Why? Of Death, Heterotopias, and the Camino

Holy Comforter Memorial Garden, August 2021

I continue to be enchanted, filled with wonder, above all, curious, about this whole thing of making pilgrimage to Santiago. Hardly a day goes by without thinking about it, taking steps, however small, in that direction, learning as much as I can about the pathways and how others have walked. Why? What is it about this possibility that draws me in and draws me onward? This week, another piece fell into place in a conversation I was a part of that had to do with grief.

I shared with others that one of the hardest things I do as a priest is accompany families to make arrangements for their dead at a funeral home. Sometimes it feels like my head will explode as I watch the well-oiled funeral business machine slip soundlessly into gear as we are seated at the table of a conference room way more about veneer than anything else. The funeral director uses every single last piece of hard-sale tactics known to humankind, it seems like. There’s a long, long, long and meandering conversation about options; I have never figured out how to intervene and try to cut it short. The lighting. and the appearance of opulence in the space where the conversation happens. The solicitousness of the sales person.  The music and video technology, both of which amplify genuine love and, even more, easily exploit sentimentality.

There is a mind numbing array of options (for the very modest sum of…) meant to ensure the “Celebration of Life” is as expensive as possible. (This new way of marking a death is described as a “party with a purpose” and touted as a more contemporary and with-it kind of event, in comparison to an old fashioned funeral. After all, who wants to appear to be a fuddy-duddy, stuffy old fogey in the midst of loss and grief, right?) Just the phrase, a beautifully meaningful expression of the gratitude we feel for one we “Love and see no longer” so easily becomes coy and manipulative when used to sell a bill of goods.

Nowadays, it is de rigueur to have a celebration of life with a theme. I have a grudging admiration for the ability to offer endless ‘extras’ to the theme package in order to kick the production that lies ahead to the highest notch possible—BAM! like Emirl would say… All the while, I watch people I know and love, often in shock, overwhelmed and exhausted, get handed one decision after another, until it is easier to say yes than try to think through what matters.  Before the visit, I try to alert the family to the sales tactics they can expect but in the crush of the moment, my words are often meager against the the relentlessness of the sales pitch.

Perhaps the most painful experience I’ve had with this dance of death occurred when a lovely woman in my parish, whose daughters lived out of town, died unexpectedly. The first daughter to arrive had been flying from Asia for almost 24 hours when we met at the funeral home. After an hour and half ‘visit’ with the funeral director assigned to work with her, he said, “there’s one last thing I need to ask you to do.” As the next of kin, it was this person’s job to identify the ‘deceased’ before her body was driven to another state to be cremated. That was not about sales; that was simply about complying with the laws and regulations of the industry.

The man, who I could only describe as unctuous, ushered us into another room where we waited and soon heard the clatter of wheels rolling down the hallway. Another door opened and a “rolling tray” was brought in; my parishioner’s earthly remains were placed right in front of us, starkly, utterly still, and lifeless. Her daughter had not seen her mom for several years. No number of theme-based layers of fluff and distraction could obscure the sharp and unyielding finality of this death. No wasting any time after that either; once her daughter had positively identified that body, the funeral director was eager to usher us out the door.

One of my brothers has a doctorate in semiotics, the study of the ways in which signs, symbols, experiences, are all used to “shape our perceptions of life and reality.” (José Ribas).  He is particularly interested in the notion of ‘heterotopias’—created realities that have as their purpose to maximize profits for others. A good example is Disney World with it’s Magic Kingdom “where you wish upon a star” and “dreams really do come true.”  More and more, I am convinced that heterotopia is the exactly correct word to describe what funeral preparation meetings are about in the funeral homes that are now part of a huge conglomerate that has a monopoly on funerals in this country.  There are layers upon layers of horror in this model—that Sunday afternoon when I sat with a person so exhausted it looked like she might pass out at any moment, I was aware of an edge of pressure in the voice of the funeral director. It probably had to do with the compensation structure of the conglomerate he is employed by. I imagine a good part of his pay is based on commissions, on how much of the experience he’s painted he is able to sell.

Having a daughter stare down at the unvarnished truth of her mother’s death after almost 2 hours of such a hard sell of a soft-edged, romanticized version of death, felt unspeakably cruel. This version of death peddled to an exhausted, grieving daughter, by one small cog of a machine  that treats death as a commodity to maximize profits, felt absolutely demonic to me.

In ways I’m still sorting out, walking the Way of St James is about the place and the meaning of death, of grief, in my life. When Dad died, I fortunately knew of a locally owned crematorium. This small business has no interest in doing more that completing the most basic services needed to lay my fathers ashes to rest. I also knew it was just the beginning of a journey that is both grief and celebration and as connected to our earthliness as the dust under a pilgrim’s feet as she or he walks to Santiago. If all goes as planned, I will arrive in Portugal on September 5th of next year, the anniversary of the day I officiated at my dad’s funeral.  

The journey will not be easy: walking 10-12 miles a day, fighting to not allow my feet to be blistered so badly I can’t take another step, the heat, rain and cold that will all be companions on the path. The places where I hope to lay my head at night, mainly public albuergues (hostels), don’t whitewash what it means to make this pilgrimage. I already read up on how you check for bedbugs in the common spaces you share for the night with up to 40 people. In a strange and grace-filled way, it is even those hard edges of the Camino that feel honest in the face of the unyielding truth of loss, sorrow and life that we must not treat as if expendable commodities.

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