In Tucson each November, there is an event called the All Souls’ Procession. It’s a relative of the Mexican holiday Dia de los Muertos, but it’s a distinct and unique experience. People come together and walk through the city with floats, puppets, photos, banners. They dance, chant, drum. They paint their faces and wear costumes. There’s a giant urn. There’s a celbratory aspect, but also a solemnity. There’s a shared sense of loss and solidarity. It’s moving and remarkable.
In most of America, anxiety around death is rampant. There are huge silicon valley projects dedicated to promoting longevity. We talk about “not giving up” and “fighting.” We put 85-year-old people with failing organs on ventilators and tube feeds at great expense, both in finances and in human suffering. We use euphamisms like “passed on”. We generally don’t think and talk about the fact that death is a presupposition of life— the thing that, by oppostion, defines it, and the place that it ends. Life and death are in this way inseperable. It’s a strain on our society, I think, to stick our fingers in our ears and ignore this.
Of course there are people who resist this tendancy to avoid thee idea death. There are “death cafes” (http://deathcafe.com/what/) organized for the very purpose of discussing death. Several excellent books that meld persional and medical perspectives on dying have also been published in recent years. Paul Kalanithi’s When Breath Becomes Air is a thoughtful and measured account of dying. Atul Gawande wrote a book (also now a PBS miniseries) called Being Moral, published about two years ago. He talks about how medical care around end-of-life has changed and what might help to ease difficulties around it.
I have friends and colleagues who are hospice nurses. I have worked as an ICU nurse. I work in primary care now. Death is around us, but even we, who are up against its edges all the time, don’t necessarily have it squared. I think events like the All Souls’ Procession are a much-needed salve. Even, or maybe because, the experience is complex.