Quirky kiddie queries about death, dying and other fun stuff

As people grow up, they internalize this idea that wondering about death is ‘morbid’ or ‘weird.’ They grow scared, and criticize other people’s interest in the topic to keep from having to confront death themselves. … Most people in our culture are death illiterate, which makes them more afraid.”  —  Caitlin Doughty

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Children, meanwhile, fueled by unfettered curiosity and innate innocence, don’t always harbor silly adult fears of death. They’re allowed to, expected to, wonder about death and dying. It’s a learning process;  it’s not “morbid” or “weird.” It’s eye-opening, mind-inflating. Asking questions about it is a step closer to not being “death illiterate.”

The quote topping this post is from Caitlin Doughty’s new book, the funny and informative “Will My Cat Eat My Eyeballs?,” whose subtitle is “Big Questions From Tiny Mortals About Death.” That means both wiggy and weighty queries from children about death, inquiries she routinely receives as a death-chick rock star: mortician, author, podcaster, “death activist” and “funeral industry rabble-rouser.” In the book Doughty answers 34 kid-friendly (well, kinda) questions about death and dying, and a bit beyond.

A total pro, her attitude is cheeky, frisky and upbeat, often with a wink. It’s hardly just kid’s stuff. She applies sweeping research and her own mortician’s know-how, a braid of science, craft, technology and, unavoidably, morbidity. It gets gleefully icky at times.

Doughty goes into gripping, grisly detail about livor mortis (“bluish color of death”), rigor mortis (“stiffness of death”), putrefaction, embalming, burial, cremation ovens, blood draining, organ donation, and, #1 on the hit parade, postmortem gas. 

And she does it with oozy, crunchy, gelatinous eloquence:

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  • “Welcome to putrefaction,” she writes. “This is when the famous green color of death comes into its own. It’s more of a greenish-brown, actually. With some turquoise. … The green colors appear first in the lower abdomen. That’s the bacteria from the colon breaking free and starting to take over. They are liquefying the cells of the organs, which means fluids are sloshing free. The stomach swells as gas starts to accumulate from the bacteria’s ‘digestive action’ (i.e., bacteria farts).”
  • “In the first ten minutes of cremation, the flames attack the body’s soft tissue — all the squishy parts, if you will. Muscles, skin, organs, and fat sizzle, shrink, and evaporate. The bones of the skull and ribs start to emerge. The top of the skull pops off and the blackened brain gets zapped away by the flames.”
  • “Oh, how to describe the smell of a decomposing human body — what poetry is needed!” Doughty gushes. “I get a sickly-sweet odor mixed with a strong rotting odor. Think: your grandma’s heavy sweet perfume sprayed over a rotting fish. Put them together in a sealed plastic bag and leave them in the blazing sun for a few days. Then open the bag and put your nose in for a big whiff.”

Now, on to questions, a sampling of the kids’ queries, which on average yield two- to three-page responses in Doughty’s book. In brief, inquiries include:

  • The jejune: Will I Poop When I Die? (“You might poop when you die. Fun, right?” Doughty giggles. True: It depends on how “full” you are when you croak. You don’t automatically doo-doo at death.)
  • The sentimental: Can I Keep My Parents’ Skulls After They Die? (No. No. And no. There are such things as “abuse of corpse” laws, our trusty authority tells us.)
  • The ludicrous: What Would Happen If You Swallowed a Bag of Popcorn Before You Died and Were Cremated? (What do you think would happen in 1,700-degree flames?)
  • The freaky: What If They Make a Mistake and Bury Me When I’m Just in a Coma? (Pretty impossible — a battery of medical tests are conducted to confirm brain death.)
  • The ghoulish: We Eat Dead Chickens, Why Not Dead People? (Guess what — some people do. They’re called cannibals. Next!) 
  • The metaphysical: Is It True People See a White Light As They’re Dying? (“Yes, they do. That glowing white light is a tunnel to angels in heaven. Thanks for your question!” the author ribs.)
  • And the vaguely vain: Will My Hair Keep Growing in My Coffin After I’m Buried? (Sorry, Rapunzel. That’s a big fat “death myth.”)

About the book’s titular question, “Will My Cat Eat My Eyeballs?” — this refers to the dreaded scenario of you dying alone in your home, your corpse left for days and your unfed pet, well, getting hungry. Doughty relishes this one. 

