A MULTIMEDIA DOCUMENTARY PROJECT ON THE MILLENNIAL GENERATION: THE LAST GENERATION TO REMEMBER A TIME WITHOUT THE INTERNET.
My mother almost died in 1950.
She was only four years old, living overseas in Japan when doctors misdiagnosed a violent case of meningitis as an earache. Little Stevee, as she was called then, lay in a coma at Tokyo General Hospital, propped up in an oxygen tent to be given multiple blood transfusions.
Little Stevee, as she was called then, lay in a coma at Tokyo General Hospital.Stevee couldn't hear, see, or eat. Her lips cracked. Her neck and body stiffened like a board. For a full week she was kept in an isolation death bubble, hooked up to tubes and machines.
My grandmother wasn't allowed in to see her dying daughter. Even worse, her husband—my grandfather—was missing in action, unable to be located on the battlefields of Pyongyang where the Chinese were forcing UN troops south. When they finally did locate him, several days later, Grandpa flew from South Korea to Negoya to Tachikawa. My grandmother described him in a letter home, dated December 28, 1950, as "dirty, filthy, in full battle dress, weary beyond description and worried to death."
Little Stevee would live, barely. For three days she was more dead than alive. Dead is what she would have stayed if the doctors at Tokyo General hadn't given her a Mycin sample drug in impure liquid form, used only as an experimental drug for hopeless cases. Without it, there would have been no recovery. She would have been a little dead American girl at a hospital in Tokyo—and that would have been the end of that.
My father almost died in Vietnam—probably.
I don't know for sure, because he doesn't talk about it. He doesn't specifically not talk about it. He just doesn’t want to talk about it. Not a word from him about the friends he fought next to for two years and watched die one by one, casualties of a war he didn't really believe in.
This was my dad's Vietnam story to me as a child:
We'd got reports of tigers nearby the camp. So one night, it's pitch black outside and we heard these low shuffling and growling noises in our tent. I was 100% sure I was a goner. So I reached slowly for my rifle, and turned on the light and... it was the camp dog!
It's his camp dog story. I've heard it 100 times. I've never really heard any others.
My father grew up in Iowa and put himself through college by hitchhiking across the country to work in canning factories. Graduation should have been his reward. But as soon as he was handed his diploma, he was drafted and shipped off to Vietnam. While flying in the helicopter over Saigon he had his rank changed from officer to infantryman.
Graduation should have been his reward.This last-minute switch meant he was doomed to slog through the shit for two years with soggy, mildewed socks. He survived flying bullets under orders to "fight the yellow menace."
But as soon as he was handed his diploma,
he was drafted and shipped off
Perhaps my parents didn’t talk about death because when they were my age they had tasted it every day of their lives. My mother must have spent two years in agony, waiting to see if her fiancé would come home alive, or in a wooden box. Only the occasional letter would have made the distinction clear.
It wasn’t just our family, with the silence. We were not the only family on the block where death wasn’t a topic at the dinner table. 2.5 million people in the United States go from living, breathing humans to corpses every year. The dead space this process out very nicely so that we living folk hardly even notice they're undergoing this transformation. We overlook the necro-demographic as it slowly slips away into the background of history.
Gone are the days where the dead were an intimate part of the lives of the living. When families would care for their own from cradle to grave. In today's United States, the dead are usually spit out of nursing homes and hospitals, straight into the arms of the mortician. They are not part of the community, thank you very much. We have all become very civilized.
Dead bodies are given to “funeral professionals” who have degrees in vaguely sciency behind-closed-doors body handlin’. But no matter how civilized we become, no matter how many buildings or nuclear reactors we build, nature always seethes just beneath the surface with its primary desire for destruction and renewal.
So what have we done to combat this fierce mortal reality? We clean up our bodies. We ensure they are orderly and sanitized, pumping them full of decomposition-slowing chemicals so they can't reflect anything back at us that we don't want to see. Or, we burn them immediately. Either way, the dead today cannot do what they have done for thousands of years: warn us, the living.
My father was impressed when, a year out of college, I was burning bodies for a living. He never dreamed his bookworm of a daughter would do anything remotely resembling physical labor. I was happy to finally be doing something he respected, but he needn't have been impressed. Sometimes I worry that I am part of the problem.
Geoffrey Gorer, in his 1955 article "Pornography of Death," said that "in many cases, it would appear, cremation is chosen because it is felt to get rid of the dead more completely and finally than does burial."
As a crematory operator, am I just one more link in the chain of silence, taking the body away from the family? I don’t know this dead person, and yet they take their final ride in my van, slip into the fire by my hand. It is an ancient ritual performed inexplicably by me, without the family present. I am just a facilitator.
All the meaning, wonder, importance I place in my work is, in a sense, self-created. In reality, I am a product of the modern world. A woman paid to do paperwork and call the coroner’s office and cremate bodies. I am surrounded by death, but it is a bureaucratic death—not the visceral, real death of my mother’s disease or my father’s war.
Caitlin Doughty is a licensed funeral director in Los Angeles, California. In addition to her mortuary science certification, she holds a degree in Medieval History from the University of Chicago.
Caitlin's previous pieces in Fortnight include Children & Death, Modern Macabre and The Old & The Lonely.