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Embrace the Dirt Nap

'Dying well' gives us ownership over fate.

My father died in bed just about the time our plane set down on the tarmac at BWI airport. It was earlier than we expected—but maybe just what he'd hoped for.

"I guess this is it," he'd told me days earlier when he called to say the doctors had run out of ideas for fighting his cancer. They gave him anywhere from two weeks to two months. To play it on the safe side, I booked the first available flight east. My sister planned to drive over the same day so we could have a family visit and a collective send-off.

My son Anthony and I traveled light and made good time. We arrived to the house maybe 45 minutes after wheels down. But when she opened the door, my mother shook her head, unable to speak at first. My sister and her family, having arrived immediately before us, stood in the hallway behind her.

My father, I learned, had balked at the prospect of the family gathering.

"I don't want the boys to see me this way," he told my mother. Perhaps through sheer will, he was gone before we got there.

Gone, but still in that bed.

My mom asked Anthony if he wanted to say goodbye to his papa. He charged up the stairs, followed by his cousins and, more slowly, the rest of us. We clustered around the old man, held his hand, and paid our last respects.

Some people seem to find it odd that we'd invite our kids into a room with a dead body. "The notion of one day disappearing is contrary to many of our defining cultural values, with death and dying viewed as profoundly 'un-American' experiences," wrote Lawrence R. Samuel in 2013 for Psychology Today. "Death and dying became almost unmentionable words over the course of the last century, topics not to be brought up in polite conversation."

Kindred Western cultures share a similar taboo. "More than half of Britons in relationships are unaware of their partners' end-of-life wishes," Louisa Peacock noted for London's Daily Telegraph in 2014. "Eight in 10 of the people surveyed by [the group] Dying Matters said people in Britain are uncomfortable talking about dying and death."

But Peacock notes that mortality and death were common topics up through Victorian times. That was an era when life was shorter and illness ever-present, and hard facts required attention.

I guess my family is a little old-school. My son was not unfamiliar with death when we arrived at his grandparents' that day. In our home, dogs are part of the family, and Anthony was there when the two mutts who shepherded him through his childhood left this world. He clutched Sadie for a final photograph just an hour before cancer took her. And he held Max's paws with the rest of us as the veterinarian ended our old buddy's suffering.

Maybe I raise him this way because death is far from an alien concept for me. By all rights, I should have pushed up daisies long ago. The time I plunged through the ice over a river during a winter backpacking trip was certainly a close call. So was the crash that pinned me under my motorcycle in the middle of traffic in 1996.

So I raise my son with the knowledge that death comes to us all. Running upstairs to say goodbye to their grandfather was hard for Anthony and his cousins, but it was also something they wanted to do, for themselves as much as for him.

I'm hopeful more of our friends and neighbors are coming around to our way of thinking. "'Dying well' or achieving 'a good death' is in fact gaining considerable social currency, with many sensibly proposing that planning for the end of life is at least as important as planning for any other stage of it," Samuel wrote in that 2013 article. "Those who have mastered the art of dying see death not as a stranger or the enemy but as an essential, natural part of life."

Dodging weeks of deterioration and pain, and passing away moments before his grandsons viewed him in a state that he expressly didn't want them to see, would have struck my father as "a good death," I think—at least as good as was available under the circumstances.

And since we're all going to take that final dirt nap anyway, assuming ownership of our fate, within the limits of our abilities, gives us as much control as we can have over our final moments. That's what I call an honorable end.

Photo Credit: Scott Rodgerson/Unsplash

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  • Scarecrow Repair & Chippering||

    Thanks.

  • buybuydandavis||

    There going to fix that death thing soon enough.

  • Ship of Theseus||

    But we'll still never have an edit button.

  • Aloysious||

    Well said. Best regards.

  • Jerryskids||

    My condolences on your loss, but it sounds like you were blessed by the time you had together. Godspeed your old man's journey.

  • VinniUSMC||

    Death shouldn't be taboo. It comes for us all.

    My condolences. Death may be certain, but that doesn't make it any easier.

  • Chipper Morning Baculum||

    "So live your life that the fear of death can never enter your heart. Trouble no one about their religion; respect others in their view, and demand that they respect yours. Love your life, perfect your life, beautify all things in your life. Seek to make your life long and its purpose in the service of your people. Prepare a noble death song for the day when you go over the great divide. Always give a word or a sign of salute when meeting or passing afriend, even a stranger, when in a lonely place. Show respect to all people and grovel to none. When you arise in the morning give thanks for the food and for the joy of living. If you see no reason for giving thanks, the fault lies only in yourself. Abuse no one and no thing, for abuse turns the wise ones to fools and robs the spirit of its vision. When it comes your time to die, be not like those whose hearts are filled with the fear of death, so that when their time comes they weep and pray for a little more time to live their lives over again in a different way. Sing your death song and die like a hero going home."

    – Chief Tecumseh, Shawnee Nation

  • Ship of Theseus||

    Don't tell Ron Bailey. He'll try to explain that if your father had just lasted a little longer, he'd be able to live forever by taking advantage of new technologies. Science!

  • DiegoF||

    Congratulations to Papa Tuccille on a life well lived!

  • John||

    Very sorry about your father. But he did live a good life it seems.

  • Treyeshua||

    Death is to be embraced, as, for many, it is the door to eternal life. But you may know that you have eternal life, now.
    You are a part of the technology that some call God. He is in you, and you are in Him.

    Just like electromagnetic radiation, God is invisible, but very real. He is the wind, the atmosphere in which we live and move and have our being. Every breath is a breath of Him.

    What religious people call "spirits" are really just oxygen atoms. When people die, they have been proven to lose several ounces, after exhaling the last of these oxygen atoms. These atoms still contain your essence, and are now, "free spirits", in the atmosphere that is God.

    And one day, possibly using DNA technology, a super clone of you will be created by tracing back the dead from the living, this is why the Church of Jesus Christ, of Latter-day Saints, does family history, whether they know it themselves or not. And when your super cloned, immortal body comes to life, your spirit will find it and reinhabit and you will live and rule and reign again in your world, right here on Earth!

  • loveconstitution1789||

    Every life carries with it a death sentence.

  • Sonny Bono's Ghost||

    Statistically speaking, the vast majority of people are dead.
    You can't buck that steep of a curve.

  • Michael Cook||

    My father died quite unexpectedly on the very last day that his million-dollar life insurance policy was in force. He hadn't made the last payment and it really was down to a matter of hours before the contracted expired.

    He went to work that morning, then began feeling severe pain in his back. A little after noon he was pronounced. The doctors declared natural causes but mother was so concerned that she would be accused of poisoning him she paid out of pocket for a complete autopsy. It was a renal aneurysm. He was 62, no signs of cancer or heart disease.

  • ||

    You can take my life out of my cold dead fingers!

  • Sonny Bono's Ghost||

    Drink to the dead all you still alive
    We shall join them in good time
    Should you go crossin' that silvery brook
    It's best to leap before you look

  • ||

    If the thought of your ultimate death disturbs you, examine your life.

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