You can be a king or a street sweeper, but everybody dances with the Grim Reaper.
~Robert Alton Harris
Temple Journalism, Spring 2014
When our class decided to spend a month exploring the topic of death and dying, I knew we would be getting interviews from all kinds of experts and professionals whose work involves death or dying in some way. People like morticians, hospice nurses, grief counselors and grave diggers. But the project would be incomplete without the thoughts and beliefs from the layperson, people who donâ€™t work around the dead and dying. Because regardless of our professions, we all have feelings about death. Approaching strangers in the park and asking them to take ten minutes with us and open up about a heavy topic was illuminating. Their stories were moving, funny and often profound. A few people thanked us for making them think about their mortality because they said it helps them appreciate life. Which is the point of all of this. --Randi Rae Fair
Hilary Brashear, 23 “I think dying is like the times that you go to sleep and you don’t have a dream or you don’t remember your dream, and you just sort of close your eyes and open them again and you’re awake. I think dying is like that happening, but you never open your eyes again.” Hilary Brashear was born in New York City but now lives in Philadelphia. She is currently working on projects with a filmmaker. Thinking about death makes her anxious. If she died today, one thing she would regret would be not having traveled more. She’d like to be remembered as someone who changes people’s minds.
Tremayne Moore, 40 “My mom would tell me ‘you better get your life right or you’re going to get sent to the lake of hell.’” Tremayne Moore is a shuttle bus driver from Southwest Philadelphia. He has a seven-yearold son and a 17-year-old daughter. When he thinks about death it usually concerns his mom, he wonders what he’s going to do if she passes. He has not really thought much about his own death. He believes that the present is paradise and when you die there might be a “lake of hell” awaiting and he doesn’t want to see that.
Dani Ford, 22 â€œI feel pretty resolved and comfortable with the fact that I am going to die.â€? Dani Ford, originally from West Virginia, currently lives in West Philadelphia. She recently graduated from college and is working as a nanny. Having dated someone who was a transhumanist, who believed that death could be cured, she often talked about death and is comfortable talking about the topic. She does not believe in a god or gods although she doesnâ€™t not believe in things that are not material.
Labenh Williams, 14
â€œI think you come back as people, animals, all types of things.â€?
Labenh Williams lives in Southwest Philadelphia. She thinks about death everyday. Williams is a Christian who believes in God but does not believe in heavan and hell. Every Sunday and Thursday, Williams and her mother feed the homeless at their local church.
Andrew Simonet, 44 “It’s complicated. It’s both a thing that gives clarity or meaning to what a day is or a life is, but there’s also this grey feeling of mystery and abyss that I’m feeling.” Andrew Simonet is a choreographer who lives in West Philadelphia. He thinks about death a few times a day and is fascinated with the “improbability of knowing what happens before and after death.” He thinks that cremation is the easiest choice for the treatment of his body after he dies. He jokes that he doesn’t want to take up space, he would rather fertilize a tree.
Gregorio Pac Cojulun, Jr., 65
â€œI believe... the streets are paved with gold.â€? Gregorio is the President of Malcolm X Memorial Park and he has lived in West Philadelphia for 52 years. He thinks about death on occasion and as he gets older he thinks of it more and more. He believes human spirits live on after death, given to God, while our bodies erode in the ground. His idea of the after life is devoid of pain or suffering and filled with happiness and joy of being with the Lord.
Aino Soderheilm, 45 “I just think it’s weird, the whole thing to embalm the body and put makeup on and lay it on display...It’s important to remeber the person when they were alive.” Aino Soderheilm is from Sweden. She is a social worker and thinks about death daily because people die frequently at her job. Part of her thinks that nothing happens when life ends, the other part wants to believe that the spirit lives on. She is not religious but thinks that if she did believe in a god, it would give her comfort at times. She wants to be remembered as someone who tried to help people and tried to do the right thing.
Ramona Powell, 31 “I want to be decapitated and then cremated, so that I know I’m not coming back and I know that no one is touching my body.” Ramona Powell is from Norristown, Pennsylvania. She doesn’t think of death very often. Her view on the topic is that when it’s a personal death it can be sad but she thinks it can be pretty funny when in the context of zombies and movies. She thinks that we turn into dirt when we die and nothing else. She and her sister have an agreement that they will respect each other’s wishes. Her sister wants a Viking funeral.
Abdulla Kahlil, 35
“You’re here to die.”
Abdulla Kahlil works in the West Philadephila community. As a Muslim, he thinks about death everyday. He believes that the afterlife leads to paradise and he cannot wait to get there. Kahlil prefers to be wrapped up and put in the ground and not have a church service.
