The American Way of Death

December 20, 2009 at 9:57 am | Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment
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Keith and I got up very early last Tuesday morning (December 15) and drove down 95 past Philly to Media, PA, for my mother’s funeral. I had already gone down on Sunday to see her, but it was good to be with friends and relatives to tell Mom good-bye one last time.
I think maybe there were fifty people there, which was about forty more than I anticipated. The last living relative of Mom’s generation, her first cousin Howard Turner, whom we had been unable to locate, actually saw the death notice in the Delaware County Daily Times and came (in case you have ever wondered , as I have, what purpose is served by death notices). Three of the four grandkids were there; Emms flew in on the red-eye from San Francisco. And one of my father’s great nieces, Jan, brought her year old baby, making for quite an extended genealogy.
I was also  astonished to see Veronica Barbato and her sister Til Mack; Veronica introduced me to the Grail by giving a talk at my high school in 1965 and we hadn’t the faintest notion how long it had been since we’d last seen each other. My Baptist husband led the service for my Episcopalian mother in a room full of Philadelphia Catholics and former Catholics. There were lots of poinsettia.  

Grateful as I was for all this love and support, burying my mother brought home to me again the utter weirdness of the American way of death (Somebody–Jessica Mitford?–wrote a book with a title close to this decades ago and probably said much of what I am about to say, but I was young then and had no interest in such things!) My parents had gone into a “retirement community” fifteen years ago, in large part because my father had had several small strokes. Riddle Village is a “continuous care” community, which means you pay a lump sum up front and then they take care of you for life, moving you from independent living to assisted living to skilled nursing as the need emerged. My parents would have gone bankrupt if they’d had to pay retail for the two years my father spent in the nursing home at Riddle as a result of the big stroke he did in fact have six months after they moved there. And the place was pretty good for Mom as long as she continued in independent living. She made a lot of friends, took painting and writing classes, baked cookies for the grandkids in her kitchen, drove herself to church and to visit relatives. 

“Continuous care” is something of an overstatement, though. I decided that it was more like three ways of life separated in each case by the Grand Canyon. My mother began taking falls in her independent living apartment, but nobody notified my brother and me about them because there’s some law against violating the privacy of the residents (FITO? PICO?). The fact that it didn’t occur to the staff to offer my mother the option of signing a waiver of this dubious form of privacy, tells you a lot about the whole operation.

And this was a sign of things to come. The care from then on was well-intentioned but modest at best.We ended up hiring an aide from the outside, Christine, to come in several hours a day to supplement the care my mother was getting. We were lucky we could afford it. Very often when I came to visit, there was a member of the nursing staff sitting in the hall outside my mother’s room playing a hand-held computer game.

But what struck me most forcibly were the circumstances around my mother’s actual death. She died in the early hours of December 15. Riddle telephoned my brother immediately, around 3 AM as well they should have. But a major reason for the call was to tell my brother that he had to get out to Riddle and deal with the body and get my mother’s room cleaned out. I would really have liked to see my mother one last time in her room, surrounded by her pictures and things. But there was no question of this. It would take too long for me to get there from Brooklyn. In her ethnography of religious life in Congo, Sister Joan Burke reports that when someone in a Congolese village dies, the family puts the body outside their dwelling so  people sit around and grieve with them. My mother had been at Riddle Village fifteen years, but that body had to get out of there pronto. Two people from Riddle came to the viewing that preceded the funeral. I know from experience that a proper and hygienic picture of my mother with a notice of her death…oops–of her “passing”–will be set up on  a table in the common area at Riddle. God forbid that anybody in that “continuous care” community should have to look at the dead body of a member of that community. Or consider for more than a moment, as they walk by, that they’ll be getting wheeled out of their room pronto too before long.  


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  1. I found your blog on google and read a few of your other posts. I just added you to my Google News Reader. Keep up the fantastic work Look forward to reading more from you in the future.


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