Wednesday, April 15, 2015

We're all going there someday...

I was one of those weird kids who loved visiting cemeteries, on vacations or locally, and I was probably one of the youngest fans of the 1970s show "Quincy, M.E.," about a medical examiner who solved murder cases. Modern forensics programs, both reality TV and fictional (Ducky and Loretta are two of my favorite "NCIS" characters) fascinate me. So when I  heard an interview last summer with Caitlin Doughty, mortician and author of Smoke Gets In Your Eyes, naturally I had to read it.

Cover image for Smoke gets in your eyes : & other lessons from the crematory / Caitlin Doughty.I was thrilled to learn exactly how a crematorium machine works and enjoyed Doughty’s humor about her coworkers, body-transportation issues, and her very first task working at a mortuary (I won’t spoil it for you).  I was also impressed by Doughty’s respect for the bodies she handled and for the grieving family members she often worked with. Although she uses humor to “break the ice,” Doughty's book has more serious themes. She is concerned about modern Western society’s reluctance to talk—or ask—about preparation and disposal of their body after death. Many older or seriously ill adults—and their families—are uncomfortable with the subject, and few people in general know about state laws or their options for burial and mourning practices.   Doughty’s concerns spurred her to not only write her book but also to  co-found The Order of the Good Death, a website of resources  to help others learn more about post-death processes and how to make them more meaningful and healing for family and friends. I've found the website well-written, helpful, and even comforting. As an environmentalist, I was intrigued to learn about various new “green” practices; and, as a cat lover I was moved and enlightened by Doughty’s videos on losing one's pets, including her own beloved video sidekick The Meow.

Smoke Gets In Your Eyes wasn't my first foray into literature on the fate we all face. I'm a longtime fan of humorous science writer Mary Roach, whose book Stiff: the Curious Lives of Human Cadavers made her career as a bestselling science author and humorist. Stiff is emphatically not for the squeamish, who might want to try her second book, Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife first and then consider trying Stiff.  As in Smoke Gets In Your Eyes, Stiff draws readers into first-hand experience about the many routes for donated human bodies as well as more intense topics (cannibalism is rarer than rumored these days, you’ll be glad to know).

faces of seniors
The last stage of one's life is at least as difficult to face—and to talk about—as death. Fortunately, a new bestseller on end-of-life care, Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End, has opened the conversation for hundreds of thousands of readers. Modern medicine can often extend elderly or seriously ill people's lives, but the cost can be painful treatments or loss of independence. Patients and their loved once are provided multiple options that medical staff often don't have the time or training to discuss helpfully. Gawande points out that the "best" choice depends on what a patient considers important to quality as well as length of life. Gawande presents stories covering numerous medical conditions and family situations—and just as much variety in quality of health care. As a physician himself, Gawande knows how little time medical staff have, but he points out the need for conversations to improve patients' health, and sometimes save time and resources as well. Best of all, he offers practical solutions! 

"Villages" are one option for independent living
for seniors--click here for local information!
Gawande also explores the ongoing revolution in caring for people who cannot live independently, not forgetting the often-agonizing issues of finances and a life worth living. Like Doughty in her discussion of death, Gawande approaches the topic of dying with a top-notch physician’s compassion for everyone: young parents with terminal illness, family members who juggle caring for three generations, and overworked staff asked to take on even more duties to benefit their patients’ well-being. 

As the middle-aged child of two elderly parents, I found all these books endlessly helpful for matters to consider and conversations to bring up well before my parents—or me and my spouse—have to make decisions about the last parts of our lives.  And I've enjoyed this particular reading journey that encompasses medicine, social issues, humor, compassion, and love.

Beth C.

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