Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Death Does Not Take a Holiday

We are born astride an open grave, with one foot resting on a banana peel and the other eternally trying to do that "RiverDance" step. Death is pursuing us all, but its a leisurely, Matlock / Murder, She Wrote kind of chase scene for the most part. A Benny Hill sketch in slow motion.

Few of us have had many serious encounters with the Grim Reaper, which is why its so universally terrifying, and always has been. Its the one test that none of us have cracked the books for beforehand.

Death is the party that you are invited to at the last minute, you're not dressed for, you don't know anybody, you feel like crap, the music blows, and yet you cannot decline its invitation. 

Me though, I've done my fieldwork on dying. How much death have I seen?

Well, plenty. I’ve probably seen 1000 dead bodies and I’ve personally witnessed the moment of death at least a dozen times.

For three years I was a hospital housekeeper. We’re the ghosts with the mops that nobody notices - but we see it all, from delivery to autopsy, and we clean it all, from the CEO’s office to the morgue.

And for the DNR patients ("Do Not Resuscitate"), Death is simply allowed to proceed.
I would be mopping the Intensive Care Unit, glance into a room that is full of machines and wires and tubes hooked up to a patient, mop back the other way, glance in again and see all the machines blinking red lights – and, a body. And then I would have to get on the intercom and alert the nurses.
  •  “ICU, room 6: doornail”
  • “Check out – alternate exit.”
  • “4th floor delivery" (the place only had 3 stories)
  • “Healthy tumor”
  • “Discharged downstairs”
  • “Gone to the Eternal Care Unit”
  • “Assuming room temperature”*

I've seen a lot of people die. And here's the thing: Nothing happens and everything changes. Its OBVIOUS. Even without the monitors and graphs and lights turning red, the moment when life leaves is night and day. (Or day and night, actually.) There is something intangible about the spark of life. And this something is so omnipresent around us that we never notice it in each other. Until its gone.

Oftentimes what I saw in the bed as I cleaned the room wasn't recognizable as a person, let alone somebody's husband or grandma. It was just a small lump under the blankets and a bit of hair sticking out of the top. But the patient was alive. Duh. And its just a body. Better go get a nurse.

Here's the other thing about dying: Its often quite beautiful. The moment when the body finally, finally surrenders is.....placid. Death is the ultimate relaxation. Its an E major chord, the final note from "A Day in the Life", and it resolves the human chord sequence perfectly.

I think that Death is just the periodic nap time of our immortality, and we should not fear its inevitability. I mean, as a wise man named Dharma once said: "Seasons don't fear the Reaper / Nor do the Wind and the Sun and the Rain / We can be like they are / Come on Baby."

Is death sad? Sure. For those who are left behind. But what they are missing is the part that is now missing. They revere the corpse because that's all we leave behind. But that's not your Grandpa. I saw Gramps beam away during his final exhalation.

And as for what's left behind? Well that's one of my favorite hospital codes: OGFP. Only Good For Parts.

Angus McMahan

*And about 1,000 others: Don’t get me started on hospital codes. They're the BEST.

(Lady of Death pic from Authors Collection; Skull tree from, and the final two from somewhere on the innerwebs.) 


  1. Good stuff Angus. I've seen my share of death too. It does end peacefully for the most part, especially if it's a long term illness. It's a quiet, so long. Thanks for writing about this.

    1. Thank you. That was a difficult piece to write, but a fun one to perform. Especially the 'hold-the-nose' hospital codes. ;-)