Death and the Maiden

A discussion about what we really don’t want to talk about.

If you’re familiar with classical music, you may recognize the title as a composition by Franz Schubert (1797-1828). It’s a piece he composed in 1817, which originally was written in German, but translated goes something like this:

The Maiden:

Pass me by! Oh, pass me by!


Go, fierce man of bones!

I am still young! Go, rather,

And do not touch me.


And do not touch me.


Give me your hand, you beautiful and tender form!


I am a friend, and come not to punish.

Be of good cheer! I am not fierce,


Softly shall you sleep in my arms!

The prospect of death has hung like a spectre over humanity since the beginning of civilization it would seem.

So why don’t we talk about it? America doesn’t ever want to sit down and discuss the fact that no one here is getting out alive. Why is this?

We glorify violence, i.e. death/killing as evidenced in all forms of media; movies, television, video games, music, you name it, but we don’t talk about what it, death, means ultimately.

We even glorify sexuality, which is a far more pleasant subject, relatively speaking, but even as “in your face” as sexuality is, we don’t talk about what it really means either. America is somewhat repressed in what dialogues it’s willing to engage in.

What I find is that we’re more likely to change the subject when death comes up, or leave the room, or start an argument, create some diversion, or make anything else happen to keep us from talking about death. Dying. Buying the farm. Giving up the ghost. Taking a dirt nap. Pushing up daisies. Whatever euphemism you prefer.

So again I wonder, WHY? What is it we’re all so afraid of? Why aren’t we talking about this?

Other cultures and societies don’t live behind this wall of denial that a lot of Americans seem to.

They not only talk about it, they embrace it. They teach their children that it’s natural and a part of life.

They have customs and traditions that include the whole family, sometimes the entire community, and it

isn’t seen as something to be feared or reviled.

Now I’m not talking about religion, or belief systems of is there Life After Death. No. I’m talking about the physical act of dying. And what that means to each of us left behind, and what it means to face our own mortality. We are not big fans of bringing this subject up in polite conversation. Nope. Not us.

So of course this makes me think about my own experiences with death.

My first funeral was for some great uncle I‘d never met. I was six years old, maybe, and what I remember most was my mother trying to shield me from actually seeing the casket. It didn’t work. I saw him. I still remember peering around my mother’s hip and seeing him lying there.

And so began my curiosity with funerals and death and why everyone was so obviously tense and all the grown ups were acting so weird.

When my father died I was a teenager, and grown ups took care of all the “unpleasantries”. Our jobs were simply to show up. And no one, friend or family, would talk about the fact that death, my father’s death, had actually happened. He was dead. And this was a part of life. It’s like everyone had laryngitis.

At times that silence was overwhelming and deafening.

But, as time passed, I just sort of filed the whole experience away. I didn’t forget about it as much as I just didn‘t want to think about it anymore. So I didn’t. Not until two decades later when my mother became sick enough for me to realize the end was coming for her sooner rather than later.

Once again, I tried to have “The” talk. This time with her about her health and final wishes. Now okay, imagine your mother sticking her fingers in her ears and saying “La La La La! I am not listening to you! La La La La!” That’s how the conversation with my mother went. In fact, she may have put her fingers in her ears now that I think about it.

Within a matter of time, my mother died. And it was exactly as I feared. She left no instructions, no will, no anything to direct any of us on how to proceed. What did she want done with her “remains?” Her belongings? Were we suppose to notify people? And if so, whom? What are you “supposed” to do?

My family was at a loss. I’d characterize us as completely clueless.

I was in shock. I knew my mother was dying, but even still, it was a kick in the chest when I got the call. Knowing and being prepared are different things entirely.

Now I can’t speak for everyone else, but I feel confident in saying that planning loved ones funerals/memorials is not something the average person does all the time. And I am no different.

I’d never done this before. And worse yet, didn’t have anyone to ask for help.

The people at the funeral home came and “collected” my mother immediately.

My brother and I met with them the next morning and began discussing the “arrangements.”

We decided on cremation, and a memorial service in their chapel the following Saturday.

But after those plans were finalized, I pretty sure I put my fingers in my ears and said “La La La La! I am not listening to you!” for the next week.

Before I knew it, Saturday came, the service was over, we were home again, and it was time to try to get back to everyday life.

But how do you do that?

Well, one day at time of course.

Looking at death through grown up eyes now, I see now where it is a part of the natural procession of things. And I wish that we as a culture talked openly about it. Weren’t so afraid of it. Embraced it as the amazing end to this part of someone’s journey.

