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Wednesday, September 8, 2010

More musings on my mortality

[Health Update: My symptoms are pretty constant/consistent since the first round of Taxol, with perhaps more fatigue and increased pain (I was on a steady diet of percocette until today) as well as increased neuropathy/numbness in my fingertips/first digit of my fingers and now my toes. All in all I'm OK, just looking forward to the last round of chemo and for this part of my treatment to be OVER!]

I know I've already pondered the meaning of my life and what I want my life to be about in a previous post, but I must confess (and again, let me reiterate that I am not depressed or overly anxious, at least not more anxious than I think anyone else going through chemo and about to have mastectomy surgery is) that I still think about these existential questions. But I also have been thinking about my death--or about death in general--and about how we memorialize those who die--and about what I want in particular for my own death.

I guess this is what I mean. I can't quite envision (and lets be honest, I don't really want to envision) my death. I hope it will be when I'm much older than I am now--it'd be nice for me to live until 80--twice my current lifespan--and honestly barring a recurrence of cancer or some tragic accident or other fatal illness, this should be possible since 3 of my 4 grandparents lived past 80--and my maternal grandmother is still doing very well at 97 (yes, quite incredible and noteworthy for a woman who has never had to be in a hospital aside from the births of her 9 children).

Yet regardless of how and when I die (and I hope it is painless--that's what we all want right?) I have already made certain decisions about my death--that I want to be cremated. And I want a memorial service where people don't just wear black (autumnal colors would be nice--they are cheerful and I always liked reds, golds, and oranges--anyone who has been in my house can readily see this). But the piece that eludes me is: how will I be remembered?

Because, in general, I think most folks hope that when they die, that they will have lived a full life and full life span (again, I'd vote for over 80), that their deaths will be free of pain and suffering, and that they will be missed and remembered with fondness.

It's that last part that I wonder about. I don't mean that I don't expect to be missed or remembered. But you have to wonder: for how long? Certainly for those who know us (or knew us) and who love(d) us, we would be missed and remembered for the lifespan of those folk. But beyond that? Is this why people chase after fame--so that they will be remembered? So that they will feel like their life has meant something? So that they will feel like they accomplished something significant if their name is on a building or if they invented something useful (or even not useful) or if they published a number of books, starred in several films, earned awards and accolades.

And maybe, on a more basic level, is this why we wish to be buried in graveyards with granite grave markers--to have a permanent record of our existence. That the basic facts of our lives--our names, our birthdates, the date of our passing, will be recorded in stone as a type of remembrance that we once were here. I think about this on my morning walk since one particular 1.5 mile route takes me past the Carrboro cemetery. I always slow down when I near the cemetery so that I can read the names on the markers. I have never seen anyone visit one of the graves, and I wonder whether many of them still have family in the area or whether they are the last of their family line. I wonder whether they picked out the marker that rests above them, whether they like the quote or the lack of saying, and whether they are remembered the way they want to be remembered, even if no one comes to visit any longer. Is it enough that random walkers, like myself, read their names and briefly hold them in their thoughts?

I am not someone who is free of ego, yet I know that I don't want a marker to commemorate my life. I'm also not trying to say that those of you who want a gravestone are ego-maniacs. I just mean that for myself, I think I'm OK without any plaque or urn or permanent commemoration. I suppose it will be up to whomever survives me to decide on the ashes -- where they get scattered (I'd like at least part of me to go back to California, f.y.i.) -- but the truth is, I'll be dead so really, I won't know the difference. And I suppose if it comforts someone to put up a marker or to have an urn with my ashes, then I'd respect that, even if it isn't what I want for myself. After all, I'd be dead and wouldn't know the difference (unless any of you are still around and want to chide my survivors about not honoring my last wishes).

How I am remembered though...I suppose that's related to my previous post in terms of how I want to live my life and what makes a "good" life--because I do want to live a good life and I hope (as many of us do) that when I die, I will have people who will be sad and who will mourn my passing--and that there will be people who will remember the good things that I did--the difference that my existence has made on this planet. But beyond the people who immediately know/knew me, I think I'm OK with being part of the obscure masses of the deceased who passed through this life whom no one can recall. It just seems too much to expect that I'm going to do something so memorable and earthshattering that my name (and deeds) will live on in valor/infamy (lets hope the former--it'd be awful to be remembered for all time because I did something horrific--YIKES).

And yet...there is this video from The New York Times describing a ceremony in central Madagascar that happens every 5-7 years in various family groups wherein the dead ancestors are exhumed and hundreds of their descendants dance with their bodies and tell stories of their lives and basically pay homage and celebrate the lives that they lived.

I know it seems creepy to our 21st century U.S./Western notions of death to imagine exhuming corpses and dancing with dead bodies. But I also think that there is something marvelous in not treating death (and dead bodies) with fear and trepidation--in making death be something that is more accepted and prosaic as well as special and celebratory. In Chinese tradition there is a day during the Chinese new year (and/or there is a Spring festival/holiday) where you visit the graves of your ancestors and place their favorite dishes on their tombstones. And in Confucian tradition it is common to have an altar with a photo of the deceased along with burning incense, significant momentos from their lives, and, again, food offerings.

And despite what I just wrote above, about not wanting a grave stone and being OK with being forgotten, there is a part of me that would like to be remembered through stories, like the people of Madagascar, with dancing and celebration, and with food tributes left at an altar. Especially the food--given my obsession with food and eating, food tributes by far seem the best way I could be remembered.


  1. Even writing about your mortality, I see your humor. BTW -- what is your all time favorite dish?

  2. Just checking in from the desk of a lowly doctoral student! Hope things are well. Looking forward to watching the slideshow/video when I have sound!