Caleb Wilde is a sixth-generation funeral director who wants to reacquaint us all with the uncomfortable, eye-opening realities of death. It’ll make us more human, he says. If it doesn’t kill him first.
By Eric Puchner
Photographs by Matt Eich
I was in the crematory with two fresh deliveries when my host, a mortician named Caleb Wilde, opened the bag containing one of the bodies and began to massage its chest. The body was the color of an uncooked hot dog. It was also obese, and rubbery, and had what I was slow to recognize as breasts. Caleb explained that he was feeling for a pacemaker. Pacemakers tend to explode at high temperatures, and any damage to one of the crematory’s quarter-million-dollar ovens would be on the Wilde Funeral Home. Even with the ovens set to “slow roast,” as the cremator put it, the buggers could go off.
Caleb stopped, massaged, then stopped again, as though he felt something under the skin. “Too big to be a morphine pump,” he said cheerfully. At 32 years old, fresh-faced and boyishly handsome, he looks less like an undertaker than like the member of an a cappella group. He strapped on some gloves and asked the cremator for a scalpel. It’s hard for me to describe what happened next. Do you know the scene in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, when the high priest reaches into the guy’s chest and pulls out his beating heart, all without a drip of blood? Imagine that, if the high priest had had the geniality of a plumber. Caleb slit open the dead woman’s chest and then wriggled his hand inside of it, rooting around for a while before pulling out something that looked like a metal lollipop. There was a blob of human flesh on his glove. The woman’s chest did not close up again but stayed open, gray and bloodless, I guess because it was dead. Caleb put the metal lollipop in a bag and threw it in the trash along with his glove.
“What was it?” I managed to ask. My legs were wobbly, and I’d come close to losing my lunch.
“Better safe than sorry,” the cremator said. “Don’t want to be putting the famous Wildes out of business.”
Caleb smiled. He was a tiny bit famous, as it turns out, and not just here in Parkesburg, Pennsylvania. He’s been featured on the national news. His blog, Confessions of a Funeral Director, gets 500,000 hits a month. This has partly to do with his irreverent sense of humor — he once tweeted, “I always tie the shoelaces together of the dead. Cause if there is ever a zombie apocalypse, it will be hilarious” — but mostly to do with his eloquent candor. In our culture of face-lifts and fountain-of-youth diets, he seems to have struck a nerve. It’s his self-professed mission to reacquaint us with the fact that we’re going to die, and that it’s most likely not going to be pretty. “The professionalization of death,” as he puts it in his funny and illuminating TED talk, “has left the rest of us death amateurs.” As you can imagine, this doesn’t sit too well with the average mortician, whose livelihood depends on this amateurism. Of course, Caleb is not your average mortician. He reads Kierkegaard and Grace Jantzen, the feminist theologian. There’s a bit of the philosopher-poet about him. He calls death a “sacred space where we can embrace the silence.” Perhaps there’s no greater freedom, he says on his website, than to live life with a healthy relationship to death. Before he buries us, he wants to make us more human.
Caleb covered the dead woman back up. “Big, but I don’t think she’s grease fire material.”
“Grease fire?” I asked.
“Have to be careful with the obese ones. They can start a fire in the retort and burn the place down.”
The cremator nodded. He was a buff, biker-esque dude — shaggy Vandyke beard, multiple tattoos on his neck — who looked like he could be supplying the place with bodies. In fact, he was a kindly docent. Earlier, he’d shown me the bucket filled with titanium rods and pins that had come out of the ovens — or “retorts,” as they call them in the industry. I’ve seen many depressing things in my life, including my father’s ashes, but this bucket of anonymous metal maybe takes the cake.
“Danger is they take all damn day to cook,” the cremator said, “and leak out on the floor.”
He watched me for a second to see how I’d react, his eyes sort of twinkling and abashed at the same time, as if he were asking me to dance. Before I could formulate a response, his attention had moved on to lunch.
