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The Dead-Honest Truth from a Life Spent with Death
By June Knights Nadle
New World LibraryCopyright © 2006 June Knights Nadle
All rights reserved.
Acknowledging the Inevitable
I was born and raised in southeastern Idaho on a small farm. We grew potatoes in the valley and Dad raised sheep in the mountains of Wyoming.
I used to hang around the lambing corrals while my father and the other men worked. When a mother ewe is ready to "drop," or give birth, she is placed in a small pen so that she and her new offspring can be observed. If the birth goes well and mother and baby have no trouble bonding (every now and then, a free-spirited ewe decides she'd rather not be bothered by the trials of motherhood and rejects her lamb), the pair is moved to a pen with ten others, where they spend a few days getting used to being with other sheep. At that point they join a larger group of fifty or so ewes. This happens again and again until a herd of some one thousand ewes has been assembled and is ready to hit the open range.
Rejected or orphaned lambs are known as "bum lambs" and my younger brother, Rex, and I raised around fifty of them each year. We used large root beer bottles full of milk with oversized nipples we purchased at the drug store for a nickel. The lambs were an ambitious lot. They often knocked us down in a mad dash for their food. We soon learned to put the nipple through the wire fence, but it was difficult to take the bottle from one lamb and give it to another. The chronically famished little creatures climbed over and under each other in their battle to be the first to latch onto the nipple. They never seemed to have enough milk even though their bellies bulged.
I discovered one year that it wasn't wise to make pets of them. Although my name is not Mary, I had a little lamb that followed me everywhere I went. I loved her and she loved ice cream, so every day I shared my ice cream with her. Then came August and it was time for her to be sold off to become someone's dinner. As she was loaded on a freight car headed for Chicago, I couldn't help but think about how the ice cream I'd fed her had prepared her all-too-well for the market.
Farm life teaches you a lot about the realities of life and death. When I was nine years old, I had a tortoiseshell cat named Tabby who brought many lessons into my life. Tortoiseshells are always female and usually mild mannered. Their fur is patterned with small patches of brown, orange, black, and gray. Every night at bedtime, Tabby would push open the screen of my bedroom window, crawl under the covers, put her head next to mine on the pillow, and purr me to sleep. She exited the same way every morning when she heard my parents stirring downstairs, as if she knew they disapproved of farm animals in the house.
At some point Tabby became pregnant, and near her delivery time she settled into a clean corner of our coal shed. I put pieces of old blankets down for her bed. When she didn't appear for breakfast one day, I went to her bed and found her in the throes of labor. Her whole body seemed to spasm with each labor pain, and she reached for my hand with her paw. I sat by Tabby until the afternoon, but still she had not produced a kitten. She would grasp my hand with her bare claws as the pains came. I summoned Mother and she applied gentle pressure in two or three places before announcing that a kitten was coming breech. She told me I could very gently and slowly pull on the end of the kitten to help Tabby. Then Mom returned to the house.
I eased the birth by pulling gently on the kitten's tail, and when it finally came out it was obviously stillborn. In a few minutes a live kitten came and I helped to clean it up with a piece of toweling. Then a deformed kitten presented itself and breathed only a minute or so before dying. All of this birth and death happened in a few minutes. There was little need for the birds-and-bees lecture for those of us raised around animals.
After that Tabby and I had two wonderful years together, during which she was playful and cuddly. Then she started to lose her appetite and sleep a lot. Her loss of weight was noticeable, but on the farm no one ever thought of a veterinarian for any animal except horses and cows. Small animals that became ill or maimed were usually shot. It was neither cruel nor kind. It just was. Still, I asked Dad not to shoot Tabby when she became obviously too ill to recover. He agreed and I held her while she died. Yes, my heart was broken, but Dad helped me bury her.
While I was sad at losing my pet, I was grateful I could care for her and hold her to the end. That way, I didn't have to wonder about how she died. I didn't need to worry that another animal had disturbed her. I knew she had comfort from being in my arms. I felt a peace in my own mind by staying. Years later when I was with my husband in his passing, that same peace came to me.
In living around animals, death is always a possibility. My dad took me to the pasture after a big lightning storm. Lightning had killed two cows and a calf. Dad showed me the jagged lines of burned grass and torn sod next to the bodies. Another time, I was with my older brother in the mountains when he shot and killed a sleek, fat mountain lion. The lion was beautiful, but it had acquired its fat by killing and eating our sheep. Our sheep represented our livelihood. The lion had to go. Nature seemed pretty cruel sometimes, but seeing these deaths taught me that it was an inescapable and inevitable thing about life.
