On Mortality

I think you’ll be delighted to know that Susan Deborah King, the author of the poem we discussed in this space last week, “As Death Approaches” in the volume titled One-Breasted Woman (chronicling her near lethal battle with breast cancer), is alive and writing today, five years after publication. She even has a website currently “under construction,” and if that’s not a statement of faith in the future, I don’t know what is!

I love the almost delirious gratitude of this poem, the surveying of her life’s riches even as death hovers behind her lost breast, her bald head, her nausea from the chemo. Her laughter and gratitude serve as flares to brighten the darkness that can seem so enveloping “As Death Approaches.”

It’s been my not-all-that rare privilege to attend many deaths over the years; I suppose it’s one of the ambiguous benefits of having been gifted to live as long as I have. (And may that gift continue to keep on giving!) I watched my mom and my brother breathe their last, attended many vigils just before death’s final visit, and spent years as a Hospice volunteer reading poems, holding hands and stroking foreheads As Death Approached. These are always somber, utterly serious—and curiously exhilarating—experiences.

Impending death sharpens everything—the mind, the heart, the memories, the regrets, the gratitude. And frequently, underneath the somberness, there is at least some measure, some much-needed expression, of hilarity. The light, the dark: it’s all just jumbled up together, isn’t it? The Tao Te Ching has it right!

My first years in college, I had the ideal job for an 18-year-old: I worked as a night attendant in a mortuary. I’d usher in families to visit their loved ones laid out in caskets, turn out the lights over those caskets at closing time, then sleep overnight (not in one of the caskets, but a back room with a cot) in case bodies came in during the wee hours. And I got to study when business was slow!

I’ll always be grateful for what that job exposed me to as I gazed at the dead and heavily made-up faces of what had once been vibrant, moving, loving, laughing bodies, now outfitted in their last fine suits and dresses. I frequently paused to gaze at those bodies as I bid them good night, imagining their lives and loves, contemplating the mysteries of death, of non-being.

I also learned to carry on everyday conversations about school and baseball and girlfriends while the young mortician went about his embalming tasks on bodies laid out on the metal table.

Sometimes, on his off-days, we’d even have noisy parties late into the night in his apartment above the mortuary. Black humor was abundant, I assure you. Life carrying on amidst death, and vice versa—it is ever thus.

Confronted by darkness in whatever form, human beings have always huddled together in support, fellowship and consolation. And inevitably, that consolation turns itself toward celebration as we find ourselves chastened, deepened and cracked open to the beautiful mysteries and mirth that it is our privilege to share with one another. May it continue to be ever thus…

“As Death Approaches” by Susan Deborah King, from One-Breasted Woman

© 2007 Holy Cow! Press  Reprinted with permission.

One comment to On Mortality

  • LInda Proulx  says:

    Hi Andrew,
    Your job with the mortuary so reminded me of the wonderful 2008 movie, Departures. I went back to my Netflix history to find the description—"Young cellist Daigo has an epiphany in which he realizes he's been heading down the wrong career path. Retreating to his hometown, he trains for a new professional role as a "nakanshi": "one who prepares the dead for burial." Alan and I loved this sensitive movie that movingly shows what death can bring to the living!

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