Why Not

For the most part, I think it’s a good idea to avoid religious talk while one is at work.

Of course that’s just my opinion, and not one shared by my supervisor… who likes to tell me that he’s praying for me and that I should read my bible more. Specifically, he told me both of these things after I had a month in which LOTS of babies died while I was on shift. My angst was at it’s absolute zenith and I think he was trying to be supportive. But let’s face it, I wasn’t in the mood to Kum-Bi-Ya with anyone that month. In fact, if anything, being exposed to that much stark tragedy kind of had me telling God (or whoever is in charge of roll-call in heaven) that he could suck a big fat one and it would be great if he could give the human race a break for a few weeks.

I have to admit, it makes me a little uncomfortable when my boss says these things because he’s my boss and I have to wonder if I’d get my yearly raise if I told him that I’m a supporter of gay marriage and I’m pro-choice. But then again, I kind of have to blame myself. After all, I’m the one who once mentioned to him that I grew up in an intensely Christian household… which apparently made him think that I was down with intense Christians… and I am… mostly… down with them…I can quote the bible like a MoFo, I fluently speak Evangelical and when someone I love is met with profound adversity, I have to suppress the urge to deliver a casserole to their front door.

But all that said, I have to admit to really being down with pretty much any belief system. I mean… I have to be familiar with and at least marginally amenable to virtually EVERY form of spirituality in this job. It’s one of those bizarre professions in which it’s virtually impossible to avoid religion. I deal with death…. perhaps the biggest metaphysical conundrum we, as a species, face.

On a basic level, I generally have to know SOMETHING about other cultures’ beliefs and customs regarding death… or I have to at least be able to not look horrified or incredulous when people talk to me about what they hold to be true about the passing of their loved ones… because they do talk to me. People tell me all kinds of things. They DO all kinds of things… the expect ME to do all kind of things. And, to some extent, I have to play along.

-I’ve had one guy paint a giant red triangle on his head and insist on dancing around his father’s corpse while waving a small bunch of burning twigs and occasionally ringing a bell.

-I had one family call me a few dozen times to make sure that the media hadn’t come snooping around looking for information on their patriarch’s suicide. It seems, in their traditions, his suicide would have been cataclysmically shameful for the family and they would have been utterly ostracized by their community… so much so that their children would have been considered cursed and wouldn’t have been able to get married. Fortunately, despite what television shows would have you believe, suicides aren’t news unless you’re very rich or very famous. I told them this… about 26 times. And each time they made me promise not to breathe a word of the suicide to anyone… but… now I’m posting it on the internet… um…

-I’ve had Buddhist families completely lose their shit on me when I’ve told them that they are absolutely NOT allowed to keep a dead body in their house for 3 days. Namely because while the consciousness may not leave the body for three days, all kinds of OTHER things leave the body… all of which would be considered a bio-hazard and a public health risk. And while I respect their beliefs, I believe that the consciousness will have a much better time surrounded by other, like minded-individuals in a funeral home. They can all hang out there and talk about how they’re planning to spend their afterlife.

All of this is simply to say that I was hit with a new one last week.

A woman had called me to ask about her mother’s drowning. This happens a lot. People will sometimes call just because they want to talk about it. They don’t really have questions… or if they do, the questions are very inane and inconsequential. More than anything, they need to process… and it helps to process with someone who was involved in the case- someone who already knows all about it and isn’t particularly put off or “weirded-out” by death talk. 

 So this woman called to ask about her mother’s drowning- which wasn’t really a drowning- or rather, it wasn’t a SLAM-DUNK of a drowning.  the woman’s mother had Alzheimer’s and had wandered off and fallen face-down into a shallow creek. The water was low enough that if this woman had simply rolled over on to her back, she would have been able to breathe- leading me to believe that the woman had actually suffered some kind of terminal event… like a heart-attack or a stroke… fallen into the water and had been unconscious and therefore, unable to turn over.

 I’m not sure why the doctor ruled the death an accidental drowning since he didn’t bother to do an autopsy.  Personally, I was under the impression that the most certain way to rule on a drowning was to weigh someone’s lungs and see if their alveoli was completely water-logged. Oh well, that’s how the job works. The doctors kind of do what they want and we medical examiners have to pretend to understand and then explain it to families. I imagine it’s something like being the publicity agent for an eccentric celebrity. Your boss gets drunk on rubbing alcohol, puts a hub-cap on his head and does an interpretive dance in a busy intersection during rush-hour… and you have to sell it to the media as a conceptual art piece that scorns “car culture” and America’s dependency on fossil fuels.

