Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Remember Thou Art Dust

Mystery writers have to deal with death in their books.  Ash Wednesday seems an appropriate day to talk about it.

I set the historical portion of my 4th novel during the week before Franklin Roosevelt was inaugurated in 1933.  He stepped into office on Saturday, but had already begun changes by declaring a bank holiday the day before.  Banks didn't open again until their books had been examined and approved--the first step to pulling America out of the Great Depression.   By coincidence, two days before that was Ash Wednesday, the day Christians are supposed to remember their mortal nature.  To me, this seemed a perfect tie-in for a murder mystery.

I'm guessing most mystery writers don't have much first-hand experience viewing violent death.  I don't (and hope I never do).  Quite possibly most writers haven't seen someone die at all.  In these modern times, society has become quite efficient at hiding the act of dying behind the closed doors of hospitals and nursing homes, so people who don't want to see or deal with death, don't have to.

Until 2007, my only brushes with death had been attendance at viewings.  Then, over the course of 18 months, I became a caregiver for my mom, then my dad.  Both became hospice patients.  Through some odd twist of fate, my aunt and 2 friends also became hospice patients at the same time, and an uncle a year later.  So in the last 4 years, I've sat with 6 people who were actively dying.  My dad and my aunt both died as I held their hands.  My mom waited until we'd all gone out of the room.  My mom was like that.

Hospice, I found, is more than just waiting for a sad event.  Physically, of course, it's messy, but not as much as I expected.  Philosophically, it can be rather beautiful, like walking a loved one out to the garden gate before sending them the rest of the way on their own.  And surprisingly, you can find humor in the situation.  In fact, caregivers who don't find humor in it will make themselves ill and everyone else miserable.

One thing, though, in all cases--keeping that final vigil with hospice patients made me think about my own mortality, but not in a scary or depressing way.  In fact, the most unsettling part is wondering if I'd have someone to sit with me when I'm on my way out.

Hospice is in many ways a return to a traditional way of treating a dying person, all the more so when it's done at home.  The first century of mystery writers--Edgar Allan Poe, Arthur Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie--all of them experienced hospice with a loved one.  I think all of their characters had a more grounded attitude toward death.  In their books, death itself wasn't the enemy, evil was--the kind of evil that produces an untimely, unnatural, and uncomforting death.

In too many modern novels (and on TV and in the movies), death has become very two-dimensional.  Dying has more facets, both for the victim and the survivors.  I don't think it would hurt a few mystery writers to remember they are dust and to dust they shall return.  After all, death is our ultimate mystery.

Enough of that.  Time to go get soot smeared on my forehead.


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