“Have you tried them Pogs down in Coatesville?” he asked Caleb while they heaved the woman’s body off its gurney. “P-O-G-S. Hot dog wrapped in a slice of pizza. Best thing you’ll ever eat, I tell you.”
Until that moment at the crematory, I had never seen a dead body up close. I’d seen funeral pyres in India, and once a corpse bobbing facedown in the Ganges like a snorkeler. But I knew almost nothing about what happens to Americans after they’ve breathed their last. Astonishing, if you think about it: that a person could live half his life without coming face-to-face with the one thing that unites us all. And I don’t think I’m alone in this. My father, like many of his generation, was sent to a hospice to die, then whisked away to a secret place where he reemerged after a couple days as a heartbreaking bag of ashes. There was something tooth fairy-like — the unsightly thing vanishes, is transformed — about the whole business.
Of course, we like to keep our distance in this way, which is why we pay the death fairies to take care of it. Americans don’t like to talk about the inevitable: Our screens are filled with zombies, and yet speaking frankly about death is seen as “morbid” or “unhealthy.” Surely the recent Ebola panic is a product of this repression, a way of turning our own mortality into a foreign threat, an illegal immigrant landing on our shores. Death is embarrassing to us, even a bit unpatriotic. I’ve discovered this about my own fear of extinction. When I bring it up, people tend to shift in their chairs, as if holding in a fart. A look of impatience crosses their faces. Just as often, too, they can’t understand what the hell I’m talking about.
“Of course, I’m afraid of dying, too. I don’t want to suffer.”
“I’m not talking about dying,” I explain. “Dying only happens once. It doesn’t scare me at all.”
“What are you talking about then?”
“I’m talking about being dead.”
“But you won’t know you’re dead,” the person says. “You’ll be nothing.”
Not to be here/Not to be anywhere,/and soon; nothing more terrible, nothing more true. This is how Philip Larkin puts it in “Aubade,” his great, merciless poem about waking up at 4 a.m. and thinking about the nothingness that awaits. I read it for the first time in college, and it spoke to me so much that for a while I thought I wanted to move to England and lurk among my own kind. I had been waking at 4 a.m. in breathless terror since I was seven years old, when my mother finally got around to telling me, a late bloomer in the critical-thinking department, that there was no such thing as Santa Claus. We’d been talking about “white lies” at school, and so she found her opening. Immediately my personal Enlightenment began. If my parents had lied to me about Santa — who seemed suddenly, grotesquely preposterous to me — what other whoppers had they told? I lay in bed that evening and stared at the ceiling and imagined a party going on up there on top of the house, a wild rooftop rager hosted by Santa Claus: There was the Easter Bunny and Bigfoot and the leprechauns and Paul Bunyan and the centaurs and Zeus and the angels and the devil and God with his long white beard, and when I closed my eyes they were all gone and I felt a stillness in my heart like someone was holding it. There was a terror I’d never felt before, a feeling of cold, naked dread, as if my skin had blown open in a freezing wind.
I even came up with a word for this feeling: “fleshing.” I fleshed mostly at night, when the house was dark and tomblike, though occasionally the dread would surprise me in the classroom or the kitchen or the backseat of our Oldsmobile, and I’d have to pretend my chest hadn’t blown open and turned me to ice. Even now, at age 44, I’ve failed to outgrow it. I have done my best to be a good American, to immerse myself in the distractions of work and family — my “immortality projects,” as Ernest Becker puts it in The Denial of Death. I’ve tried other distractions too. I’ve drugged myself to sleep. I’ve endeavored, in my weakest moments, to believe in heaven — or at least some vague, harpless afterlife my brain won’t snicker at. But I’m still pretty much paralyzed with fear.
So when I had the opportunity to meet Caleb Wilde, some perverse part of me jumped at the chance. Here was someone whose whole world was death, 24 — 7, and yet he seemed to be doing okay. He wasn’t distracting himself — just the opposite. He worked with dead people and their grieving families all day and then blogged about it. On his days off, he was getting a graduate degree in something called Death, Religion, and Culture. He even claimed that Death was his “muse.” If someone was going to tell me how to look oblivion in the eye in order to make my peace with it, or at least stop being so fucking scared of the dark, here was the guy.
