Filmmakers Mark & Angela Walley follow photographer Sarah Sudhoff as she makes pictures of the stains people leave behind when they die. While it may turn some off to hear Sudhoff say at the beginning of the piece that we should celebrate death as we celebrate life because it is just as natural a process, I think there is nonetheless value in questioning the ways we deal with death in our society(s).
What resonated most with me was when she talks about how the efficiency of removing evidence of a death leads to an absence of mourning. If you can’t sit with a body or even in the space where a person passed, it’s harder to feel the reality and weight of the death in an intimate way. And an intimate goodbye becomes much more difficult, much more intangible. Those feelings either have to manifest themselves when you are alone — or when you are surrounded by strangers at a funeral home. Anyone who has stood at the side of a casket in a funeral home knows that the person always looks surreal and oddly distorted with all the applied make up and embalming. It’s not the same person you knew, so you’re distracted from your goodbyes.
The same thing happens with a person’s space, their home. When I think of the efficiency with which my relatives and their well-intentioned church friends cleaned out and dispersed all of my grandmother’s belongings when she passed…when I think of it now, it takes my breath away. We were done in half a day, and it frustrated me then, but I didn’t know why. Now I think it was the combination of how quickly we were “dealing” with the logistics of her death and how one of the main themes of her service was that we would rejoin “Mama Chau” again in Heaven someday. (We won’t go into the disconnect of how a woman who grew up Taoist/Buddhist wound up with a church service.) It seemed to me to defer or preempt our mourning, and also the celebration of her life. Actually, it deferred my breakdown to 6 months later during the tail end of a business trip-turned-vacation halfway across the country, crying in a public park sitting alone between a gay wedding ceremony and the back entrance of a science museum. Still therapeutic, but awkward (and mildly boggling) timing and location-wise.
When there’s no closure to a relationship, you never know when it’s going to come back again to overwhelm, derail, or merely sidetrack you. I’m still “dealing with” important deaths in my life partly because I didn’t fully mourn or feel their reality back when they happened. Maybe I simply never said my goodbyes in real and intimate enough ways. Maybe that’s why it still feels so surreal so much of the time when I think about the fact that they’re all simply…gone.