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Death Do Us Part

One February afternoon about 5 years ago (I was a teacher in the DFW area), I was headed home at the end of the school day. After turning from the parking lot onto a highway that dips into a depression then rises back up again over a distance of about a quarter mile, I was the only vehicle in sight until I started the climb. As I was going up, a minivan with its headlights on appeared in the opposite lane, followed by a vehicle about two car-lengths behind, and passed me horn blaring. I wondered why, and when I looked in the rear-view mirror, I saw the driver flipping me off! When I could see beyond the rise, I realized the minivan must have been the first vehicle in the funeral procession that was passing me. I noticed one other car in the distance had pulled over, so, out of courtesy (rather than conviction), I pulled over, just as a motorcycle escort whizzed past to get back to the front of the line before the next intersection. That incident left me contemplating my species and wondering about the many ways we reckon with death, a part of life that compartmentalizes and polarizes us—in the Before, During, and especially After. Religious beliefs, cultural values, societal mores, and fear of the unknown bend and shape the human perception of this biological eventuality. We seek comfort in the traditions and rituals of our clans, among them the funeral procession (which I’ll come back to). About 15 years ago I taught a few classes of 9th grade English. One of my favorite regular formal writing assignments—meant to help a young person to look, metaphorically, through the windshield at the road of life ahead (rather than constantly looking back through the rear-view mirror)—was to have each student write their own obituary. We spent a week going over some actual examples, my most important philosophical point being that the average person lives 70 or 80 years and all that remains of the people, places, experiences, successes and failures, is a one-column inch announcement with or without a picture. On a Friday I assigned the paper. The following Monday, I was in the principal’s office because an unnerved mother had called about my assignment. In their family’s culture, I learned (really, this was a teaching moment for me) the mention of death was taboo for reasons that seemed ...

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