Sometimes, people in my life died, too. When my grandfather passed away, his body was returned to his home to stay for a twenty-four-hour period — something very common in those days. I watched through the banister of the stairway as the grown-ups talked and even sang as they sat in a semicircle around the casket all through the night. The reality of death was indelibly etched on my mind. It was a very real, very conscious part of my life.
I do not remember that my parents ever made a point of teaching me specifically about death. They simply took my hand and led me to any occasion that involved our family. Times were different four generations ago. Our relatives lived near us and we gathered frequently. Just as the corporations have taken over many mom-and-pop mortuaries, so too have the conglomerates taken over farms, so few children have the same learning opportunities I did.
In the process of writing this book, I handed a copy of the stories I had assembled to a friend who has three teenage daughters. After reading the manuscript, she asked her husband to read it. Then they gave the stories to their daughters. After that, they sat down and talked about the stories and their own ideas about death and funerals. They invited me to dinner to thank me for raising their awareness and giving them the chance to change some of their actions and attitudes. They said the stories helped them start to see death as a very natural life experience.
I do not remember any time that death seemed strange to me. I do not have any recollection of being afraid of it. It just was. However, when I decided on a career in the death care industry, it was the service aspect of it that appealed to me. I had watched the funeral directors at work and they always appeared to be helping people. I liked offering support to families in need. It's my hope that I can offer a similar kind of help by sharing these stories with you.
The Spitfire Who Planned Her Own Funeral
I met Lucy when I joined a study group for seniors. Lucy was in her mid-seventies. She had white wavy hair and hardly a wrinkle in her face, and her sense of humor made me like her immediately. As we became acquainted she confessed that her newest friend was a funeral director named Wally, whom she met when she went to the local funeral home to talk about arrangements for her own funeral and burial. The experience she described was fun and funny.
She picked out her casket and gave him a suggested order of service, which was to be held in the mortuary chapel. She wanted everyone who came to have a good time. Only laughter would be allowed and her four sons and four grandchildren were to present the program. Her funeral was to be a celebration. She planned to be interred in the grave next to her husband in the local cemetery.
When they were finished making arrangements, she told Wally she admired his neat comb-over. Then she paid him and promised to bring her burial clothing the next week to be placed in their "future" closet — just as soon as she found the brightest red dress in town.
During the next two years that I knew her, Lucy just enjoyed life. Then everything changed when she fell down four steps at the entrance to her home. Her left ankle was badly fractured and the following morning she had surgery, during which pins were placed to bring four fractured pieces of bone together. The pain was severe.
A mutual friend and I visited with her in the hospital later. Her usual sense of humor presided in spite of her discomfort. She said she had thought about dying, the pros and cons. If she died the pain would stop, but she had a closet full of beautiful clothes that were hardly worn — and now the only place she could wear them was to church.
If she died she would get to see her "ever lovin'" husband, but she'd have to leave her four wonderful sons and her cute grandchildren. Lucy reminded us that her funeral arrangements were in order and said she had called Wally to tell him she might get "carried away" by him in the near future. She was amused at her joke. Wally was not as amused, because he knew that he was about to lose a good friend.
When her sons came to visit her, Lucy had them put her in a wheelchair and take her to the mortuary. She wanted them to approve of her casket selection and review the order of service with her. After making some minor changes in the program since the grandchildren were older, she showed her sons her red dress. They asked her if she wanted to add white doves flying away, fireworks bursting in the air, balloons sailing into the sky, or all of the above. They had inherited her gene for humor, evidently.
While they were there Wally told Lucy's sons about the humorous birthday card she'd sent to him, and about how she'd given him a calendar with beautiful pictures of dogs for Christmas last year. She knew he and his family loved their two Jack Russell terriers. He teased Lucy, saying that he had developed a fondness for these remembrances and that she had to hang around so she could keep sending them. He added that many of his clients never wanted to see him again for some strange reason, and that meant that he needed those who liked him to stay for as long as possible.
Not long after Lucy came home from the hospital, our study group visited her. She stayed on her daybed the whole time, and before we left, she showed us a new lump about the size of a marble on the shinbone of her left leg. It was not painful, but Lucy decided to undergo tests to investigate it.
Two weeks later, my friend called to tell me that the results of Lucy's tests had come back. The verdict was bone cancer and it had spread beyond the leg. The doctors offered her a choice of treatments, but after thinking about it she decided to simply go into hospice and check out. The ankle had been a substantial trial, and she was having problems getting back on that leg. She had done everything in her life that was important to her. Sure, she would love to spend more time with her grandchildren, but she missed her husband more and more. She declared she had had a wonderful life and a great family, and she'd loved her many years of teaching school. It was time to move on.
