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Dying to Know More

Dying to Know More

Death has been a very real part of my life from day one. I was raised by a licensed mortician. That's why I attended a month-long series of free ABC Library lectures titled “Begin the New Year by Thinking about The End."

Dying to Know More: How to Prep for Death


Where do you go on solo dates? Do you stroll around a nearby park? Enjoy a mani-pedi? Take in a matinee? Personally, I’m a big fan of spending time at libraries. They’re jam-packed with stuff that info nerds adore: books, movies, magazines, music and quiet zones. These offerings also happen to be 100 percent free or super-cheap. Best of all, libraries are staffed by folks who are equally passionate about information – we call them librarians.

ABQ Free Press

Mortician Caitlin Doughty’s memoir “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” (Courtesy of W. W. Norton & Company).

On a recent solo date at Cherry Hills Library (6901 Barstow NE) I happened on a book display devoted entirely to titles about death and dying. Making a beeline for the collection, I scooped up “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematory,” a memoir by mortician Caitlin Doughty, the founder of death-positive blog The Order of the Good Death.

That’s when I saw it: a flyer advertising a month-long series of free lectures titled “Begin the New Year by Thinking about The End.” Held from 2-3 p.m. on four consecutive Saturdays (Jan. 9-30), the talks – a.k.a. “End-of-Life Conversations” – focused on honest discussion of various aspects of how we die. And I wanted to be there for every single one.

Death has been a very real part of my life from day one. I was raised by a licensed mortician and spent most of my childhood in staff rooms of various mortuaries throughout the Southeastern United States. In third grade, my class project focused on Egyptian funereal rituals. When my dad did my Halloween makeup, he had to apply it with me lying flat and still in bed.

For me, America’s recent movement towards death awareness and positivity feels healthy, necessary and even entertaining. In spite of my death-aware upbringing, I’m an only child with two parents in their 60s; the prospect of facing down a U.S. funeral market that’s estimated to be a $20.7 billion annual industry still seems daunting. Plus, to paraphrase Led Zeppelin, my time is gonna come too.

Week One addressed hospice services, comfort in our final days and last spiritual wishes. A registered nurse, a palliative care specialist and a minister were featured participants. Week Two focused on protection against identity theft; the presentation by the N.M. Attorney General’s Office devoted a lot of time and energy to calling hackers “knuckleheads” and not much else.

Week Three hit on the heart of the subject, with straight talk about cremation services, organ donation and the average price of a funeral by “certified thanatologist” Gail Rubin of A Good Goodbye, LLC. The series’ conclusion in Week Four examined living wills, trusts, do-not-resuscitate (DNR) orders and instructions for feeding those in a vegetative state.

A dear friend who works for a company that wholesales eco-friendly death products to funeral homes joined me for the first two weeks. Not counting adult services librarian Kathleen Dull, who organized the lecture series, we were always the youngest people in the room. I’d put the average age of the room around 63 years old.

Selections from Librarian Kathleen Dull’s End-of-Life Reading List:

“Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematory” by Caitlin Doughty

“Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End” by Atul Gawande

“Death and Dying in New Mexico” by Martina Will de Chaparro

“Greening Death: Reclaiming Burial Practices and Restoring Our Tie to the Earth” by Suzanne Kelly

“On Death and Dying” by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross

“Speaking of Dying: Restoring the Church’s Voice in the Face of Death” by Dale Goldsmith

“The Denial of Death” by Ernest Becker

“Approaching the End of Life” by Donna Schaper

“The Mystery of the Kaddish” by Leon H. Charney

“The Pagan Book of Living and Dying” by Starhawk

Dull introduced the weekly talks, providing a list of books available in the ABC Library System about death and dying. I recorded the talks and took notes on my perceptions of the speakers, the topics and the rooms in which the talks were held.

Ironically, three out of four lectures were held in a group room nestled in the children’s section. It was delightfully morbid, logical and comforting to discuss DNR orders and the cost of caskets in a space housing tubs of crayons and chalk and a table entirely covered by the slouching form of a giant black teddy bear named Dewey.

Dull says that January seemed an appropriate month to think about the end because it’s a time when many take stock of their lives. “I wanted to present an overview of some of the most common [death-related] topics that arise, so people could at least be aware of the things they would need to think about when an [end-of-life] event occurred.”

“The biggest message from all the presenters was to sit down and plan,” Dull concluded. “Only 25 to 30 percent of adults have any end-of-life preparations, and planning is the best way to ensure your wishes are followed.”

To learn more about death awareness and positivity, visit The Order of The Good Death at orderofthegooddeath.com and Gail Rubin’s website at agoodgoodbye.com/the-family-plot-blog/resources.

M. Brianna Stallings writes so you don’t have to.

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Dennis Domrzalski is managing editor of ABQ Free Press. Reach him at dennis@freeabq.com.

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