I believe our culture has become separated from the reality of death. Not too long ago in history, we saw young and old pass away in our homes, and disease ravaged families. But with technological improvements to medicine and health care, people expect to live longer and better lives. Now when someone is sick, we rush him or her to the hospital; this is where the terminally ill most often die. Have we reached a point where people die more often in or en route to a hospital than in their own homes?
I cannot help noticing that we are raising a generation so separated from death that they think meat comes from a wrapped Styrofoam tray and not from the body of a dead animal. I have tried to explain to my niece the connection between the cute deer nibbling on my garden (get out of there, you $#@%ing deer!) and the venison I cook up in a stew or roast. So far she hasn’t been able (or willing) to link the two. How many people would lose their lunch if they had to watch a cow being butchered, but have no problem ordering a rare steak for lunch?
I remember watching a four-part documentary on PBS about five years ago called “Death: The Trip of a Lifetime.” The host, Greg Palmer, discussed death and the various ways in which human cultures react to it. I’ll have to visit my local libraries and see if they have a copy of this series. It is well worth finding and watching if you want to explore some of the ways human beings deal with death. I must confess that President Reagan’s funeral had the proper combination of religion and military pomp to be a proper funeral service in my eyes. But I am a product of my Christian and military upbringing, so this is only to be expected.
If you haven’t guessed from the tone of this article, I’ve been dwelling on death and our reaction to it this week. Ever since I heard of the death of President Reagan and later the death of singer Ray Charles, the whole subject of death was almost impossible to avoid if you followed the news. People die every day, and while this is often a sorrowful event for the loved ones who remain, the media doesn’t dwell on these deaths as they do when someone famous dies.
I was glad to see that President Reagan’s casket was kept closed. Having died at the age of 93 after years of Alzheimer’s disease ravaging his body, President Reagan no longer looked the way I remembered him as he left office, and I would rather remember him as the vibrant leader than the stricken invalid. I agree with my wife that there seems to be something barbaric about an open-casket viewing. Back when it was difficult for medical science to prove that a person was dead, it made sense to lay out the body and watch over it for a while. The fear of being buried alive would prompt people to give their dearly departed the opportunity to change their minds. This reminds me of the movie Charade with Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn, specifically the scene of them sitting at her dead husband’s viewing. Several unsavory strangers approach the body to satisfy themselves that he is indeed dead. I remember one holds up a mirror to see if Mr. Lampert is breathing, while a second sticks him with a pin. I can’t remember exactly what the third guy does, but I’m thinking he throttles the corpse for a bit. Since my life is not a movie, I see no reason to have my body lie in repose so that my family (or readers) can get in their last few hits.
I was at work and missed some of the pomp and pageantry that surrounded President Reagan’s funeral throughout the week, but I watched the final sunset ceremony in California. I was touched by the comments from his children and the crisp performance of the military. As a former military brat, I found the military aspects of the funeral both familiar and touching. Specifically, as an Air Force brat, the missing-man maneuver always affects me strongly and will often bring a tear to my eye. I was pleased to see the U.S. Navy perform this maneuver flawlessly with a four-man flight of F-18 Hornets. My father has requested burial with full military honors as befits his career as an Air Force officer, but while he is important in my eyes, something tells me that I won’t see quite the level of pageantry at his funeral as we saw at President Reagan’s.
Matt Drudge reported on his website that a top Clinton source said, “President Clinton really held out all hope the funeral would be a nonpartisan event, like Nixon’s was. He’s angry and disappointed neither he nor President Carter have been asked to speak, as of yet.” Clinton insiders murmured that Nancy Reagan was responsible for the service in which the two former Presidents were not invited to participate, but I cannot fault her. It was, after all, the burial of her husband, and the two of them were well within their rights to decide and declare how the service would be carried out. This is only to be expected.
What I didn’t expect was the very different tone of the memorial service for Senator Paul Wellstone. The Democrat Senator from Minnesota died unexpectedly in a plane crash only days before the 2002 election. Presidents Clinton and Carter were not specifically asked to participate in President Reagan’s memorial, but they were invited to attend the service. In contrast, Vice-President Richard Cheney was specifically instructed not to attend Senator Wellstone’s memorial. When Democrats gathered in what I believe should have been a solemn assembly to pay homage to a man’s life, somehow the memorial became a rowdy political rally, complete with chants and cheers and a call to arms to march to the ballot box and vote. When fellow mourner Senator Trent Lott was shown on the large screens, the hall erupted in boos. Not what I would really call appropriate for a solemn occasion, but I suppose this was what the family and Democrat leaders wanted.
Frankly, I’d choose the solemn over the vulgar any day.