When I got to Parkesburg, a town of 3,637 people — all of whom would die someday — Caleb was waiting by a van, looking sprightly and well-dressed. Sartorially, he sticks out in Amish country by wearing neither black felt hats nor Peterbilt caps, but nicely tailored suits. He greeted me with a puckish smile. I liked him immediately, and I can’t a hundred percent explain why. He seemed bright and friendly and put-together, and there was a class-clown goofiness to him that was utterly at odds with his profession.
“Say hello to Mrs. McDonnell here,” he said, sliding the van open to reveal a corpse covered in a red blanket. (I’ve changed the name, for obvious reasons.) The corpse had a big belly. I didn’t say hello, but I did nod. It felt like the right thing to do. My main impression was of a faintly comic stillness. I don’t mean that it was funny, only that you expected Mrs. McDonnell to be there and she wasn’t. Later, Caleb would tell me that around the dead he felt “a void and a presence at the same time.”
We popped into the Wilde Funeral Home, an enormous brown Victorian that’s been in the family since 1928 and is one of the few businesses left on Main Street. Caleb has described the Wildes’ business, unironically, as the “civic heart of the community.” Caleb’s grandfather was born there, when the family lived upstairs, and he claims to have embalmed his first body at the age of six. Caleb himself grew up playing hide and seek among the caskets. There are paintings on the walls of old Parkesburg, back when it was a prosperous iron town, and statuettes of quails looking lost and homeless on the tables. In the office is a gallery of stone-faced Wildes, stretching all the way back to Caleb’s great-great-great grandfather, who established the family trade and — according to Wilde lore — sealed his fame in mortuary circles by preparing the body of Edward Gorsuch, the slave-owner killed in the Christiana riots. Even Caleb’s mother, incredibly, comes from a line of undertakers. “I’m a thoroughbred,” he told me.
Caleb introduced me to his mom, who works in the office with his dad and his grandfather and his grandfather’s brother. “So you’re going on a ride along?” she said. “To the morgue?”
“I’m excited,” I said.
She gave me a strange look. “Excited to go to the morgue? There must be something wrong with you.”
There is something wrong with me, I wanted to say, and I’m hoping your son will help cure me of it. Caleb whisked me away and we were on the road to the hospital, Mrs. McDonnell riding along in back. It’s an odd thing getting to know someone in close proximity to a corpse, though not as odd as you might hope. Caleb talked about his job with slightly ironic affection. He was articulate and funny and urbane. Aside from the occasional country-ism — “keller” for color; “Jagwire” for Jaguar — he could pass for a stockbroker in Manhattan. I was eager to cross the river with him, my guide to the underworld, but it seemed like a bad idea to dive into my death-terror right off the bat. Instead we jawed about the business. Among the things I learned on the ride to the hospital: The fridges where bodies are kept are called “refers” (pronounced reefer). White people often want their dead relatives to look darker, while black people occasionally want them to look lighter. Sometimes, to reach an artery of a corpse, you have to peel back the scalp like the skin from a chicken.
As it turns out, the morgue was not particularly exciting. Mostly it seemed to involve paperwork and waiting for the body to be retrieved. The overall impression was of someone picking up a package. I had the same sense of comic vacancy, watching Caleb wheel the long corpse into the van and park it next to Mrs. McDonnell, the tent poles of its feet sticking up under the blanket, though at some point on the continuation of our journey the body began to become a presence. Both of them did. Let me just say it was 85 degrees out, and humid, and the air-conditioning didn’t work all that well. The crematory was an hour away.
“Were you ever tempted to find another line of work?” I asked Caleb, trying to ignore the smell.
“Sure,” he said. “I wanted to be a pastor. I went to seminary.”
He explained to me that he’d gone to Madagascar after high school with a Christian humanitarian group. It was an act of rebellion for a funeral director’s son, to do something life-giving. He did that for two years, tracking medical supplies, before returning to the family fold. “It took me awhile to see that there was a lot of humanity in the funeral industry.”
