It’s not that I’m afraid to die, I just don’t want to be there when it happens. ~ Death (A Play) by Woody Allen
Most of us are fans of denial when it comes to thinking about shuffling off the mortal coil. The idea of dying is at best depressing and at worst terrifying so not thinking about it seems like the healthy thing to do. And yet, if you’re a mass of contradictions like me, you can’t help being morbidly curious about the people whose professions have them dealing with death all the time. Happily, well maybe not happily, there is a small subgenre of memoirs that are from coroners, undertakers, doctors and others that deal with ‘death issues’ on a daily basis. Here are three recent ones that I found particularly illuminating. Do be forewarned though, they contain realistic descriptions of procedures and situations that are not for the faint of heart.
Working Stiff by Judy Melinek and T.J. Mitchell
This is the tale of Melinek’s rookie year as a New York City medical examiner. From suicides, accidents, murders and the much more common ‘natural causes’, the author lays out the particulars of how the bodies she performs autopsies on reveal the manner of death. Despite the gory details, this is not just a cold and calculating CSI type memoir though. She gives everyone involved, both the living and the dead, humane and complex portraits. As she describes her duties you really get a sense of what it must be like to work in a profession where you are confronted with mortality on a daily basis. Layered throughout the book is the classic attitude of realism, gallows humor and humanity that is required to survive in ‘the city’ and that comes in particularly handy in the medical examiner’s office.
Smoke Gets in Your Eyes by Caitlin Doughty
Written by a practicing mortician and host of a popular web series titled Ask a Mortician, this book is an entertaining memoir but also a serious and thought-provoking examination of how society tries to deal with death and the dead. The author recounts, in admittedly gruesome but humorous detail, her introduction to the ‘death industry’ working at Westwind Cremation and Burial in Oakland. As she encounters the methods and tools of the trade (cremation, embalming and the horrifying trocar to name a few) she uses the opportunity to examine the history and social context for each practice. Many interesting conclusions are reached, but a central one is the great lengths we go to as a society to separate ourselves, both physically and emotionally, from the dead and the damage this separation causes.
Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End by Atul Gawande
While this book is far less gruesome than the previous two, I found the ideas it presents the most disturbing. Gawande is a practicing surgeon but this is not a memoir about his profession. Instead it is an examination of the disconnect between the medical profession’s view of death as a failure and the inevitable fact that we all die. He cuts through professional jargon such as ‘end of life care’ and ‘assisted living’ by interviewing and telling the stories of those facing the indignities of aging and death and modern medicine’s response to the process. These stories include his father’s decline and they are touching, instructive, and difficult to deal with all at the same time. By confronting the experience head on, however, Gawande gains important insight into how the medical community, and all of us, can actually serve the needs of those facing their final chapter.
Well, after reading these books I guess there is no denying the fact that I’m going to die someday. Wait, I refuse to accept that. I’m sure we will all be fine.