Memento mori was something of a Medieval motto. How could it not be? They had Black Death and other plagues, climate change and crop failures, and numerous wars including civil and Thirty Years’ and Hundred Years’. Modern American culture, on the other hand, denies death with all the might and main of the medical establishment and the advertising industry. Death denial has a really long run for many of us.
Death denial runs aground on the rocky shore of reality when you have a loved one in a nursing home. Assisted living has more or less graciously given many of the infirm elderly a safe haven. The people who have to remain in nursing homes are very sick, in ways that medicine can’t fix. If every day there isn’t the day of the dead, it’s close.
In that situation, sudden death starts to look good. I’ve heard people who have loved ones in nursing homes, or who themselves are in poor health, say as much. It’s been on my own mind . There is much to envy about people who die doing what they love, pass away in their sleep, or even die in the bosom of an assisted living facility. Less than before, though, and probably less than ever in human history, sudden death is not the norm for the aged in America.
Mom’s nursing home had a Halloween party for everybody in both the Assisted Living and the nursing care sides of the facility. The décor involved what you expect at Halloween and staff were in costume. In the back of my mind I wondered about the propriety of having that kind of party theme in that kind of place, but everyone seemed to enjoy it. One of the nurses told me that it always perks up the nursing care residents to get out of their usual floor to a different area with different people.
Maybe Halloween in a nursing home works like the skeletons in Mexico’s Day of the Dead. As I understand it, the dancing skeletons and sugar skulls reminded people of the inescapable truth, more like the Middle Ages than America, that death was part and parcel of daily life. The Roman Catholic church fused an Aztec death festival onto the Church’s own Days of the Dead – All Hallows Eve, All Saints, and All Souls. Those days existed on the Church calendar for good reason and had European Pagan roots as well. The paradoxical and vitally important effect is that remembering death affirms life.
There are times and there are places where you can’t deny death. A nursing home adds the twist that some of these frail, sick, demented, slowly dying elders seem to be neither fully alive nor finally deceased but some of both. Half dead is one way that can strike the visitor. Another way it can strike the visitor is halfway home. A year from today on All Souls’ Day, many of those old souls in Mom’s nursing home will be gone: out of pain and indignity, out of dementia, rejoined with Mother Earth, returned to the nearer presence of God – however you describe this ineffable hope.
This is a collect for the Commemoration of All Souls from the 1929 Scottish Book of Common Prayer:
ETERNAL Lord God, who holdest all souls in life: We beseech thee to shed forth upon all the faithful departed the bright beams of thy light and heavenly comfort; and grant that they, and we with them, may at length attain to the joys of thine eternal kingdom; through Jesus Christ our Lord.