Though the jocular quip was well-worn, it was hugely popularized on Oct. 22, 2013, when Carb Dashian posted on Twitter, “Cremation is my last chance for a smokin’ hot body.”
Fifty years earlier, less than 4 percent of people in the United States opted for a “smokin’ body.” But by 2019, 54.6 percent chose cremation. It’s projected to rise to 79.1 by 2035.
British aristocrat Jessica Mitford had much to do with that increase. Jessica and husband Esmond Romilly (Winston Churchill’s nephew) emigrated to the U.S. in 1939. A journalist by trade, Jessica became fascinated by the “bizarre” ways Americans coped with mortality. So she wrote a book about it.
“The American Way of Death” was supposed to bomb. Instead, it was a bombshell sell-out on its first day and topped The New York Times bestseller list for almost a year. Mitford’s book “discussed the ‘death industry’s’ pressure tactics used on the bereaved” to increase their costs.
Her book dignified cremation and no-frills burials, which morticians dubbed the “Mitford service.” But she could take a joke — and crack a joke, even at her own expense. About her own death she chirped, “Goodness, I wish I could be there.” Mitford also broke through our cultural taboo of discussing death.
About 100 years ago, living and dying were done at home, and frequently generations lived together. Life-prolonging technology was largely nonexistent, and people died quickly. Death was normal, a familiar part of life. And that very familiarity engendered acceptance rather than denial of death.
Today, just 25 percent of people die in their homes. The dying is done largely in hospitals and in nursing homes — out of sight, out of mind and too scary to confront. So we suppress it. But it doesn’t go away.
Skidmore College psychology professor Sheldon Solomon’s book “The Worm at the Core” calls it the existential terror that “constantly lurks in the back of our minds.”
Solomon says much of our life is fashioned around ways to hold the idea of death at bay. We busy ourselves with distractions and seek immortality through promises of afterlife or reincarnation. Solomon labels his research into our death-denying mechanisms as “terror management theory,” or TMT.
TMT was, in turn, built on the work of cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker. Becker was posthumously awarded the 1974 Pulitzer Prize for his book, “The Denial of Death.” Becker wrote that while other animals deal only with survival, we humans are burdened with juggling life around an existential dread — the knowledge of The End. He called it the terrible price of consciousness, of self-awareness.
But Becker also saw our finiteness as a positive thing, the “mainspring of human activity.”
“The very fact of a checkout time facilitates achievements,” said Becker. After all, if we plan to fulfill objectives, we dare not tarry because, as we are unavoidably aware, our days are numbered. (If you’re wondering, in 2021, 28,835 days are deposited in the “time-bank” of newly born U.S. residents.)
Swiss psychiatrist Elizabeth Kübler-Ross worked with those who denied their full allotment of days. Kübler-Ross moved to the U.S. in 1958. Before her own check-out time, she was named by Time Magazine as one of the “100 Most Important Thinkers” of the 20th century.
What Kübler-Ross thought about was the callous way America’s hospitals dealt with dying patients. “Everything was huge and very depersonalized, very technical,” she told the BBC in an interview. “Patients who were terminally ill were literally left alone, nobody talked to them.”
So, Kübler-Ross talked with them, interviewed them. She said, “Terminally ill people can teach us everything — not just about dying, but about living.” Kübler-Ross found that dying persons encourage everybody to live life as fully as possible in the knowledge that their time is finite.
Two years before Kübler-Ross’s 2004 death, she gave an interview to The Arizona Republic. She said she was ready for death, calling God a “damned procrastinator.”
But her experience with the dying led to her best-selling book, “On Death and Dying.” It describes emotional stages many experience upon learning of their terminal condition: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and, finally, acceptance. But the true intent and import of her book was changing Western cultural resistance to dealing with death, and teaching us how to accept it.
Others have helped us along that road, including British physician Cicely Mary Saunders, who founded Hospice, now a world-wide movement of palliative care; Swiss sociologist Bernard Crettaz, who pioneered “Death Cafes,” social venues for discussing mortality over “tea and cake”; and American mortician Caitlin Doughty’s “The Order of the Good Death,” a “group of funeral industry professionals, academics, and artists exploring ways to prepare a death-phobic culture for inevitable mortality.”
In high school, my friend Barry told me he planned to become a mortician after graduation. “A mortician!” I exclaimed, “Why?”
Straightforwardly, Barry said, “I want to get rich.” Barry was light years ahead of me.
Michael Smith is a Southern Pines resident.