Francesco Bellafante, 43 “If I were to die today, I would regret not having done more in the area of those suffering from suicidality, due to my own personal experience with that.” Francesco works in the field of informational technology and finance. He went to his first funeral, which was for a relative on his mother’s side, when he was around 10 or 11 years old. The funeral was an open casket and left a deep impression on him at the time. Francesco would like his funeral service to be a celebration of his life.
Rev. Rhetta Morgan, 56 â€œI believe that we are energy, so we likely revert to some form of energy, other than what we understand ourselves to be now.â€? Reverend Rhetta Morgan is from Washington D.C. and now lives in Philadelphia. She is an interfaith minister who feels curious about the topic of death. Believing that some aspect about what we believe about life is mirrored in our death experience, she says that if she is Christian, she might see Jesus and if she were Muslim she might have an experience with the prophet Muhammad.
Cole Fiedler-Kawaguchi, 22
â€œI canâ€™t imagine regretting anything, though I would be sorry for the people I had left behind if I were to die suddenly.â€? Cole thinks about death on a fairly regular basis depending on his emotional state. The only two funerals he has ever attended were for his two step uncles. He would not want his funeral service to be held in a church or any other religious building.
Azhia Caldwell, 15 “It makes me sad because you feel the pain of someone you lost but you kind of feel good because they are not in any more type of pain.”
Azhia is a student from Southwest Philadelphia. She believes that after death people’s spirits continue in other forms in the world. To her, life after death is a happier, cleaner life without pain or sorrow. If this 15-year-old were to die today, she would regret not forgiving the people that hurt her. She would like to be remembered as someone who can make everybody laugh and be happy, regardless of whether she was happy herself.
Rebecca Hollenbach, 22 â€œI think itâ€™s interesting that like after death we romanticize the people that we know, and we talk about all their good qualities, which makes sense...but people are so complex.â€? Rebecca, a Quakertown resident, believes that death will be fairly similar to sleeping. She mentioned that she would like to be cremated. Her biggest regret if she were to die today were not having seen more changes in the world such as building stronger communities and rectifying certain societal injustices.
Azeem, 27 “Unless you’re really exceptional...people aren’t going to remember you. You’re just going to be a name, even if it’s just in a family tree.” Azeem is an Ardmore resident and works in finance. He tries to remind himself about death frequently in order to live a more fruitful life. He mentions that he would prefer a fairly straighforward service. If he were to die today, Azeem would regret not being in a meaningful relationship and having children.
Frank Chance, 61 “Being a person hasn’t been all that bad...so I wouldn’t mind coming back as a human being. Sometimes I think about coming back as a dog.”
Frank, a Kansas City, KS native, is a professor at the University of Pennsylvania. Frank considers death often and hopes that his funeral is one of celebration rather than sadness . He believes that he will still consciously exist in the afterlife and that a spiritual force exists.
De’Andre Johnson, 19 “I’d rather not give away my organs. I’d rather keep everything with me.”
De’Andre is a dog-loving 19-year-old from West Philadelphia. He believes that when people die, God will judge them and decide whether they go to heaven or hell. He doesn’t think about death too often because it is inevitable and will happen to everyone. He said he was raised to do the right thing because on Judgment Day he would want to be sent to heaven.
Randi Rae Fair Some little girls daydream about the kind of wedding they would like to have; I’ve been planning my funeral since I was seven. I’ve always been fascinated with death and dying. What does it feel like, when will I go, what will I see as I’m going, how will people mourn me. When I was very young, and was a Christian, death scared the hell out of me, pun intended. I remember very clearly that I visualized hell as being like the Temple of Doom from the Indiana Jones movies. All red and hot and miserable and terrifying with some crazy guy burrowing his hand into your chest to rip out your still-beating heart while you scream forever. I used to pray to God every night that I didn’t end up there. My fear sometimes had me praying for forgiveness several times a day. When I was nine I left the church (for many reasons) and began to identify as agnostic and eventually as an atheist. Now that eternal torment and suffering was no longer in the equation, death ceased to be scary to me. I began to look at dying and death as something that is natural. As an occurrence that happens to everybody and everything. As something that must happen. As something beautiful. The first time I was really affected by death was in high school. A close friend of mine was killed in a car accident. This would have been painful enough on its own but when you add that we had gotten into an argument a week prior and I told her I never wanted to see her again, it’s a new level of pain. Since that happened, I never leave a loved one without telling them I love them, even if we are fighting and I don’t feel very loving toward them at the moment. I once had a job which required I inject a drug into animals’ veins to kill them. These animals, dogs and cats mostly, came from situations so cruel and neglectful that I won’t even try to describe them here and most were beyond the point of rehabilitation. People would say to me that they could never do what I do. But I was proud to do it. I did it out of necessity and out of love. It wasn’t a gleeful task, but I took pride in it. I knew I was providing comfort. I was often the only kind hand that animal had ever felt in her entire life and watching her life slip away was also watching her pain slip away. Sometimes, death is better. I have had a wonderful experience working on this project and I am so happy to see its fruition. My group interviewed strangers on the street about their feelings and beliefs regarding death and dying and the experience was fascinating and touching and absolutely memorable. As an advocate of death acceptance, I think we need to bring the topic of death into our lives. Acknowledging our mortality and planning for our own inevitable passing not only puts us in a position of strength and power but also absolves our families of any guess work when that time comes. As for me, I am currently going through the procedure of having my body donated to a university where medical students will poke and prod at my corpse and learn to mend bones or stitch skin or perform face lifts. Maybe I will be sent to a school and be part of a program where donated cadavers lie around in the sun on campus and students walk around and note how they decay so I can help, in my mute, fragrant way, to advance the field of criminal forensics. That seems really nice.