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Caitlin Doughty

“No, your cat won’t eat your eyeballs,” she writes. “Not right away, at least.” 

That’s the short answer. 

The longish answer shivers with excitement:

“Cats tend to consume human parts that are soft and exposed, like the face and neck, with special focus on the mouth and nose. Don’t rule out some chomps on the eyeballs,” Doughty says, but more likely your feline friend will dig into the lips, eyelids and tongue.

And what about Pepi the peaceful poodle, human’s best friend, your cuddle buddy? 

“Your dog will totally eat you,” Doughty assures.

In defense of death

A new book is out and contains a passage that provides a frisson of happy recognition: 

“The human cannot abide the thought of death … Most people aren’t wrestling with dread so much as trying to ignore a chronic background anxiety.”

This comes from Sallie Tisdale’s windily, and wittily, titled “Advice for Future Corpses (And Those Who Love Them): A Practical Perspective on Death and Dying.” It’s a slimmish, scintillating book, pimpled with wisdom and knowledge from the stance of a professional thinker, steadfast Buddhist and registered nurse — a trusty troika.

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But why does that quote sing? As I’ve touched on in prior posts (like this one), we are the whopping deniers, gymnastic dodgers, when it comes to confronting or even thinking about death. We know it’s there, lurking in the gloom of the collective id. Most people, as Tisdale says, are “trying to ignore a chronic background anxiety.”

I find this absurd and annoying, because I wonder: How, on a daily basis, does one not consider their inevitable, totally inescapable and at once entirely unpredictable (how and when will you die?) and completely predictable (you’re gonna die!) mortality?

“Advice for Future Corpses” examines that idea with a graceful, empathetic touch and it adds to a mini-mountain of mainstream literature about dying that includes Atul Gawande’s mega-hit “Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End” and Cory Taylor’s “Dying: A Memoir,” to name just two.

Why this death-book boomlet? Because lots of us are understandably freaked about the fearsome finality. (At least those who even consider it.) For one, people are living longer than ever and we find ourselves taking care of aging, often incapacitated parents and relatives. Death is in our face. And still, so many look away.

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Brompton Cemetery, London, 2017

Call me sick. Tisdale quotes William James on two personality types: the “healthy-minded … with its strange power of living in the moment and ignoring and forgetting,” and the rest, the “sick souls” who cannot blot out the naked prospect of mortality. Yes, a sick soul am I, but also enlightened, awakened and aware that our flimsy, fleshly bodies will someday fail us and atomize to dust.

I’m a nervous type so the fact that I look death in the eye doesn’t mean it’s a steely gaze. I lose that staring contest every time. Death scares me, even if, as I believe, it’s one big great nothingness — no heaven, no hell, no paradisiacal virgins — and we shouldn’t be scared of nothing. Yet the unknown is killing us, so to speak. Its foreverness terrifies.

Tisdale writes: “The psychiatrist Irvin Yalom describes the ego facing extinction as being ‘staggered by the enormity of eternity, of being dead forever and ever and ever and ever.’”

Totally.

“At some point,” Tisdale says, “most of us shift from realizing that sooner or later some future self will die to realizing that this very self, me, precious and irreplaceable me, will die. It’s a terrible thing to grasp, and though this insight may last a mere second, it changes your life.”

Her breadth on the topic dazzles. She addresses both sides of death-phobia (terror vs. liberation), our response to death (unalloyed grief), the certainty that we will die, the notion of the “good death,” personal anecdotes such as her dying friend shopping for biodegradable coffins and shrouds, and Zen-worthy declarations like “cremation can have a kind of stark beauty.”

She naturally can’t get to the bottom of it — death’s mystery is all-engulfing, impenetrable, the Big One — but her Buddhist-nurse compassion touches every page and she sheds copious slats of light into our shared abyss. My favorite citation comes from a dying Rabelais, whose last words were: “I am going in search of a great perhaps.”

The beauty in that is bottomless.

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Brompton Cemetery, London, 2017

A darkly delightful book of the dead

For the record, family: Do not donate my body to science when I die. Let them harvest an organ or two, scoop out my eyes like melon balls, carve off a carpet swatch of skin.

Then burn me up good.

