Over the years, I’ve read a fair number of books about death, but I found Sallie Tisdale’s Advice for Future Corpses so rich and powerful that, by the time I got through the first couple chapters, I’d ordered a copy for my wife.
I wanted her to read the book so, together, we could think about the questions and issues that Tisdale raises. And I wanted her to have her own copy so she’d have it handy when needed.
Note, I didn’t say “if and when.” Death is a “when” for me and for you and for all of us.
“Hard to deny”
Tisdale doesn’t let the reader forget this. When it comes to the process of dying, she doesn’t flinch from talking about pain and intrusive friends and loose bowels and fear and burial and denial and coercive family members and cremation. Consider this paragraph:
“Despite many costs, for a grieving person cremation can have a kind of stark beauty. George Bernard Shaw watched his mother’s body enter the crematorium, feet-first: ‘The feet burst miraculously into streaming ribbons of garnet colored lovely flame, smokeless and eager, like pentacostal tongues,” he wrote, “and as the whole coffin passed in it sprang into flame all over; and my mother became a beautiful fire.’ If you pay attention, burning has a blunt impact that is hard to deny.”
That last sentence, I think, carries the message of Tisdale’s book: Pay attention! Be prepared! Think about death well before you’re dying! Think about death as you’re dying!
Modern Americans, particularly Baby Boomers like Tisdale, “choose not to notice” the reality of death, she writes, adding, “We pretend that what we absolutely know to be true somehow isn’t true. But the nasty surprises can’t really be avoided.”
Tisdale’s book isn’t the sort of self-help book you might expect from its title. There are no “10 rules for dying” or “12 steps to helping your loved one cross over.” Instead, it’s like an extended conversation with Tisdale who knows death close up from her work as a nurse, often with the elderly and the dying. As for life, she’s given that a lot of thought as well, as evidenced by her 2000 book about food The Best Thing I Ever Tasted and by her 1994 book about sex Talk Dirty to Me.
“Do not turn away,” Tisdale writes. That’s good advice for living as well as for dying.
Meeting death with curiosity
So much comes down to the frame of mind that the dying person — and the caregiver — bring to the process.
Tisdale may shock some readers when she writes, “I want to meet death with curiosity and willingness.” She knows she won’t be free of fear or denial or all the other things that come into play as the body is shutting down, but she also knows that she can control whether she cringes at the approach of death or looks at it wide-eyed. It’s the same, it seems to me, as heading to the first day of school or to U.S. Marine boot camp. Envision things ahead of time and know how you want to go through the experience to whatever extent you have control.
“What do you want to do? Do you want to meet death with devotion, love, a sense of adventure, or do you want to rage against the failing light? Cultivate those qualities now. Master them. Then you will have a deep and not even conscious attitude…”
“Listening isn’t complicated”
That’s what Tisdale has to say to the person who’s dying. For the caregiver, her bottom-line advice is: Listen. “Listening isn’t that complicated,” she writes. “It’s hard, but it’s not complicated.”
The caregiver is there to give care, not to get care. Tisdale tells the caregiver to “do for the patient, not to the patient.” That seems pretty much common sense, but how many times does a family make decisions because it will make them feel better, regardless of what the dying person wants?
Also, if you’re a care-taker, the dying person and his or her needs are paramount. Yours don’t count. Tisdale writes, “You can’t fairly ask a dying person to satisfy your emotional needs.” And she repeats that in various ways often throughout Advice for Future Corpses.
Again, it comes down to paying attention, especially in the final hours, writes Tisdale.
“We may struggle against it, but silence is part of this world now. Silence is attention. Attention on this, right here, right now. Attention to the hand against the sheet, the texture of the cotton, the cool cotton….All this is silence, filled with the music between words, what you might call the music of the spheres — the world’s hum. The faint vibration of breath and muscle and time.”
The final moments of life are sacred, no matter what you believe or don’t believe. For the dying and for those others in the room, it is as sacred as being born, as taking a first step, as exchanging a first kiss.
Tisdale’s Advice for Future Corpses is about the sacredness of those moments — and of all the moments that lead up to them.
Patrick T. Reardon
This is the second of two reviews about books dealing with death. See also my review of Sherwin Nuland’s How We Die.