by caitlin doughty January 09, 2012
Maureen was a woman I cremated during the first few weeks I worked at the crematory. She was in her mid-50s, diagnosed with a lightning-fast cancer and dead in a little over a year. Maureen left behind a husband, Matthew. By all rights, Matthew probably should have been the first to go. He was wheelchair bound and unable to leave his home; one of our funeral directors had to drive to his apartment to make the arrangements for Maureen’s cremation. Written on the wall calendar in big, tragic letters was, April 17th: Maureen Dies.
As I gave him Maureen's ashes he didn't move, or even look up.
I myself made the trip to Matthew’s apartment after the cremation to drop off Maureen’s cremated remains. He wheeled himself down to the lobby, a man with long greying hair and a tiny, strange voice. As I gave him Maureen's ashes he didn’t move, or even look up. He just thanked me in his tiny voice, and held the little brown box in his lap like a small child.

Fast forward to Monday morning, and who turns up in our fridge at the crematory but Matthew. Dead. Given up.

His sister came by the mortuary with a small bag of personal items with which he would be cremated.

People do this all the time. As long as there's nothing potentially explosive, it usually just burns right on up with the intended human. As I loaded Matthew onto the mechanical belt to place him in the cremation chamber I grabbed the bag to empty into the flames with him.  For the first time I actually saw what was inside. A lock of Maureen's hair, their wedding rings, and maybe 15 photographs. Not photographs of the brittle, wheelchair bound man I had met, but a man and his bride. Maureen & Matthew: happy, young, beautiful. Married over 20 years. They had friends, dogs, what looked like an incredible amount of fun, and each other.

Then I pulled out the last item. It was the metal identification tag from Maureen’s cremation; the one I had burned with her just a few weeks before. You could tell that it was one of the first cremations I had done because I hadn't yet learned how to bend the hard metal properly.  It was identical (except for the ID number) to the one I was putting in with Matthew now. I imagined his hands sinking into the grey mulch of Maureen's bones and finding the metal tag. I imagine him pulling it out and brushing it against his cheek. It was a bizarre honor to be so much a part of their private last moment together, so much a part of this idea of eternal love that would cause this man give up on his life, unable to go on without woman he had adored.

An English study found that the mortality rate was 40% higher among people whose spouse had died in the previous six months. Deaths due to heart disease were 67% above the rate usually expected. Suddenly alone, the widow or widower quite literally dies of a broken heart. A friend of mine told me a story about an elderly widower whose wife had died the week prior. His daughter set down a grapefruit for his breakfast, as his wife had done for 60 years.
The mortality rate was 40% higher among people whose spouse had died
in the previous six months.
“What’s this?” he asked. Without it being cut and sugared, as his wife had always done, the man did not recognize the alien grapefruit that lay in front of him.

Life is the loneliest of experiences. As Ernest Becker laments in his Birth and Death of Meaning:

We touch people on the outside of their bodies, and they us, but we cannot get at their insides and cannot reveal our insides to them. This is one of the great tragedies of our interiority—it is utterly personal and unrevealable. Often we want to say something unusually intimate to a spouse, a parent, a friend, communicate something of how we are really feeling about a sunset, who we feel we are—only to fall strangely and miserably flat.
If we should find someone who understands our internal thoughts and patterns, even ever so slightly, we cling to them madly, fearing their death or departure. 

Take, for example, Mark Rife of Hilo, Hawai’i. Mark’s wife Sarah had an unimaginable, tragic departure from this world, falling off a waterfall before his very eyes. She recovered, but died in her sleep six months later.

Mark wanted to kill himself, unable to live without her. But he remembered Sarah asking him if Juliet (of Romeo & Juliet) would still have killed herself if she had waited a thousand days. So Mark waited one thousand days, traveling to 22 countries around the world. He blogged about his adventures. Then he returned to Hawai’i, recorded a Vimeo suicide note and killed himself.

Mark’s story is disconcerting and dystopian, to be sure. It shows us place where technology and death meet, subverting our expectations of what is supposed to happen when you travel the world documenting your adventures. Surely, no one would still choose to kill themselves after such a thing! But what is Mark (or Matthew, for that matter) to do in a culture that feeds us the myth of the soulmate? Our culture dictates that the only fate worse than death is dying alone.

Literature and culture have created a backdrop where suicide for love is a noble pursuit. No matter how noble it seems, practically speaking, such suicides are simple acts borne of an insidious fear of lonely death. Somewhere, deep in our minds, we keep the knowledge that we will all die alone.
Literature and culture have created a backdrop where suicide for love
is a noble pursuit.
Beyond that existential fact, there is the real threat of having what the Japanese call kodokushi, or “lonely death,” dying at home alone. We fear we will end up like Yvette Vickers, the former Hollywood starlet who lay dead in her home for almost a year, her body mummified next to a small space heater. It does not matter how many friends, or family, or lovers, or things we have. We exit as naked and lonely as we came.


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.