Sunday, May 17, 2015

Death and Robots

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.


  1. I just talked about all of this with a friend of mine. I told him that when I died, I really didn't care what happened to me or what people did. That I'd really prefer a green burial but...whatever.
    He, an attorney, told me to put in writing, in my will.
    We should all remember that.
    And yes, we have given up both birth and then death to the medical and professional mortuary systems. And I don't think that has benefited any of us very much. As much as we try to sanitize these things, they remain the essential rituals and realities of life.

  2. I'm laughing at Oliver's comment. Shades of Ted Williams!

    It is true that, like growing our own produce and butchering our own livestock, we've moved away from caring for our own dead. Just another way we have disconnected as a society, though, I admit, I'm not sure in that example it's a bad thing. I would much rather have professionals sort out my departed family members.

  3. What a great conversation. Many many years ago when I was a student nurse an 8 month old baby named Michael died. It was an expected death. I don't remember if his parents were at the hospital. I was assigned to take Michael to the morgue. I remember walking with him swaddled in a blanket holding him close. I hadn't thought of this in years--- till I read this.

  4. My mother died suddenly without leaving explicit instructions and it created such misery and hardship. Write it down now, while it isn't an emotional thing to do. I wanted so to do what my mother wanted, my sister wanted to do what *she* wanted, my brother didn't care, both my mother's ex husbands wanted in... gah. I wish she'd just said. My aunt was so shocked by my mother's sudden death, it seems she sat down and wrote out everything down to the music to be played and what sort of funeral - which was a saviour when she did die unexpectedly some years later.

    Whatever about what other people want (they might not all want the same thing for you!) following instructions is easiest of all :)

  5. OMG. I love Oliver a lot. The head on the robot thing. Yeah, it could happen.

  6. I didn't see a dead body until I was in nursing school. I think we have gotten to far away from death. It is a part of life but we live in a death denying society. We deny old age as well. As for me, I want everyone to tell a dirty joke at my funeral and I want my ashes scattered in the mountains.

  7. You and Oliver have the best conversations. I wonder if you know how much you are giving him in validating so completely who he is. He's simply wonderful, but not a simple equation at all! Such a great kid.



Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...