I was surprised by his ever wanting to go into the ministry, though I probably shouldn’t have been. Caleb’s blog alludes sometimes to the “faith community,” and in his TED talk, “Embracing Death,” he brings up one of the paradoxes we face when a loved one dies: “In the same breath we curse God,” he says, “and praise God.” As an atheist, both jealous and mistrustful of religious conviction, I wondered if he truly believed this. How could anyone exposed to so much daily death and heartbreak manage to praise God at all? Wasn’t this just another form of denial?
“Are you still…religious?”
“Death shakes your assumptive world,” he said after a minute. “When you go to pick up a body and it’s been split in half by a train — I mean, literally split in half, in two different parts — it’s hard to believe in a just universe. At least in the Christian sense. But even as a teenager, you know, I was obsessed with the problem of evil. I couldn’t get past it. I’m sure being around dead people all the time had a lot to do with it.”
“Do you believe in God then?”
He looked at the road. “That’s a tough one,” he said. “Certainly I’ve had to redefine His existence.”
“What do you mean?”
“Let’s just say I’m comfortable in silence.”
I stared at him for a moment, searching for signs of unease. It’s what I longed to be, of course: comfortable in silence. Not just God’s silence, but the pungent silence emanating from the back of the van. And the truth is, Caleb did seem comfortable. It was rare enough to meet an American who’d talk earnestly about death without sounding like a Hallmark card; rarer still, I suspected, was the utter lack of fear in his eyes. There was something almost spooky about it — a monkish sort of calm. The overall impression was of someone who’d had a long staring contest with Death, and had won. As Caleb put it, you have to pass through death in order to get to Eden.
“Death makes us better people,” he said. “I really believe that. The more we embrace mortality, the more human we become. We look deeper into things: our lives, our relationships, the earth even. We value these things more.”
He blushed a bit, as if he finally did sound like a Hallmark card. But that was the thing about death, I realized: You could look deep into its eyes and come up with the same bromides as someone who hadn’t exchanged so much as a glance. Carpe diem. Count your blessings. Love the one you’re with. They were only empty, these sayings, if no one had done the brave work to fill them.
After dropping off the bodies at the crematory — where I saw him reach into poor Mrs. McDonnell’s chest — Caleb took me back to the mortuary and gave me a tour of the showroom, where the denial of death, or at least of decomposition, was on full display. Here were caskets of many colors, some with tropical flowers painted on them, designed to make oblivion seem as pink and mild-wintered as possible. Even if you went top-of-the-line, it was impossible to buy one that wasn’t hideous. They were like Hawaiian shirts in that way, except a Hawaiian shirt that you would have to wear forever.
Caleb showed me the cheapest casket for sale, a $900 number, which was made of pressed wood. It looked like I could punch a fist through it. He explained that many corporate funeral homes put their big-ticket models near the door and try to sell those first. “Grief has a way of inebriating people so that they’re easy to take advantage of.” The Wildes, on the other hand, begin with the pressed wood and, only if a customer’s truly interested, work their way up to the Worthington in solid cherry with velvet interior. He couldn’t remember the last time they’d sold a Worthington.
“What’s that?” I asked, pointing to a metal tool displayed in one of the coffins.
“A key,” Caleb said. He stuck it in one end of the casket and gave the thing a crank. “This one’s a sealing casket. You can crank it ‘til it’s airtight.”
“But the bodies decompose just the same.”
“Of course,” he said. “It’s psychological.”
I thought about the sealing casket that night, lying in my nice-smelling hotel room. (It didn’t smell like death, I mean, which was nice.) Of all the white lies of the funeral industry, the airtight coffin seemed perhaps the most absurd: Even dead and artificially colored, pumped full of chemicals, we need to pretend we’re special. We’re different from the dirt! We’re not dust in the wind, or pushing up daisies, or going into the fertilizer business. We’re tourists flying home in a spotless vessel. As Caleb’s uncle put it to me, describing his job at the funeral home: “I’m just the travel agent, you know, making sure their bags are all packed.”
