With songs and salutes, sugar skulls and angel wings, death is embraced
There was something defiantly theatrical in Gladys Blaine's demeanor when she made her grand entrance at the "going away" reception she threw for herself in May. Two months earlier, Blaine's doctor told her she had only three to six months to live because a succession of cancer treatments had taken their toll on her 85-year-old frame. She wouldn't be able to withstand another round.
Her spirit was alive and kicking. Her body was wasting away.
Blaine's death was imminent, staring her in the face.
So she put on some lipstick and blew death a kiss, a pair of angel's wings strapped to her shoulders and a couple of harpists thrown in for celestial good measure.
Wearing an airy sheath of a white dress, white Birkenstocks, a fuzzy halo and those big, white, fluffy wings, Blaine grinned like the Cheshire cat, cheek to cheek, and cackled like Phyllis Diller while greeting the 40 or so friends and relatives who turned out for her living funeral, her dying party.
"I'm dying!" Blaine said repeatedly in a tone that was both plaintive and joyously declarative.
There were smiles and awkward silences, a look of disbelief on some faces, sadness on others and a glance from those who knew her plucky personality that said: "This party is so Gladys."
"I'm so sorry to leave you all," Blaine rasped.
The harpists, Melissa Frykman-Thieme and Barb Adams, dressed in heavenly white dresses for the occasion. They played angel songs while Blaine mingled and mugged for her loved-ones' cameras, striking diva poses and batting her long eyelashes like one of the screen legends she worked around during her early days as a film-studio employee in Hollywood.
"There are angels hovering 'round; there are angels hovering 'round," the harpists sang as Blaine hovered 'round her downtown Seattle condo, "to carry the tidings home."
What could have been just a long, drawn-out death — a quiet fade to black — Blaine transformed into what was likely to be her last celebration. By orchestrating her own memorial, and then actively participating in it, she turned the solemn rituals we usually associate with death upside down.
There are about as many rituals to mark the death of a person as there are ways to die. Some are personal and intimate, others communal and bawdy. Some rituals take place long before a person dies, some years later. In the context of wailing Irish wakes, loose-lipped New Orleans jazz funerals and James Brown's daughter getting on the good foot at his concert-memorial, Blaine's flight of predeath fancy doesn't seem all that eccentric.
When it comes right down to it, ceremonies and special moments are as crucial to dying as they are to births and youthful rites-of-passage. Being a part of them matters. The intensity of our involvement is a way of showing how much we care.
Slowly, with the rise of personalized, less rigidly formal funerals and an embrace of alternatives to traditional burials, such as cremation and the spreading of ashes, the mystique around death is lifting.
Still, we cringe a little. Death remains a topic that we shudder to think about, and scarcely discuss.
"We live in a culture that has an almost superstitious fear of death," says Paul Elvig, retiring general manager of Evergreen-Washelli Funeral Home and Cemetery in North Seattle. We have a terror, rooted in Medieval religious teachings, he says, of even addressing the subject of dying. Elvig points to grave stones from the 1700s and 1800s, with their ominous skeletal engravings meant to scare away spirits, as evidence of this lasting dread.
Somehow we got off track.
American society may be merging from its "dark age of fearing death," Elvig says, but we continue to be a "death denial crowd." Even he and his brothers fell into the grim-faced trap when his mother was near death last fall. "We were all trying to pretend it wasn't happening," Elvig recalled. "We were denying her the chance to celebrate." A year after her death and traditional burial, "I'm still mad about it."
Blaine took the other route, refusing to let the opportunity to celebrate her last days slip away.
She brought everyone in on the production, including Providence Hospice, which had been providing her with routine end-of-life nurses, checkups and other services, such as twice-weekly massages and live, in-house harp music on request. Her hospice workers also helped procure the angel wings.
Representing hell was good friend Jack Erlandson, who came dressed as the devil. Erlandson, best friend of Gladys' late husband, Bob Blaine, was happy to oblige: "She's the only one in the world who would do this. This may be our last hurrah, but we've had a lot of parties together."
Friend Jody Sessions-Walmer of Auburn brought Blaine wine and truffles as a going-away gift.
"Why would you have a funeral" for someone like Blaine? she said. "She wouldn't have wanted to miss the party."
A projector flashed old photos of Blaine relishing her colorful life. She's wearing costumes with elaborate feathered adornments, a reference to her Mexican heritage, in many.
Other photos show the Los Angeles-born Blaine during her years as an assistant to Hollywood studio honcho Mike Todd in the 1950s, when he was married to Elizabeth Taylor.
And there's a photo of her and Bob soaking in a bubble bath, clinking champagne glasses. "That was my Christmas card that year," she said.
"I just like to have fun, period. I don't want any tears."
THE GRIEF THAT loved ones feel — the sense of loss — is as certain as death.
Rituals serve as a way of working through that pain, of channeling the sadness toward something positive, healing or cleansing. Ostensibly for the dead and dying, the visitations, the prayers, the stopping of the clocks and the laying of flowers on corpses all wind up serving the living just as much.
Former Providence Hospice nurse Calista Pollack can recall being present in the homes of patients when they died and having that feeling of standing on "profoundly sacred ground" at the instant of passing.
The families of patients who were under Pollack's care often requested that she bathe the body immediately after death and dress it in clean clothing.
"It's very much a ritual," she said. "It's that last piece of caretaking, and it's a way of expressing your love."
