Liam Lambert: The fine art of dying well
Taboos seem to come and go in this country, moving like tides across the face of the land. What once was considered abhorrent becomes reasonable dinner table conversation with a few passing years.
The one thing, though, that seems to be an abiding taboo among North Americans is the subject of how we die.
Ironically, we’ll give all sorts of TMI about the various and sundry rituals with which we prolong our youth and keep ourselves healthy, but no one seems to want to deal with how the story ends.
A possible reason for this is that the process of death is so closely linked, to the point of being overwhelmed by, the process of grieving, which is terribly stigmatized.
Globally, though, things are different. From Irish wakes to Tibetan spiritual rituals, global cultures are far more accepting of death and its accoutrements, seeing it as an inevitable bookend to life. Here in America though, we seem to have something of an unhealthy distance we put between ourselves and the reality of dying.
Recently, a federal judge overturned California’s Death with Dignity bill, which gave terminally ill Californians the right to choose physician-assisted suicide as a treatment option. The judge claimed that the bill was passed illegally in explaining his decision. It is perhaps worth noting that the people behind the lawsuit though, are medical lobbyists, who have historically long opposed the right to die in America.
The question of a right to death has been almost as controversial as the question of the right to life, with court cases stretching back to the early ’90s, and Dr. Jack Kevorkian and his Final Solution book. However, when one considers the question as one of quality of life, one has to wonder, at what point do we as a culture say enough is enough? While not everyone can control the means by which they go, doesn’t it make sense for those who can to allow for the possibility to avoid prolonged suffering?
Shouldn’t death-care be an intrinsic part of life-care? As it stands, the ability for many Californians to make that choice is in limbo.
Among those who support the law’s reinstatement are members of the death positivity movement, who view death not as a dreary nightmare, but an inevitable, important and even joyous proposition. Locally, a group called Posy-Filled Pockets is trying to change the way Nevada County looks at death and dying, using humor, information and a clear-eyed integrity that aims to take some of the sting out of death and dying.
Posy-Filled Pockets is the brainchild of local resident Rachel James, an outgrowth of her time as a member of The Order of the Good Death, a consortium of artists, academics and death professionals dedicated to providing information, resources and direction for people grappling with death’s various issues, as well as shifting the cultural perspective on death and dying in general. James and her partner in crime, funeral director Tim Lilyquist, offer a broad range of death-related activities, from talks and workshops to field trips, film screenings and food tastings.
James’ recent experience caring for her terminally ill father have definitely colored the way she approaches the project.
“I realized I have lived experience now, skin in the game, and that makes all the difference,” she said. She aims to destigmatize the question of death a little, via her events. She explains, “We do one evening event that has a ticket price. These are funny and educational and lighthearted. Then, also once a month, we hold a separate workshop, for free. The workshops are more practical, involve discussions about stigma, laws, burial plans, advanced directives and provide local resources.”
So many people, it seems, treat death as a terrible, somber, life-changing experience, and it is all those things. Far be it for me or anyone to suggest otherwise. However, is it not also an opportunity to reflect upon and celebrate the existence of people who have had enormous, deep and meaningful impacts on our lives? However we do it, doesn’t it make more sense to celebrate the life lost than continue to mourn them as time goes on? Having a healthier attitude towards how our lives end can’t help but improve the way our lives are lived.
Posy-Filled Pockets is having a reorganizational meeting at 7 p.m. June 20, at Chapel of the Angels Mortuary, 250 Race St. Grass Valley. All newcomers and the curious welcome. You can get more information or ask any relevant questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Liam Lambert, who lives in Grass Valley, is a member of The Union Editorial Board. His views are his own and do not represent the views of The Union or its editorial board members. Contact him at EditBoard@TheUnion.com.
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