I took Oliver and Sophie down to a boat festival in Redondo Beach late this morning. We left Henry at home, sleeping as is his wont. After walking around all the booths, looking at the beautiful boats, and eating some fried seafood at one of the clubs that had opened its doors to festival-goers, we drove back home and listened to the Moth on the radio. First we heard Bliss Broyard's very first Moth performance when she told the story of discovering her father was black when she was 23 years old. Oliver thought it was weird, but he listened and didn't beg to switch to his godawful music station. The next up was the Indian-American physician Siddhartha Mukherjee who told an amazing story about his grandmother, her life and how she died. He recounted a memory of traveling on the river as a child and rounding a bend to see the dead being bathed and then put on funeral pyres, and then rounding another bend back into "normal" life. When his grandmother died, he and his father carried out the simple rituals of death -- the wrapping of the body in a white sari, bathing the body and then taking it to be burned. He compared that to the dying he witnessed in the United States as an oncologist. He described a woman with breast cancer who he had treated and who had died overnight after being admitted. He went to her funeral and noticed that lipstick had been applied to her lips and described how the whole process of death had become sanitized. He asked his students later, How many of you have actually lifted the body? What does the weight feel like? He spoke about gravity and the grave. He spoke of how our culture is actively forgetting the rituals associated with death.
Oliver said, That's kind of true. I agreed. It's kind of creepy, too, he added, and I talked a bit with him about why that is so. I told him about a friend of mine whose young daughter died, how she and her husband and their other daughter carried out some of the same rituals, how beautiful that was to me. Oliver, who had just recently attended the Eastern Orthodox funeral of my aunt noted that the service made him feel weird and excluded. He reminded me that on Mother's Day he had seen a giant bee flying about, and in the moment he saw the bee, he thought of Aunt Yvonne and how weird that was, too. We were silent for a bit. I told him that when I die, I would appreciate a non-religious service that celebrated my life and that I would prefer something simple as far as my body goes -- that I'd like to be cremated and my ashes scattered somewhere I love. Then again, I said, since I'll be dead, it doesn't much matter how and what you do with me. Oliver said, When I die, I want my head to be removed from my body and frozen until it can be put on a robot, that way I can be in the future, too.
You can listen to Mukherjee's brief talk here.