Anyway, this woman called asking about the drowning- mostly because she didn’t like the idea of her mother drowning. I don’t blame her. It’s a terrifying way to die. So I spun my little tale about how I doubted the old woman had actually drowned and if she DID, she likely wasn’t conscious when it was happening, otherwise she would have rolled over and thereby saved herself from drowning.  In which case,  the loony old bird probably would have died of hypothermia… but hey, at least it wasn’t drowning. The daughter sounded deeply relieved by this interpretation of events and thanked me repeatedly for helping her understand why the death certificate was filled out the way it was.

(Side note- I can see how alleged psychics make a shit-ton of money, there are a lot of people out there who want resolution to a tragic death… and I imagine $4.99 for the first minute, then $.50 for each additional minute can really add up in a world so rife with unhappy deaths)

“Oh, that’s so much better than what I was thinking!” the daughter gasped to me as the weight of her mother’s frightening and probably painful death tumbled off her shoulders. “I mean, I just couldn’t BEAR the thought of her drowning! You know? I mean, what an awful way to go!”

“Yup,” I agreed. “Probably second only to being burned at the stake…”

I have no idea what the hell I was thinking. It just slipped out. I was a little distracted as I was talking with this woman and it was getting towards the end of my shift. My filter was a little cock-eyed and for some unholy reason, my conversational switch had inadvertently flipped from professional to casual. It might not sound like a huge faux-pas after the fact. But my comment was in exceedingly poor taste and it could have been taken in any number of awful ways…. most of which would have resulted in an official complaint and yet another trip into my boss’s office for yet another lecture on not saying incredibly upsetting things to our decedent’s families. After all, it had been less than a month since I had been told that it was not appropriate to refer to someone who bled to death as being “a couple of quarts low”.

I babbled incoherently for a few moments, trying to find a way to back-track out of my comment. I believe I blubbered something about how I had just watched the latest episode of “Outlander” in which the heroine narrowly escapes being burned as a witch. Astonishingly, though, this woman laughed.

“Oh! It’s so funny that you say that!” She gushed to me, apparently giddy from the news that her mother quite possibly DIDN’T die in agony. “See, I do past life regressions… and I’ve done 6 witch burnings!”

“…” I said.

Followed by

“… You don’t say…”

Because what the hell else does one say to that? A parade of questions stampeded through my brain, but, miraculously, I had recovered my presence of mind enough to refrain from actually asking any of them.

But in case you’re curious, here are the greatest hits:

-So… were YOU burned as a witch 6 times? Because that’s some lousy luck if that’s the case.

-Do you mean you attended 6 witch burnings in your past lives?

-Um… do you mean 6 different people have come to you and they’ve all been burned as witches in past lives?

-Just out of curiosity, do you ever run across people who actively BURNED witches in past lives? Because that’s always been a point of contention with me an reincarnation. I’m not saying it’s not possible- but do you ever run across someone who was… just… a completely ignoble, anonymous douche? Because there are an awful lot of reincarnated Anne Boelyns and Cleopatras- but not so many potato farmers or slave owners

Seriously, what exactly do you say when someone tells you they’ve had 6 witch burnings?

Probably the same thing you say when someone tells you your spirit animal is a tiger,

or the same thing you say to someone who says they’ll pray for you.

It’s what I always say these days- if not out loud, then at least to myself.

“Why not?”

I grew up as an evangelical Christian, and I suppose I still hold a lot of those beliefs close to me… but who’s to say? I mean, really? Who’s to say? Only the people who have been there already…only the dead, and they’re not talking.

I was taught to avoid such questions. I was taught that my faith was the right one and there wasn’t room for anyone else in the afterlife. “Have faith!” they always told me “Have faith!” As though I could be scolded into my salvation. And I tried, but the truth is, I could never seem to achieve the certainty that my fellow Evangelical children could. Moreover, I always got the impression that to doubt was to sin… but how could I not? Honestly, it was as though my own DNA was in some way skewed toward agnosticism. Incertitude and back-talk came as naturally as breathing… much to the discomfort of Sunday School Teachers and pastors alike. I tried believing, but the truth is, I didn’t know. I don’t know. I may hope, I may wonder. I may seek… but I don’t know. And I don’t think YOU do either. I don’t believe it’s been given to the human mind to see clearly into death and then beyond it. And to quote “The Princess Bride“: “Anyone who says otherwise is selling something.” ( At $4.99 for the first minute, and $.50 for each additional minute)

Besides, I think I’d be a terrible medical examiner if I had become the angelic little Christian everyone had tried so hard to mold. What good would I be at my job if, rather than listening in silence, I tried to convert everyone who demonstrated an alternate belief system? If I turned every death into a “ministry opportunity”? It might win me crowns in paradise, but it sure as hell wouldn’t pay the bills down here.

So… reincarnation?

72 virgins?

Hauntings?

Valhalla?

Purgatory?

Heaven?

Who knows?

You don’t say.

Why not?

Tell me all about it, I’ve got time.

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