Susan Dong I’ve never really put too much thought into thinking about death. When I was little, I recall being somewhat scared and sad about the thought that the afterlife was like sleeping. I mean sleeping is peaceful but the concept of one day suddenly not feeling or knowing anything was really scary, which is probably another reason why in my teenage years, I gravitated toward Catholicism and believing in God. Thinking that a heaven existed gave me comfort. I think it made it so I wasn’t facing uncertainty, which can be frightening. I’m no longer Catholic but I’ve come to terms with this uncertainty and that we will all die. I think more about the present now. The first funeral I ever attended was actually during the first week of this project. It was my boyfriend’s close friend from college. I knew him well enough to be sad but I wasn’t. I was somewhat perplexed by this and wondered if I was a bad person since I didn’t feel sad at all. I honestly thought that something was wrong with me since I felt so disconnected. I did end up crying at the funeral but it wasn’t because a friend had died; my sadness came more from watching everyone else in pain. I suppose since I came to terms with the fact that everyone dies, I didn’t see it as a sad thing. It was more of a shocking experience like “Whoa, I won’t ever see thing person again.” This project let me know that I wasn’t alone. In one of our interviews, a guy named Cole said that he was at a funeral and felt disconnected and was thinking that it wasn’t okay. When I heard him say that I wanted to high-five him. I’m really glad that we did this project since the topic of death is one that isn’t talked about a lot. We got so many different answers to our interviews and they showed me that there are a lot more differing views out there than I thought. Even though many people think that there’s a normal standard in terms of feeling a certain way when there’s a death, the sample of people we interviewed really opened my eyes. Some people were saddened by funerals, while others were numb and felt nothing and others even wanted it to be a happy celebration of a person’s life.
Alexis Wright-Whitley I never really knew how to to talk about death. I think part of that stems from not truly being able to fathom its concept. Do we live this thing that we call “life” to only fade to darkness eternally or does our hybridization of suffering and good deeds determine which metaphysical realm we end up in? Often times, I believed that death didn’t have to equal sadness nor sorrow. It’s all a part of this human experience; some just get to the other end of it faster. Battling suicide from the age of seven to 12 years after, death, in my mind, was an end goal. It was equated with the end of suffering. Yet, for those 12 years, I haven’t succeeded in meeting my goal. Now, two years later, it is hard to cognize that my thoughts on death anchored me every day. To this day, I ask myself what death means and what it is. I’ll never truly know until it is something I experience, and that is something that I cannot say for certain.
Nickee Plaksen I’m going to be honest, I am not afraid of death like most people, but I am afraid of dying. Once you’re dead, you’re dead. There’s nothing to worry about anymore. But during the process of actually dying, you are forced to face the reality of how you spent your life. While I’m dying, what if all I can think about is what I didn’t get to do in my life? What if I needed to tell someone I love them or I’m sorry, but I never got a chance to do it? What if, by the end of my life, I have more regrets than I do successes? That’s what I’m afraid of. Right before the Grim Reaper allows me to take my final breath, I want to be able to think to myself, “I’m ready.” My biggest fear is dying with unfinished business. After death, who knows what will happen. I don’t necessarily believe in the traditional ideas of heaven and hell, but it would be nice to know that our spirits live on somehow. Whether it be reincarnation or ghosts living in attic, it is certainly comforting to hope that our bodies aren’t just buried 6 feet into the ground and that’s that. With that being said, I can’t help but be the skeptic that I am and accept that our spirits will die with our bodies underground. That is why we need to live our lives to the fullest and take advantage of the beauty of life.
Naveed Ahsan What fascinated me about working on the Death and Dying project was how approachable and willing people were to discuss their views on their mortality. We were able to get around 20 interviews and I expected to get maybe half a dozen. I have learned that having an opening dialogue about death and realizing that youâ€™re life is indeed finite can be quite therapeutic.