As much as we’ve all lost people we’ve loved, and no doubt expect to check out ourselves someday, it seems clear that people living in this early side of the 21st century can’t help but have a different relationship with death than generations that came before.
It just doesn’t loom like in generations past, and isn’t the constant companion they came to know.
At Sunrise Cemetery, there’s a stack of old documents, death certificates and other receipts from burials long past — all seven cemeteries in the district had their beginnings in the 1870s — that chronicle the details of these deaths, the mode of exit, the age of the victims and whatever other information that seemed pertinent.
Handwritten and often revised with scribbles and footnotes, the pages have turned brown over the decades, darker near the edges, and some remain stained with what I can only assume is the very grave dirt used to lay this person by and by.
Our clientele at the district these days are most often people at the end of their three score and ten years. They’ve had a chance to be young, have families, work at whatever career they may have had, love deeply or not, but on the whole live out the whole of their experience on Earth as best anyone can expect. As for what they may have made of their lives, who knows? There are as many stories as there are bodies to bury, and in the end, whose to say what amounts to a life well-lived?
People of previous generations, the documents show, often had short, brutish lives. Prior to medical modernity — by which I mean antibiotics, vaccinations, an understanding of how infection works, and the development of modern surgical techniques — people who grew sick or injured themselves often just died. A simple infection from a rusted nail could fester and rot, sicken the entire limb, and eventually make its foul route through the body’s systems to eventually shut the engine down. Family members, spouses, coworkers and friends could only watch in a kind of helpless horror as mortality again and again demonstrated implacable strength in the face of our primitive efforts to save lives.
Causes of death were varied, and even, at times, mundane: A woman who succumbed to a infection like the one mentioned above, or the woodsman who had his chest crushed by a rolling log while working a steep hillside with a saw. Premature deaths in the last part of the 19th century, occurred with regularity.
Chilren and babies were especially prone to illness, and it was a somewhat rare family that managed to get all its children raised to adulthood without losing one or several to the common diseases of the day, drowning, or some other seemingly innocuous cause that somehow we’ve addressed in the intervening years. They still happen, as tragedies abound in newspapers and online news outlets like the Lost Coast Outpost, but when they happen, they seem to get the attention they deserve as horrible exceptions to the general rule of safe living.
About a year after I graduated from college, I took a trip to Modesto, which the Faulk side of my family called home for the latter half of the 20th century. Some still do, in fact.
My purpose was to visit Grandma Kathy, my dad’s mother, and a loving, supportive presence in my earlier childhood. I often spent the weekend at her house, chumming around on bicycles with a family that lived across the street — the Padillas —and soaking up as much attention as I could.
I cherished those memories and knew that she was likely not long for this world. A lifetime of smoking Menthol 100 cigarettes one after another had wrought a flood zone of phlegm and blood that surged in her lungs whenever she drew breath. Every morning was a battle. The day of our visit, I arrived to catch her in the middle of one of these fits, when the emphysema that threatened to drown her creeped its way forward and she either had to swallow it back or hack it out to get through the day, to take another breath. That day, she ultimately cleared a shallow breathing space and sat down in front of her mirror to apply makeup as I asked her some questions about her life, our family, and whatever wisdom she might have for her youngest grandson.
I caught just over two hours on a microcassette that I’ve since lost. I retain some notes, and a fair recollection of the conversation, but the bulk is gone. Even typing these words stirs up a mud puddle of guilt, but overall that session reacquainted us after years apart and taught me several things I hadn’t known about Grandma.
Death plagued her in youth, taking several vital family members away from her early and forcing her to accept adult responsibilities long before she should have. Both her parents died quite young, and she was raised by an aunt and uncle during The Depression, working in a restaurant they owned and somehow managed to keep afloat despite the exodus of families all around. From the southeastern side of Oklahoma, they were caught up in the climate catastrophe and drought that destroyed the economy throughout the state. She eventually connected with my grandfather and fled west with the tide of people seeking hope in new geography. It took them two years to make the trip to California, with a long layover in Arizona, where my grandpa found some work. They settled in Greyson, Calif., south of Modesto, in 1937 or so, picking fruit like one of Steinbeck’s archetypes until grandpa caught on with a local road crew and they were finally able to set down roots.
As she finished this part of her story that late morning, the heat was already unbearable for me, a Humboldt County resident then as now, and sweat pooled in droplets on her forehead as she applied thick layers of makeup. She painted over the deep and long cracks in her angled face until they faded enough to ease her sweet, lingering vanity. “Putting her face on,” was a daily ritual until the very end, and every session ended with a sweet pucker while she painted her lips with veined and unsteady hands.
As she added this last cosmetic detail, I asked her for clarification on one point: Her mother, Eva Glover, had died when Grandma Kathy was barely 10 or so years old, but on various occasions I’d heard different causes for that death. What’s the real story?
The question seemed to startle her, and for the first time that morning she seemed tired. I knew my time with her would be short if my questions continued to cause her anxiety, but this seemed vital somehow. I’d been told Eva Glover had died in a car crash, then later that she’d been bitten somehow, strangely, and after a long struggle, died from the bite.
After a ragged exhale that threatened to convulse into a coughing fit, she explained just how poor they’d been, and how at that point in her childhood, her father had already passed on. Eva, therefore, was raising four kids on her own as economic stagnation began to throttle the country, especially Oklahoma. Grandma described a meager existence heavily dependent on others, her family and charity wherever Eva could find it.
Then Eva got pregnant again. Somehow, someway, she’d been bit again, and the combined shame of having a child out of wedlock with hardly any means of support made the situation desperate. She sought help to end the pregnancy, and it was that toxic process — whatever it may have involved — that proved too much for my great grandmother. She succumbed to a “spider bite” abortion brought on by social and economic pressures much bigger than she, or anyone else at the time, could control.
We sat together around the kitchen table I remembered from toddlerhood, her face on now but also drawn, and tired. She carefully dabbed at the corner of her eyes to keep any stray tears from marring the whole. I asked if she wanted to keep on talking, and she did. For an hour more, we spoke of secrets and crimes, hard times and good, what she remembered and what she wanted to forget.
It occurs to me now, death as we know him is a more distant, unfamiliar visitor who often now saves his visits until people have had time in their lives to live, love, and make their way. And for the time being, women caught in that impossible collision between practical realities and the impossible expectations of someone else’s morality, have a choice. The choice.
It’s enough to keep me voting.
James Faulk is a writer, family man, and cemetery worker. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org