In the 21st century, it’s safe to say that we have a very limited interaction with the dead. This is a recent development. If we can take a moment to reflect on the history of humanity, we will recognize that our current relationship with death is more distant than ever. We are not expected to cleanse the remains of our loved ones, nor will we ever feel the anxiety of seeing their flesh stiffen and leak before they go in the ground. Our modern relationship with death is sterile; it is sanitary but also lacking in the messiness that would indicate any kind of grief or closure. Contemporary mourning is a short and private period after which we are expected to return to our lives in a way that does not burden those around us. It is contained safely within the confines of our private spaces.
Despite our cultural inclination to deny death, death is unavoidable. As one of two natural events that happen to all living beings, it is only doing us a disservice to skirt the issue and continue to push it away until we’ve quarantined death into some kind of bizarre alternate universe. Let me explain. It’s early March in 2012, and I am seeking out the shortest line in my preferred grocery store. I am slowly moving down the lines, and I choose an aisle. I am placing my items on the conveyer belt, and I am casually perusing the offensive headlines of the publications in front of me. My eyes meet the National Enquirer and I see a pixelated Whitney Houston: “WHITNEY: THE LAST PHOTO. Inside her private viewing.”