Laughing -- Or At Least Smiling -- in the Face of Death

It takes a lot of cognitive dissonance to get through this life knowing that sooner or later it’s going to end. We have to accept the grim inevitability of death every time we lose someone close to us. The loss is real and painful and a discomfiting reminder that the same thing awaits us, and it might even happen before tomorrow's sunrise. Then we have to turn around and deny everything we've just experienced so we can simply get out of bed the next day and get on with what’s left of our own lives.

I’ve been pondering this irony since I was 17, when one of my aunts died of a brain tumor at the age of 47. She had an open-coffin funeral, and I remember being greatly impressed at first by the undertaker’s handiwork. At a distance, she didn’t appear to be dead. She seemed to have chosen a very odd place to take a nap.

But when I got closer, the artificiality of her appearance became apparent. I remember thinking that there was something strange about her lying in a coffin looking as though she’d fallen asleep with way too much makeup on.

A few years later I saw death without the cosmetics and preservatives when I witnessed an autopsy as an Army medic while I was going to school at a Navy hospital in Virginia. A Navy chief petty officer had gotten up and gone to work like he’d done every day for 30 years, and then dropped dead of a massive stroke.

The pathologist opened up the man’s chest cavity. Then he picked up a scalpel and started carefully scrutinizing tiny slices of the dead man's heart for signs of what had caused the stroke. I was watching this with other medics as part of our training. The pathologist told us to step closer so we could see what he was doing.

None of the medics moved a muscle. “That’s OK,” I said. “We can see just fine from here.”

The pathologist, bent over the corpse with his scalpel poised in mid-air, peered up at us, an expression of obvious disappointment and mild disgust on his face. “This isn’t a pretty process,” he said. “You’ll have to get used to that.”

I forced myself, with the other medics, to step closer and examine the heart that had been precisely sliced into onionskin-thin layers. He was absolutely right. The details of death aren't pretty.

When we broke for lunch and went to the mess hall, they were serving thinly sliced roast beef. Days would pass before I could eat meat again.

A few years later, when I was a student at the University of North Carolina, I worked as a pharmacy technician at North Carolina Memorial Hospital. One morning I was delivering drugs to a ward when I heard a nurse shout from behind a closed door, “I don’t care who you get! Get somebody! Get anybody!”

A nurse stepped into the hallway, looked around hastily, and saw me wearing the white jacket that identified me as a member of the hospital staff. She pointed at me and motioned for me to follow her.

I stepped into the room and saw two other nurses standing over a huge woman sitting in a wheelchair. She was going into cardiac arrest, and the nurses had to get her out of the wheelchair to perform CPR. The four of us struggled to lift her onto the bed. But the dying woman weighed almost 400 pounds. I tried to help lift her but she started slipping from my grasp, so I slid my knee beneath her buttocks to keep from dropping her. I felt something warm and damp on my knee.

Then the door flew open and the hospital’s cardiac arrest response team burst into the room. Someone shouted, “Put her on the floor!” And then a huge epinephrine syringe and defibrillator paddles appeared. The room was now filled with people shouting and gesturing at each other as they began a dramatic and highly choreographed exercise in futility. I figured they didn’t need me any longer so I slipped quietly out of the room.

Several minutes later I discovered a small, damp, brown spot on my left knee. I realized that the woman had died when I’d slid my knee under her to keep from dropping her, and at that moment her bowel had emptied.

After I finished UNC I got a job in Georgia covering the cop beat for the Macon Telegraph. I became part of a small, select group that assembled when someone died suddenly and violently. This group included paramedics, police officers, the county coroner, firefighters, and TV news crews frantically looking for blood or flames to film.

Eventually the cops recognized me and casually waved me past police lines. There, with other members of this select group, I'd examine the grim tableau spread before us and sometimes exchange knowing glances with the cops or the coroner.

I was seen regularly on the local news. Although I had nothing to do with the TV news crews, they seemed to think I looked like a cop beat reporter. So they'd film me interviewing a cop and scribbling in my notebook with flames or twisted metal or inner-city squalor in the background. The footage would be shown on the 11 o'clock news while the TV anchor did a sonorous voiceover about that day’s tale of tragic irony.

I started seeing death as a sad circus. It was the only way I could keep myself sane. Sometimes I hated having to immerse myself in this circus and write about it. Sometimes I loved it with a passion that disturbs me now to recall.

Part of me got tougher and my sense of humor developed a dark edge. But another part of me freaked out.

Sometimes when people seemed to be dying on my beat every day I thought I’d scream if I was forced to look at one more stiff. Sometimes after my shift ended at midnight, I’d sit up wide awake until dawn because I couldn’t scrub a gruesome image from my mind.

The angst faded some when I started covering politics, but some of the memories from those cop beat days still haunt me -- a sobbing, grief-stricken mother kneeling over the body of her toddler son who’d been hit by a drunk driver; a mangled farmer who'd fallen off his tractor and been run over by his own plow; paramedics picking up body parts off the pavement at the scene of a spectacular car crash.

As I got older, I realized that my experiences with death had separated me from the masses. Not everyone had seen a body dissected on an autopsy table, or had someone die in their arms, or had to witness and write about a mother’s grief. I believed that my experiences with death had taught me something about life that others didn’t know, but I didn’t know how to convey this knowledge and I realized that not many people cared to know such things. I felt alienated.

When my wife and I lived in South Florida in the 1990s, we spent a lot of time in Key West, a city that has an innate understanding of the incongruities and inconveniences of life. Key West’s dark, wonderful sense of humor is reflected in the city’s cemetery. For a century or more, people buried there have thumbed their noses at the Grim Reaper with hilarious epitaphs.

A man who died long ago took a posthumous dig at his doubting friends with the inscription, “I told you I was sick.” A wife weary of her late husband’s constant philandering had his tombstone inscribed: “At least I know where you’re sleeping tonight.”

I realized that humor was the best way -- the only way -- to deal with the knowledge of my own mortality. So I wracked my brain for a quip to sum up my own sense of alienation and acceptance of the inevitability of death in a funny, one-line epitaph.

A few years ago, it came to me. I told my wife, half-joking and half seriously, that I wanted this line inscribed on my tombstone:

"Finally, I’m part of the majority.”

The image at the top of this post is a painting titled "Vanitas," by Philippe de Champaigne, a Flemish-born painter who died in 1674.