Death in the Time of Corona
My 97-year-old mother called me this week and asked if I had any travel plans. I explained I can’t even leave the house, which is also why I am not able to see her at her senior living facility, which won’t let me in anyway given that my sister is the one designated visitor she is allowed.
The reason she wants me to stay in town is she thinks she’s dying. She had a pain under her right breast and figured this was it. At age 97, she is very accepting of this, but doesn’t want to die without being with her children. I am accepting of it too, but only when it really is her time and I didn’t think this was it – and it wasn’t; the next day, when asked about her pain, she said “what pain?” Ah, the joys of losing short term memory. (And besides, I told her she is voting in November whether she is dead or alive so she might as well be alive.)
All of this to-ing and fro-ing about her imminent and illusory demise prompted my wife to ask, what would you do now if she did die? Pregnant pause. Well, I have no idea. With hospitals putting refrigerator trucks in their loading docks as popup morgues and with funeral homes closed, the usual answer – call the death industry and let them handle it — doesn’t work.
Normally, I would end such an uncomfortable conversation with, “got to go to work.” But as I am living 24/7 at home, my wife knew she had me in the hypothetical corner, and I hate hypotheticals.
To complicate matters more, my sister is a Bahá’í of some 40 years standing (can’t really explain that here, but it started in Iran in the 1840’s, Seals and Croft were Bahá’ís too, look it up) and my mother became one after a trip to the Bahá’í center in Haifa many years ago. The Bahá’í faith calls for burials, because cremation breaks the cycle of life and your decaying remains won’t nourish the earth, and requires you be buried within one-hour travel from where you die. Makes it hard for traveling salesmen I am sure but in the time of Corona no one is going anywhere.
So, during our Family Zoom call (the new, “new thing”), I took the happy out of happy hour and asked my sister, “what’s the plan when mom dies?” I was weirdly relieved when my sister didn’t know either. So, while thousands are dealing with the reality of unattended death and virtual memorials, we have the luxury of planning ahead and hoping our mother will outlive the virus. My assignment is to search for Bahá’í burial plots in Olney, MD, a sentence I never thought I would write.
After the call my sister found my mother’s instructions for her Bahá’í burial. This is what it said apart from the legal stuff:
- A simple, dignified casket will suffice.
- A simple, dignified Bahá’í graveside service should be conducted.
- My body should be buried at some suitable plot within one hour’s journey from the place of my death if possible and feasible.
- The prayer for the dead should be recited.
- If you choose to have a quotation from the Writings, I’d like something like this one: “Ye are the fruits of one tree, and the leaves of one branch. Deal ye one with another with the utmost love and harmony, with friendliness and fellowship.” (Baha’u’llah, Epistle to the Son of the Wolf, p. 14).
- Let all your consultation be characterized by kindness, mutual respect, tenderness, and love for me and one another. And know how much I love you.
Simple. Dignified. Love. Harmony. Friendliness. Fellowship. Kindness. Mutual respect. Tenderness.
These simple virtues listed in my mother’s Will moved me from a reflection on Death in the Time of Corona, to a reflection on Living in the Time of Corona. We are being asked to live our lives for others by stopping living our lives for ourselves. Many of us are caring for others at a distance, getting food and medicines delivered to those in need, finding ways to support cancer patients in need of therapy or financial help. But there is always a chorus of those who think life is about something other than…life. For them it is about wealth, power, their 401(k) accounts, God’s will to punish New York City, full churches at Easter, you name it.
We may think we are living in a time of immobility and watchful waiting. But we are being asked to take the longest trip of our lives – to escape the daily insults of the current age where we are assaulted by a lack of empathy and a surfeit of enmity and insult from the highest office in the land and to move into a world defined by the virtues my mother listed in her burial instructions.
A late-night host said God sent the Corona virus because she was out of locusts. Maybe God is just out of patience — let’s take the hint and put the simple virtues back into our daily lives.