Caleb, it should be mentioned, finds this dirt-phobia equally absurd. His dream in life is to start a “green cemetery”: no embalming, no vaults, biodegradable caskets. He hasn’t mentioned this idea to his grandfather, perhaps because it threatens to undermine the branding of the funeral industry, which makes its living off keeping the realities of death as hush-hush as possible. Even ushering me around the showroom, Caleb was visibly uneasy, glancing back at the door now and then to make sure his grandfather wasn’t around. When I asked about the embalming room, he said it was strictly off-limits. He seemed reluctant to even point out the door, which was drab and signless, tucked away in the farthest corner of the showroom. It looked like the door to a closet. Over the course of my visit it began to loom in my mind, twinkling with menace. I imagined it concealed unspeakable things, like the locked chamber in Bluebeard’s castle: halved cadavers and peeled-back scalps and slimy pacemakers heaped in buckets.
I lay in bed, thinking about all this, which led me inevitably to Caleb’s hand snaking out of Mrs. McDonnell’s body, the bit of flesh stuck to it like pumpkin goop. I couldn’t get the image out of my mind. Likewise the calm, genial, lighthearted expression on Caleb’s face. Was this — sticking his hands into death — what had inured him to it? Was his job a type of exposure therapy?
I switched on the TV. Game of Thrones, which I’d never seen before, was on. It was some grim and pretentious business. A bunch of bearded dudes were trapped inside a castle, waiting to be slaughtered. Mostly they walked around muttering about how scared they were. Before long the bad guys, a motley crew that seemed to include giants and woolly mammoths, stormed the castle and began to bash people’s heads in like watermelons. Normally I was hardened to this sort of stuff — who could go to the movies these days without seeing the insides of someone’s head? — but now I felt like I might actually throw up. What did it mean that this was one of the most popular shows in America? Why did we need our death porn and our sealed caskets, too? I watched someone’s face get eaten by a dog, and someone else get juiced by a giant swinging anchor so that only his arm was left, then turned off the lights. It was dark in the way that hotel rooms are dark. I shut my eyes and tried to sleep. When I opened them again, I could make out the tentpoles of my feet sticking up under the comforter.
The next morning, after a fitful night’s sleep, I watched Caleb perform his real stock-in-trade: the funeral. The Wildes do 270 of them a year, but I was impressed by how seriously he took the business of grief, shaking everyone’s hands as they arrived and offering his condolences. I shook some hands, too, feeling deeply ashamed at myself: a perfect stranger, insinuating myself into the worst day of a family’s life. And yet it didn’t seem like the worst day. People smiled and hugged and even joked with each other, as if the dead person lying in his open casket were merely napping on the couch. The deceased was a Freemason—he had reached the 32nd of 33 levels, whatever that means—so there was a certain pageantry to it as well: The men looked weirdly aristocratic in their tuxes and sashes and white gloves, their tasseled aprons covered in druggy symbols. Some even had medals hanging from their jackets. There was an Amish family there, too, and the two uniformed clans greeted each other with hugs.
I tried to keep a respectful distance, watching the service unfold on the big-screen TV in the next room. The deceased looked realer on television for some reason, more human, the rounded peak of his belly sticking up over the casket. These enormous corpses! His jacket was a size too small for him. This touched me, for some reason, more than anything that I heard during the service — except maybe the weird fact that he once spent $10,000 on an accordion. The man’s father sat in the front row, and I wondered what it must be like to see your dead son. As a father of two kids, I could not imagine it. Terrified as I am of oblivion, I would never in a million years wish to outlast them.
This is not a farewell service, the pastor began, it’s a see ya later service. This — heaven and the dear departed’s eternal vacation there — quickly emerged as his main theme. He said he knew that the deceased was up there in eternity with his accordion, right this very moment, accompanying the angels on their harps. They were jamming it up. This sounded like something that could make Satan beg for mercy — harp-and-accordion music, ‘til the end of time — but it was hard to muster much Hitchens-like scorn. Life is fucking hard. People eat too much, and sometimes they die before their parents. Could you blame anyone for kidding themselves?