Everyone has questions at some point. Several points in their lives is more likely accurate. Who are we supposed to talk to though? No one wants to talk about death. Or they want to offer up a quick platitude. It’s like a mental sedative, so you’ll relax and stop worrying and they won’t have to talk about it anymore.

“What’s wrong with you? Why are you thinking about this? Why are you making me think about this?“

It’s unpleasant. It’s uncomfortable. It’s a reminder that the clock is ticking for you, me, the guy next to you at the light, and everyone we love.

The Flaming Lips have a lyric in their song “Do You Realize” that says:

“ Do You Realize - that everyone you know someday will die - And instead of saying all of your goodbyes let them know - You realize that life goes fast”

I think that’s the thing, isn’t it? Letting people know that you know life moves quickly and it’s not forever. Telling them that we ARE going to talk about this because it’s important, that they are important, and that time is fleeting. That we are going to put on a brave face and speak about death, and loss, and life, and love and fear. That it is our obligation to have these conversations even if they do make us wish we were getting a root canal and/or a colonoscopy instead.

That we are going to suck up all this fear! We are going to talk about life, and death. And, that it is okay.

The other people I think we need to acknowledge are the ones who handle all those “grown up unpleasantries” for us.

The funeral directors and the doctors and the grave diggers and even the clergy.

If you’re the religious sort.

They’re the people I’m going to talk to next.

I want to hear about what it’s like to be the person on the other end of the phone when you have to make those arrangements.

We take for granted that these people are going to take care of our loved one for us in the most professional, dignified way possible.

I wonder what they have to say?

I wonder what they’re afraid to talk about?

To be continued...

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Roger N September 28, 2012 at 04:12 PM
Thanks for a well- written piece on a subject that most of us do prefer to avoid. I lost my mother last month to a previously undetected brain tumor that took her quite quickly. We were all devastated and completely in shock, of course, but also had the benefit of her making quite clear years ago her wishes upon her death, including the "do not resuscitate" advance directive we ultimately were obliged to honor. I urge everyone, no matter your current health, to put in place your desires upon death while you are able to do so, including a living will, burial or cremation choices and, hopefully, a commitment to donate your organs if possible. The burden and sorrow of your family can be eased a great deal knowing that they are respecting your final wishes during such a difficult time.
Michelle September 29, 2012 at 01:51 AM
Thank you for bringing to light a subject that I have always felt needed to be discussed, more openly and honestly, no matter what your age or health status may be. Working in a field that end of life issues as well as death were every part of my work environment, it amazed me how many families were ill informed or completely unprepared for the reality of losing a loved one. After my own personal loses beginning at the age of six with my father and then standing at both my grandmother and mother's side as they took their last breath, I realized that even as prepared as I was, the dialogue about what was going to happen after they were gone was not enough. I have to give an enormous amount of gratitude to the Hospice Care Agencies that guided my loved ones through their dying process, but more so provided an endless amount of support to those of us who were left behind. In completing a Death, Dying & Bereavement course this past summer, coupled with the years of working with the aging population, I have come to realize that the journey of dying does not have to be so scary, that one can control the process and the attitude when facing death. I think the other important point to having the dialogue with family and friends is that it allows for those left behind to have peace in knowing that wishes were fulfilled and that the memories you want to become your legacy can be discussed and carried on. May I also suggest that you speaking to a Hospice Care Agency. Great topic.
Erik Fernald September 30, 2012 at 06:49 PM
This was a nice piece Michelle. I think death can be a defining moment in my life in a couple of ways. The first real moment was when my future wife's dad died. He had ALS and I had only been dating my wife for about a month. It was not a traditional way to meet your girlfriend's dad, nearing inevitable death. It put an immediate image in my head. This was the defining moment for me, I made a decision to not be that typical boyfriend that is young who may run away from "drama" in a new relationship. I said to myself, do you want to be a man or not, stick out the rough patch, have some conviction and show fortitude in a moment of crisis for my future wife. From that moment, I have loved my wife with all my heart and we have 2 wonderful boys that remind me every day what it is really about. Money is now a distant memory of importance to me. It drove me to be a workaholic from age 12 to about 36. I now take the time to enjoy life and all its blessings just a little more. Another "strange" thing I do sometimes is read the obituaries and one time I walked through a graveyard to read the stones of people's lives. It is a difficult read when you see "here lies Jacob " and his mark read 6 months. I think of the pain and sorrow his parents must have gone through and still face to this day. Also, I remember my grandmother who lost a sister in the 1920's and often spoke with such sorrow even when she was in her 80's. The feelings never seem to wane.


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