morning rounds. I was surprised at her response when I asked her how she was feeling when she said: “I am feeling just fine, but I have been thinking a lot lately and have decided it is about time for me to be out there (the cemetery) beside your Father.” I thought little of her comment and went on to my office. A short time later I received a call from her nurse telling me she had died. We should all be so lucky as to go that way, in charge and at peace. This and similar stories have led me to believe that we have more control over our demise than is apparent.

 

SEX AND DEATH?
Perhaps the weirdest thanatophilic attitude toward death is in its libidinization which was not only observed in my research but in Greek mythology. In the story of “The Rape of Persephone,” Pluto, guardian of the underworld ascended from Hades to seduce the maiden Persephone. Throughout history this theme has been repeated many times in different iterations. You may be thinking: how can there be anything sexy about death? I told you it was weird. This brings me back to the young lady who was interviewed extensively on the PBS special. She not only presented her story of how she overcame her fear of death, but was filmed giving a lecture to a group of alleged thanatophobes. It occurred to me that she possibly could have gone overboard as she talked of the joys of death in a husky voice accompanied by a sexy smile. But in case you want to learn about even weirder stuff you might want to check on the necrophiles who enjoy sex with corpses. There is also John Wayne Gacy who admitted to having orgasms as he watched his victims die.

 

NEAR DEATH EXPERIENCES
None of those interviewed in the PBS documentary seemed more certain of life after death than those with histories of near death experiences. Their stories were consistent and the interviewees were very credible. Many others speak of witnessing from above the attempts made to resuscitate them, and report seeing a tunnel with a bright light in the distance. There have also been some who have reported very unpleasant experiences, and following their recoveries vowed to change their ways. There is one neurologist who suggested these experiences were simply the result of cerebral ischemia (diminished blood supply to the brain), but there is little doubt in the minds of these survivors that their experiences were real. One such survivor suffering from a terminal cancer reported she was looking forward to her death and we were told she died two months following the filming of the program. The others all said their lives had been changed since the experience, and that they had developed a kind of serenity they had never known previously. Although not mentioned in the broadcast, I am also aware of at least two books written about going to heaven and one describing a 20 minute visit to Hell, accounts which I found less credible.

 

CREATING YOUR OWN AFTERLIFE
Spookiest of all in my opinion was an in depth look at the so-called cryogenic procedure in which bodies are frozen in liquid nitrogen with the hope that in future years technology will allow their illnesses to be cured, and they will be able to do a secular version of the Lazarus trick. Cellular biologists believe it is impossible to do even a very quick freeze without doing permanent damage to the body’s cells. Nevertheless, there are people who are willing to pony up large sums of money to have their bodies frozen and stored in hopes of being brought back to life. One website reports they have over 100 such bodies stored in huge tanks of liquid nitrogen. As for me, I think I would prefer to take a shot at heading down that tunnel toward the bright light.

 

DEALING WITH OUR MORTALITY
There are many behaviors unique to humans for which one could make a good case to result from awareness of our mortality and even the concept of death. Denial is the most powerful tool that can be used to decrease anxiety, and typically the way most of us deal with the reality of death. Those things we don’t understand are the ones we find most frightening. Freud for all his foibles had much to say about death, although discounting religion, he presented some interesting comments about our denial. One which rang true to me was his statement: “It is indeed impossible to imagine our own death, because whenever we attempt to do so we can perceive that we are in fact still present as spectators.” I can’t help but wonder if he got this idea from Mark Twain’s story about Tom and Huck attending their own funeral. Nevertheless, he does make a point. We like to give instructions as to how our funeral or lack of should be conducted sometimes with great detail, and without consideration for the idea that such services should be for the benefit of those who grieve. Do we really believe we will be able to hear what hymns are played?
In spite of our knowledge of the inevitability of death we continue to seek token immortality. We select monuments, have portraits made, buy life insurance, establish charitable trusts, write wills, work hard in order to be able to leave something behind, and even write blogs in hopes we will be remembered; and continue to live in the minds of others. Not surprisingly there are often attempts to retain control after death. I recall one example of a friend who was noted to be an in control kind of guy who liked to keep his wife under his thumb. He wrote a will in which he specified that her inheritance would go to charity in the event she should remarry after his death. There are so many other questions which have gone unanswered. For example, to name a few: why do some enjoy the thrill of risking their life, why do some like to frighten others with the threat of death, why do some appear to actually enjoy killing. We seem to be unique among the animal kingdom in those behaviors.

ARE THERE ADVANTAGES TO THE REALIZATION OF OUR OWN MORTALITY?
Lest you think I am totally morbid in these thoughts, I should admit there are some obviously useful things surrounding this mortality thing. We tend in many ways to view death as punishment. We use terms like “he deserved to die,” and “the wages of sin are death.” Throughout history, assassinations have been carried out to punish those accused of misdeeds, and the most serious crimes are still punished by death. If we were convinced we would live forever, would we behave instinctively without regard to consequences, in other words would we have developed a super-ego? In like fashion what about creativity and the urge to complete projects if time were not limited? There would be no need for monuments or for offspring to mourn. Would we feel the need to band together with others? It sounds to me as if life would be boring.

MY STRATEGY
Well, enough of this death stuff. I hope the next PBS program will be about life. Meanwhile, I plan to adopt the “eat drink and be merry” strategy. Barb recently told me she had decided to concentrate on living each day to the fullest as long as she could. I suppose this would not leave much time for worrying about such mundane issues as dying. Maybe she will be willing to give me some lessons.

Addendum by retired eshrink editor:
My dad and I discussed the topic of this blog before he wrote it. I told him of a pivotal moment during college when a marketing professor posed the question, “What if this is all there is? Despite what you’ve been taught in church or by your parents, what if this life is all you get?”

It was if a light bulb went off! Religion uses “heaven” and “hell” (the “afterlife” in general) to relieve us of the anxiety of our own mortality and in some instances, to control us. You want to get to heaven. You don’t want to go to hell. Here’s what you need to do. As if, all chaos would ensue if we thought this was the one life we get to have.

Indeed, that was the point I got from this professor. The realization that this life is the one that is real and I better be a full participant because it’s the only one I know I have. Don’t use an “afterlife” idea to put off living this life fully. Don’t get me wrong, I hope there’s something really good after this life. My version of “heaven” is being able to use the heaven TV network to check in on all my people to see what’s going on because I don’t want to miss anything! Also, I would like to create my own weather, get to choose my own “age” during my time in heaven, visit with everyone else who is dead, and most of all, get all of those big questions answered. I freely admit that I’m afraid to die because I’m afraid of the unknown…I’m with Freud, I’m envious of those people who have no doubt in religion’s teaching of an afterlife. However, I must admit I have never understood why highly religious people who think their dead family member has gone home to Jesus to the next life, cry so much at the funeral. If you truly believe that without a doubt, wouldn’t you be happy for them?

However, I do believe there is something more and hope there is something more, but no proof to date.

So, I try to use mortality to make sure I live well in this moment that I have been so fortunate to be given and even more, to put life’s perceived “stresses” in perspective. “It’s not life and death” I’ll tell myself.

Since my husband died suddenly at a fairly young age , I also use “death” as a way to live my life double for those who don’t get to be here. I try very hard not to take one minute for granted. Life’s short. It’s not a dress rehearsal. Treasure the gift. Be present. Make every minute count.