After the service, I watched Caleb drape a coat over the widow’s back and steer her to a car, steadying her with a hand under her elbow, providing her with a literal brand of emotional support, then saw him do this again a little later at the cemetery as he walked her down to her husband’s open grave. He’d told me the day before that one of the dangers of being a funeral director was “compassion fatigue,” but I saw no evidence of this. Tending to the widow’s grief, he couldn’t have seemed further from the cliché of the undertaker, the ghoulish thanatophile with an Addams Family grin. It struck me then that the funeral business, or at least the Wildes’ mom-and-pop version of it, might be one of the last hands-on trades in America. Computers can’t embalm people, nor can they console them in their grief, and you can’t outsource bodies to “skilled workers” in other countries. Since demand is high — is, in fact, guaranteed — there’s no need to create it out of thin air. There aren’t that many businessmen out there that do some good in the world, let alone provide an essential service, but Caleb was one of them.
I joined the crowd of mourners, watching from afar. It was a military burial, with guards of honor and a flag and a lone bugler playing “taps,” and I was wholly unprepared for how beautiful it would be. The Pennsylvania countryside rolled Irishly into the distance, hay bales scattered everywhere like giant hair curlers, and the long, sorrowful notes seemed to fill the spaces between the hills.
“That was some beautiful playing,” I said afterward, as we were helping break down the canopy over the grave.
“Actually, it was a recording,” the cemetery guy said.
“But he had a bugle.”
“Not a real bugle. It’s just a stereo that looks like one. You push play and hold it up to your lips.” The man shook his head. “I’ve seen the batteries go out sometimes when they’re halfway through. Talk about awkward. One time the damn thing quit and started playing later, from its case, smack dab in the middle of the eulogy.”
I found this hard to believe, but Caleb confirmed it. There just weren’t enough bona fide buglers these days to go around. But the iBugle also pointed to a fundamental contradiction in the funeral industry: It was about tears, about the bona fide expression of grief, but it set about eliciting these tears in carefully staged ways. It strove for authenticity, but it was also a performance. And though I’d begun to seriously admire Caleb, especially after what I’d seen from him that morning, I wondered the same thing about his mortality-as-inspiration rap, his sangfroid in the face of all this death. Was he just pushing play? Or was it real?
“Tell me, then,” I asked Caleb when we stopped for lunch at a coffee shop owned by a very lonely Jamaican man who kept glancing at the door, as if expecting a herd of customers to arrive. An Amish buggy trundled by the window, bumping along the side of the highway. “Are you not afraid of death?”
“Dying, yes — I don’t want to be in pain. But not death.”
My heart sank. Et tu, Brute? “Hasn’t anything you’ve seen on the job ever rattled you?” I asked. “I mean, made you wonder about the meaning of it all?”
He looked out the window. “I had to be hospitalized once.”
“There was a trailer fire,” he said, clearing his throat, “and some kids were burned to death. A four-year-old and a nine-year-old. I mean, hideously burned. I worked on the bodies.”
“You embalmed them?”
“No. They were too bad off. But I had to determine if they were viewable. I mean, just seeing a four-year-old on a morgue table — they look so small, it does something to you.” He told me that the worst thing was the smell: “oily” was how he described it. He breathed in so much of it that his piss reeked. “Even my shit smelled of it,” he said.
“So you had a breakdown?”
“You could call it that, I guess. I thought I’d had an aneurysm. I collapsed on the street. Maybe I’d just had too many Red Bulls.” He smiled at me, but it wasn’t the invincible smile I was used to. “There was all this stuff going on with the family, too. They were at each other’s throats. Half of them were Wiccan, if you can believe that — they wanted a witch to do the service. You can imagine how the Christian side, um, felt about that.”
I asked him if that was the only episode he’d had, if anything like that had happened before. Everyone can have a bad day, of course — but this seemed of a different order.
