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Monday, February 22, 2010

The dead

After my Firefighting days were over, I went back to college. Every now and then I took a break from my heavy duty courses and would take what I called GPA helper -one of those courses I thought I could nap in and still get an "A." I signed up for a course called "Death and Dying." Since I saw a fair amount of death over the years, it seemed like a fairly easy course. I'd done the research, so to speak.

The thing that really shocked me what that most of my class had never seen a dead body. They'd never even gone to a relative's wake. Here they were, adults in their early 20's, and they'd never seen death. One girl's closest experience with death was the loss of her dog.

Death is not American. Our culture avoids death. We hide it in hospitals and nursing homes. It's kept away from the kiddies. Funeral homes take great pains to make the dead look not so dead. Some of those guys are artists, making someone better looking than they ever were in life. The somber men in black run things smoothly and well. It amazed me that so many young people haven't even seen this sanitized version of death.

Most of the rest of the world has a more realistic view of death. It happens. People die. Good people die. Bad people die. Everybody dies. It's real and has to be dealt with. It's not hidden away. My sister-in-law went to a funeral in Mexico. After the religious service, the funeral party, and the body, all grabbed the bus to the cemetery. The dead are up close and personal.

Early in the course the professor told the class to write about an experience they had with death. I wrote about one of my Firefighter experiences. Three people died in a fire. I found two of them that had died from smoke inhalation. I crawled through the burned remains of a third. He was so badly burned that in the dark smoky building, I didn't recognize it as a body. Took weeks to get the smell out of my turnout gear.

Then the professor had us switch papers with other students. I happened to switch with the girl who's worse death experience was the loss of her dog. She turned a bit green. I felt bad. As it turned out, there was only one other guy in the class who'd really seen dead people up close and personal. He was an EMT who occasionally assisted with autopsies. We swapped war storied until the professor made us stop.

We were professionals. Part of our job was to deal with dead people. Okay, fair enough. However, I'd seen dead people long before I was a Firefighter. As a little kid I went to wakes and funerals. My dad was once asked to look for a drowning victim. He took me along in the canoe and I was a preteen. We didn't find the body, but I saw it as it was pulled out of the river. I saw a guy die of a heart attack at a picnic when I was about 10.

Death is a part of life. I've sat with dying people until they were gone. It's a very human thing to do. Perhaps it eases their passing. As our country's economy become more like a third world country, we are going to have to deal with death like a third world country. More and more of us won't be able to afford the expensive professionals. Laws will have to change to deal with changing circumstances. Death will take place in the home rather than in a hospital. Who knows, maybe we'll have to prepare the bodies for burial ourselves. It's going to be a shock for those who've never seen death.

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