A friend recently mentioned that she was faced with the difficult task of talking about death with her class of third graders. A student had died and she felt that there was no way to avoid the need for dialogue. Our conversation concluded with one question: why is death so taboo in our culture?
From the time that we are children, cartoons, movies and popular culture teach us that cemeteries are spooky and that the dead should be feared (think of the zombies from Michael Jackson’s Thriller). Although the following are generalizations of American culture, I think that they are mostly true. First, parents leave children at home when there is a funeral. Second, our elderly live in nursing homes insulating the realities of old age from the general population. Finally, the daily killings inside slaughterhouses are completely hidden from us.
After living in the northern Andes of Peru I have gained many new perspectives on life and death. The Peace Corps sent me to live with farmers in a rural village for two years and I learned a great deal about Andean culture, which in turn, caused me to reflect on my own culture.
One of the most interesting holidays in my village was Dia de Todos Santos, or All Saints Day. Also known as Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, November 1 is celebrated throughout Central and South America to honor the dead. For me, it was a surprise to understand that it is not a sad event, but rather a joyous reaffirmation of life. Families honor the dead with a daylong fiesta in the village cemetery with picnics and drinking. Children play in between gravestones as parents clean and tend to their family plots.
Life in a farming village is surrounded by death on a daily basis. My Peruvian host family had three generations living together under the same roof, young living side by side with the old. With no health care and almost zero family planning, people of all ages seemed to be dying all of the time.
The most intense reality that I grew accustomed to was the animal killings. If you want to eat meat, you have to be willing to get bloody and kill. I helped kill chickens, pigs, sheep, and the delectable Andean guinea pig. Even though the cows were strictly reserved for their milk, the donkeys and horses used for transporting and hauling, they all seemed to be dying all the time.
Farmers have a unique understanding of the cycle of the seasons, and by living according to the rhythms of the earth, I believe that they understand life and death on a deeper level then people who live in the city. They accept death the same way that they accept birth.
Even though modernity has given us longer healthier lives, why do we continue to hide from the inevitable death of everyone that we know?
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