“About five years ago,” he confessed, “it was too much for me. I was having suicidal thoughts. I wanted to kill myself.” He seemed surprised to be telling me this. “I’ve been on antidepressants ever since.”
I was reminded of a link Caleb had posted on his blog, an old obituary for an undertaker who’d fallen into an open grave and been fatally wounded. I watched him finish his lunch. I felt the way you might feel when a person you’d thought knew the way to somewhere, a native traveler, turned out to be as lost as you were. Mostly, though, the idea of smelling like dead children made me sad. Were there other things, I wondered, he hadn’t told me about? Some things we see will remain with us forever, Caleb admits on his blog. They are so disturbing, so terrible, that we do the world a favor by not sharing them. Maybe there was no winning the staring contest with death.
I was more than a little disappointed, though not in Caleb himself. His suffering made my terror seem quaint. Death wasn’t some 4 a.m. abstraction whispering in his ear, but a part of his daily routine. It was literally inside of him. I thought about those burned kids lying on the embalming table, aged four and nine — the exact ages, eerily, of my own children — and I couldn’t fathom what it would be like to look at them, let alone touch their ruined faces. This, it seemed to me, was Caleb’s true role: to take on this burden, this knowledge, so the rest of us didn’t have to.
Caleb stood up to leave, yawning till his eyes watered. He looked exhausted. A touch resentful, too, as if I’d unmasked him against his will. We left the coffee shop and drove back to the funeral home, passing a restaurant that had the statue of a giant rooster out front.
“Now that’s a big cock,” Caleb grinned, the mask back in place already.
Since returning from Parkesburg, I’ve thought a lot about what Caleb puts himself through every day. I’d hoped that by exposing myself to death I would become inoculated somehow; I’d wanted to see the bodies in Bluebeard’s chamber. In the end, though, I was glad I didn’t have the key. There’s a danger in being too close to truth, just as there’s a danger in being too far from it. Our brains seem almost hardwired to avoid thinking about extinction, or at least to deflect our fear into more productive areas. This is what terror management theory says, at least: that the values we create for ourselves — religion, law, culture itself — are a result of this deflection, the desire to create something that will outlive us. Death might be “the mother of beauty,” as Wallace Stevens puts it, but it’s the denial of death that makes life worth living.
At the burial service that last day, after the bugler pretended to play “taps,” the pastor read a poem called “The Dash.” It was a dreadful poem, trite and sententious, about the dash between the dates on a headstone:
For it matters not how much we own,
The cars…the house…the cash.
What matters is how we live and love
and how we spend our dash.
There was something entrepreneurially inspirational about it (in fact, you can buy a T-shirt from the poet’s website that says “LIVE YOUR DASH!”). I couldn’t help wondering what Larkin, who didn’t have an inspirational bone in his body, would have thought of it. Maybe he would have objected to the punctuation itself, the whole dismal convention of the dash. Wouldn’t a slash be more accurate, or a colon? How about a question mark? Imagine, say, if our headstones read: “1943 ? 2014.” Certainly this would do a better job of getting at the strangeness of being here to begin with. Our fear of death begets many things — God, good and bad poetry, wars without end — but maybe it can also help us appreciate this strangeness, this flash of remarkable visions, by reminding us that they’ll stop.
I looked at Caleb, and it occurred to me that he’d heard this poem many times before. It was the funeral industry’s equivalent of “The Prophet.” And yet he seemed genuinely moved by the proceedings. Afterward, the guards of honor folded the flag and everyone walked back to their cars — everyone, that is, except for the dead man’s father. He would not leave his son’s grave. Caleb had told me this happened occasionally: mourners refusing to leave the sides of their loved ones. The father stood there in his ancient-looking suit, shaking his cane at the casket.
“I’ll be with you shortly, son,” he said, trembling, “I’ll be with you shortly,” and then Caleb took him by the arm and helped him turn away.
This story was written by Eric Puchner, edited by Michael Benoist, fact-checked by Ben Kalin, and copy-edited by Lawrence Levi, with photographs by Matt Eich for Matter.