Scary to say, but my obsession with death, dying and the post-life has only rocketed since I recently re-read Mary Roach’s weirdly engrossing, and joyously gross, 2003 bestseller “Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers.”

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The title nearly says it all: Roach’s beautifully reported book is a blunt, euphemism-free, aggressively lighthearted examination of exactly what happens to cadavers that are donated to science and research. (Cue: barfing emoji.)

Facts, history, grisly details and the author’s vivacious gallows humor make the unutterable utterly readable. Roach is smart; she pauses for philosophical reflection about what’s before her, providing a finish of deep and dignified meditation to what could have been perverted voyeurism catering to “Faces of Death” sickos. 

The breezy read features jarring chapter subtitles — “Human Crash Test Dummies and the Ghastly, Necessary Science of Impact Tolerance”; “On Human Decay and What Can Be Done About It”; “Medicinal Cannibalism and the Case of the Human Dumplings” — that are so graphic, they may be all you need to get it. For example, that first one: Yes, dead bodies are used as crash test dummies in vehicles. Splat.

Plunge into the pages and you’ll get the smells, sights and sounds of expired bodies rotting, ripping, being gutted and even crucified. (Scientists still want to know how Jesus died on the cross. Freshly dead bodies are a prime instructional aid. Pass the nails.)

The doctors and scientists Roach meets are a reticent assortment. But she intrepidly presses on. 

o-SYNTHETIC-CADAVERS-facebookSometimes a source will turn his back on her, suspect of her macabre motives.

“You want a vivid description of what’s going through my brain as I’m cutting through a liver and all these larvae are spilling out all over me and juice pops out of the intestines?” snaps a vexed forensics examiner. 

Roach responds to us, sotto voce: “I kind of did, but I kept quiet.”

“Stiff” rests on my growing, groaning shelf of superlatively morbid but essential books on mortality, like “How We Die,” “Final Exit,” “The Denial of Death” and other festive titles. I recommend them all. They will, while you’re still living, change your life.

Want a reminder that you’re going to die? There’s an app for that

I don’t get people who don’t consider their mortality — the actual, undeniable fact that one day they are going to die, forever (because you are, reader, you are) — at least once or twice a day.

Surely that’s because I think about my death specifically and death as a brute phenomenon generally many times a day. This has been going on for years. Like since I was seven. I maintain a shelf of books about death, from “The Denial of Death” to “How We Die.” (My id is a vivid, hyperactive place. My therapy bills, exorbitant.)

Who needs a reminder of death? I wonder. It’s right there in the face that looks back at you in the mirror.

Who wants a reminder of death? my friends retort.

Apparently a lot of people, mostly millennials, do. They want a brief if pointed reminder that they are indeed going to buy it sometime. And they want it exactly five times a day, randomly. On their phone.

10We-CROAK1-blog427That’s what the new app WeCroak offers: quick, jarring jabs calling attention to users that, yup, death is waiting around the corner. With homilies like this from Herman Melville — “Death is only a launching into the region of the strange Untried” — the 99-cent app exists expressly to galvanize consciousness, a little existential poke to nudge you into the now. And maybe to scare the holy hell out of you.

“Each day, we’ll send you five invitations to stop and think about death,” says the WeCroak site. “It’s based on a Bhutanese folk saying that to be a happy person one must contemplate death five times daily. The invitations come at random times and at any moment, just like death.”

By turns soothing and somber, quotes are culled from the likes of Emily Dickinson, Thoreau, Charles Bukowksi, Lao Tzu and Margaret Atwood.

“The grave has no sunny corners,” goes one. (For pessimists.)

“Begin again the story of your life,” says another. (For optimists.)

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(That one, for fatalists, I think.)

We think we have control over our lives by doing the right things — exercising, eating healthfully, thinking positive, traveling, communing with art and nature, procreating.

It’s rubbish.

WeCroak’s passages are meant to put you in touch with an untapped aspect of your spirituality, to jolt you out of complacency and into perhaps uncomfortable soulfulness. In fact, hokey as it sounds, I’d say the messages are nutrient-rich food for the soul.

The benighted disagree. People have actually called the app “sick” and “disgusting.” These people are babies. They are in craven denial. No matter — they’re still going to die.

“Death never takes a wise man by surprise; he is always ready to go.” — Fontaine

I don’t know if WeCroak offers that jewel, but it should.

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