Death’s Many Faces

My tears now come at unexpected times, like a rogue wave. I buried my mother on Nov. 10th. The funeral went well but I worried about my grandchildren—her great-grandchildren——ages 10-15, seeing an open coffin for the first time. They managed. The youngest even touched my mother’s stone cold forehead. One thing I can say, my mother looked peaceful. Since I’ve grown up seeing many dead bodies in coffins; (it was a family practice to go to every churchgoer’s funeral;) I’ve noticed how embalming has improved. She looked natural and for that I was thankful. It was still weird, seeing someone you love lying in a box that ends up underground.

The day after the funeral, I was reminded of other deaths. It was Nov. 11th, Remembrance Day, the day we remember all the men and women who fought and died so we could live in freedom. My mother’s death at 96 years was a natural death. The warriors, whom we remember on this day, died unnatural deaths—in explosions caused by bombs or grenades, by gunfire, bayonet or sword, or even chemical weaponry. It seems to me we also need to remember those who come back to us  with their spirits and bodies forever changed. Theirs is a death of spirit, a death of hope, and a death of comfort, and because of that, they can never fully return to the life they left when they went to war. I cannot imagine how they do it. My Uncle George, who fought in World War II and died in his 80s, did not pass one night without nightmares. My friend’s stepdad, who also fought against the Nazis, jumped every time he heard a noise.

Around this time, the new Call of Duty video game came out.  That, like other video war games, is full of animated faces of death.  Many veterans of real wars were upset with the timing of the release.  But they’re only games, right? Games that seduce the player and have him or her think they’re engaged in real combat. I sometimes wonder if these games are part of some seduction plot, luring young men to join the military, making them think they’ll somehow be the lucky ones, they’ll be the heroes, they’ll be the ones who will come home unharmed. I have trouble with games glorifying death and violence for the reason just stated, but here’s another opinion, one by Charlie Brooker in the U.K. Guardian newspaper .

It wasn’t that long ago that death’s face was more benign. I am old enough to remember western movies that showed people dying without obvious bloodshot wounds. When shot, they would keel over and fall off their horse, or off a rooftop on to the ground. Those films have since been criticized for inaccurate depictions of death. With time, the filmmakers who followed attempted to show the truth of those last hours. It became crazy violent with Bonnie and Clyde , Sam Peckinpaw\’s Straw Dogs and the trio of  Godfather films. And the next wave of directors pushed it even further.  More blood, more violence.  I recall being stunned when the audience laughed during a screening of Tarantino\’s Pulp Fiction. Men were being pulverized on the screen; I guess people thought those faces of death were funny.

Violence moved to TV with series like Sopranos and now Boardwalk Empire, where  grotesque executions show even more gore and gaping wounds. Have we become so anesthetised to violence that filmmakers think they have to go nuts to prove a point? I have to admit though, I’m fascinated by the Boardwalk Empire series, despite the graphic portrayals of violent deaths that cause me to turn away from the screen. The acting is superb, the art direction incredible, and the story intriguing. Still, I could do without the in-your-face sadism. I want to be protected from—in this case—death’s gruesome face.

My mother’s face, on the other hand, looked content in death, and therefore easy to view. My husband said she looked beautiful, dressed in a turquoise dress and matching head scarf she’d picked for her funeral. In the last year of life, she talked often of wanting to join my father, who’d died 25 years before.  She was 96, and though she’d hoped to reach 100,  life was no longer easy. When I called or visited, she’d say,  “Old Age is not happiness; Death isn’t a wedding,”  and then she’d laugh.  Perhaps she was at peace because her sense of humour had sustained her. I also like to think she died that way because she drew her last breath with her granddaughters holding her hands. A life well lived­­—through good times and bad. I can only hope for such a face at the end.



2 thoughts on “Death’s Many Faces

  1. Chethan

    My grand father’s mother is 102 years old now and she is counting her last days 🙁 It is really hard to see someone we love, going away, forever….. But Death is a bitter truth everyone should accept. Yesterday when I met her, she was still able to walk without any help. But she has gone very thin :/ She was happy to see me, in fact, very much happy ! I’m back home since I’ve Exams going through. Hope I could see her again, alive……

    1. Diana Stevan Post author

      Thank you for your thoughtful comments. How blessed you are to have your grandfather’s mother still in your life. I hope you have written down her stories, or someone in your family has. There are so many old ones amongst us who get forgotten in today’s technologically quick world. I remember my mother appreciating so much her great grandchildren singing to her over the phone. In fact, it was their voices she heard last before she passed away.

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