We went to visit Lucy when she was in hospice at her home. She was free of pain and relaxed as we talked. One of her sons had come with his family to stay. He, too, was a schoolteacher and it was summer vacation, so it was fortunate he had the time to be with his mother. Music came from downstairs. She explained that her grandchildren were practicing a piece for her funeral. The two boys and two girls were accomplished on piano, violin, flute, and cello. She remarked how much she enjoyed listening to them. As we prepared to leave she declared that when she met God, she planned to ask why her husband didn't have to give birth to at least one of their four babies; she said once she got an answer to that, she planned to find her husband, go with him to an isolated cloud, and make joyful sounds.
Two weeks later, Lucy died. We went to the mortuary for the funeral with anticipation, knowing this one would be different. Lucy had been vocal that everyone attending should laugh and have a good time. She set the tone with that gorgeous red dress in the light-colored oak casket.
Wally was there to oversee each of Lucy's requests. The order of service was as she requested. Her oldest son officiated, her youngest gave the eulogy, and her grandchildren played a medley of hymns. They all told stories about growing up with her. Her second son shared a story about the time he and his older brother had gotten into mischief: They were sixteen and fourteen that summer, when they decided to cut up a watermelon, gather fresh peach and pear leftovers from canning, and pick and chop some fresh grapes. Into this mixture they added a couple of cakes of yeast plus sugar from their mother's cupboard, and they threw in some grains of barley just in case. Combining all of this in a ten-gallon bucket with water, they let the mixture sit in the hot dog days of August until the froth on top was well established. Then they slopped the bubbling mixture into the trough for the pigs. Being pigs, the animals noisily smacked it down.
The parents and a farm worker became alarmed when they saw the pigs staggering and falling, rolling in the mud, and making strange sounds. The father didn't need much time to look around for evidence and he smelled some of it in the pig trough. Having had considerable experience raising boys, he asked the necessary questions and got the unnecessary answers. Lucy asked the boys if they were aware they could have killed the pigs. The reply was, "We drank some before we went to bed last night and we're OK today, Mom." Always able to see the humor in life, Lucy laughed at this, despite her disapproval of their prank.
At the conclusion of the service, we were invited to a catered lunch at a nearby church hall where we sat down for a visit with friends and good food plus more reminiscing. Wally joined in. What a way to go!
I remembered a Mark Twain saying, "Let us endeavor to so live that when we die even the undertaker will be sorry." I know there was more than one undertaker sad to see Lucy leave.
* * *
Thanks to Lucy's foresight and good humor, her family and friends were allowed to experience how death can be so wonderfully included in the process of living. When we embrace the reality of death and personalize our own experience of it, it allows us to transcend pathological anxieties of death that can be so destructive to living our own lives. There is nothing morbid about approaching our own inevitable deaths with this kind of honesty. Lucy's exceptional ability to move past denial helped ease the pain of her passing for her family and friends.
Every funeral gives us an opportunity to view the place of death in our own life. Observing these events reminds each of us in attendance of our own mortal natures. Our feelings and actions are measured and valued.
By talking about her passing, thinking about it, and acting on the reality of death in her future, Lucy provided her sons with coping mechanisms for what the future would assuredly bring. Her attitude was wholesome, not fearful or disturbing, and it was just one of her many gifts to her family.
The Mother Who Couldn't Let Go
My first husband and I were living in the San Fernando Valley in 1959. I had recently given birth to our third baby girl and was taking a maternity leave from the family-owned mortuary where I had worked since I graduated from The Cincinnati School of Mortuary Science in 1945. One night the phone rang it and it was Jim Morrison, a good friend who was also a mortician. He worked for a small competing mortuary located two miles from our home.
"June," he said anxiously, "I have a problem and I need help. I received a call to pick up the body of a six-month-old baby, but the mother won't let go of him. We've tried everything. The doctor was here for an hour, the priest arrived soon after it happened, her husband and her friend have tried every angle, but she just sits there clutching the baby and she won't let anyone come near them."
When I asked how the baby died, he said the baby had a bad cough the day before and started running a high temperature. Eventually the baby seemed to be struggling to breathe, so his parents called in the doctor. Seeing that the baby had stopped breathing completely, the physician performed a tracheotomy as soon as he got to the house, but the baby had already been dead too long for anything to help.
The physician determined that the cause of death was an inflamed epiglottis, a condition that primarily affects children.
Excerpted from Mortician Diaries by June Knights Nadle. Copyright © 2006 June Knights Nadle. Excerpted by permission of New World Library.
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