Reflections on death: A letter about compassion

This is a letter I wrote that I intended to send out to local funeral homes essentially as a cold contact cover letter but I doubted my decision and I’m sitting on it. The letter is edited slightly and does not include the introduction which is specific to the funeral home. It is a short reflection on death and compassion through selected stories I wanted to share. I want to help start a discussion we all need to have but might feel uncomfortable to face. My hope is that we, as a culture, can change our attitudes about death. Instead of considering it a morbid, edgy, or depressive subject I want to shape a discussion that is honest, thoughtful, and considerate to the needs and desires of us future decedents. If you want to learn more about the good death, check out The Order of the Good Death.

Growing up, my mother and I would visit the Lexington Cemetery as other families might stroll around Veterans Park or the Arboretum. Sometimes we would visit family there but many times we simply came to enjoy the peace and sit by the side of the pond gazing at ducks bobbing for fish. I would spend hours reading the names off headstones and wondering about each person and their life.

One year I went alone after Valentine’s Day with some roses for my great aunt’s grave. I ended up not finding my way to the plot but I was determined that someone would get nice flowers. Wondering around I noticed some rather old markers broken down by the elements over the years. I could barely read them. No one seemed to be tending to them. How long have they laid, unnoticed? I divided my roses and set them upon a small row of these markers.

As an undergraduate, I was privileged to join one of my peers in a tour of Bellarmine University’s anatomy lab. Well, “tour” is not the right word. It was a guided visit to where the university housed the donated cadavers participating in human anatomy courses. Before we entered the facility, our group sat through a thorough presentation and discussion of what we prepared to see. At that point, my only experience with decedents had been open casket funerals. They fascinated me but I kept my space. What would it be like to see someone who wasn’t prepared for viewing in the careful, ritualistic, and sterile type of setting I knew? I was nervous. There was a distinct air of solemnity as we held our breath going in. Not because we had some fear of contaminants but because we had approached the unknown. It was the chance of a life time. We put on our gloves and masks as the professors directed us. Most of what they said I do not remember. What I do remember is how I felt. I was in awe of the human body and humbled by the gift the decedents had given us. To see and learn and feel life and death. I will never forget how special that day was.

As an adult, death is never far. The day after I visited the anatomy lab I drove back to Lexington to attend by uncle’s funeral. He was 38. I have held my grandmother through her sobbing at her twin’s funeral. More recently, I had a coworker pass away suddenly this year. I miss him a lot. Sometimes when I drive to my mother-in-law’s house there is a car parked on a nearby street that looks just like his spotless old red Jaguar. Moments like this make it feel like grief never left but went into hiding and decided one day, enough was enough, and it popped out to surprise me.

This is my experience with death. It is always the living who have to deal with the consequences, of course. But I also believe in a deep spiritual need to take care of the dead. I believe that most of us could heal better after the death of a loved one if we can participate directly in funeral rituals and preparation. Some people have such an aversion or traumatic past experiences that they cannot do this and that is okay too. It would be an honor for me to be able to be that person who could step in to take care of your loved one in your time of need. To this end, I have written to you today to ask you to consider me for future openings that you find appropriate.

…And the letter is more or less finished. What do you think? Would this be completely weird to send out? Or is it a letter a funeral director would be delighted to read? I can’t make up my mind.

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