For children who die while in hospice, the mere act of removing the body from the home takes on ritualistic importance.
Pollack said it's common for hospice workers to ask mortuary employees to wait outside by their vehicle so parents can personally carry their child from the bed.
Every little thing a loved one does, when considered in the context of death, takes on much greater magnitude and symbolism.
That's one of the reasons that organizational consultant LueRachelle Brim-Atkins started walking her mother, Alta Brim, 93, through a "forgiveness ritual" while she was receiving hospice care from Providence at a Renton adult-care home.
The exercise involved getting Brim to breathe deeply and expel any bad feelings she harbored toward others. She'd hold Brim's hands and massage them; then Brim would place one hand over her heart while repeating a mantra with her about forgiving oneself for developing negative feelings in the first place.
One afternoon this summer, Brim-Atkins sat next to her mom and asked how the forgiveness process was going.
"Why should I forgive anyone?" Brim shot back.
"Because that's what God commands us to do," Brim-Atkins replied.
Mom, a tough cookie who suffered a stroke three years ago, still wasn't entirely convinced. Brim-Atkins knew she had more work to do.
"We're going to have to revisit this, mother," the daughter said softly as Brim drifted off to sleep.
"I didn't want her to die angry with anybody," Brim-Atkins explained, adding that she often tells stories to her mom that illustrate the power of forgiveness. "I would just like to think, whether or not a person believes in an afterlife, you'd want yourself to be peaceful," she said. "I would rather her thoughts be about pleasant things, not old hurts."
Brim-Atkins said she started her own death ritual, meditating in the mornings to help cope with her grief over her mom's condition.
"Part of it is almost a sense of desperation to keep her here," she said. "The meditation really helps. I needed to feel grounded in how I talked to her about death."
DEATH RITUALS are not only personal events but social occasions, ones that ground whole groups of people, preserving their history, heritage and common experiences.
Gary Helmick of Gig Harbor commands a 25-member volunteer honor guard, made up of veterans, that visits Tahoma National Cemetery near Kent to add full pomp and circumstance to the funeral services of military personnel. They participate in 10 or 11 ceremonies a day, every half-hour or so.
At the end of a three-volley rifle salute, a bugler plays "Taps" while a volunteer collects the shell casings, then passes them out to family members as souvenirs. Helmick says he started with the honor guard several years ago after he came to Tahoma to attend a friend's military burial. The experience inspired him.
He isn't likely to know any of these vets personally. The grieving spouses and children who file in and out of the open-air pavilions, the ones who clutch the precisely folded American flags and walk away with those shell casings, are total strangers.
But the kinship among vets and their families makes their ritual his ritual.
"A lot of (the vets) bled for this country — they sacrificed part of their lives for this country, so we should recognize them when they're laid to rest," an emotional Helmick said.
He even writes poems to recite at some of the ceremonies.
"It's not a canned program," he said. "I do it with heart."
The ritual of honoring those who've made sacrifices crosses cultures.
The Rev. Donald Castro, who presides over Seattle Betsuin Buddhist Church, says that in Japan, Betsuin Buddhists will mourn for 49 days after a person dies, with memorial services and praying every seven days, and after that on the 100th day, first, third, seventh, 13th, 17th, 25th, 33rd and 50th anniversary of the death. It's common for families to install a small wooden shrine, or obutsudan, dedicated to the deceased relative in their living rooms. Costing upward of $10,000, it's a precious family heirloom. When the anniversary comes, they'll place a photo on the shrine along with candles, incense and a card imprinted with the loved one's Buddhist "truth name" or spiritual name.
"We are the inheritors of their vital spiritual energy, which guides us," Castro said. "So we reaffirm that spiritual bond, and we recommit ourselves to not waste what we've inherited.
"It's kind of like checking in on your parents."
Every summer, the church holds a mass memorial service on the street outside, with prayers as well as dancing, which Castro calls "collective grief therapy," a mix of "the solemn and the festive, the sweet and the sour."
Perhaps nowhere else does death literally taste so sweet, or hold such high community regard, as in Mexico, and by extension, Mexican immigrant communities in the United States, where Dia de Los Muertos, Day of the Dead, happens each year on Nov. 2.
Where children and grown-ups in the United States try to scare the wits out of each other with ghoulish depictions of death at Halloween, Mexicans live it up with their spirits, joking around and mocking them like old running buddies, picnicking on their graves and erecting altars full of offerings in their homes.
"In Mexico, we are not afraid of death; we play with death," says Flor Alarcón, a native of the Oaxaca region and owner of the Mexican arts-and-crafts gallery Frida in Burien.
Alarcón sells Day of the Dead crafts, such as cut-outs of skeletons and edible "sugar skulls," at her store to an immigrant clientele that is only beginning to embrace this ancient tradition in their newly adopted home country.
In this belief system, you don't necessarily die. You live on in the form of a spirit. And on the Day of the Dead, you return home to visit with relatives and friends, who lay paths of flower petals through the house to the altar to guide your way. Each altar is topped with an arc of marigold blossoms symbolizing renewal.
People bake Day of the Dead bread, redolent of butter, and in some recipes, sesame seeds. Hot cocoa is set out for the souls to drink, and the favorite foods of loved ones are prepared for them to eat. Visitors write witty poems called calaveritas, "little skulls," to recite at gatherings.
"The souls are not in the afterlife, but here with us," Alarcón said. "My grandmother used to be in front of the altar praying from 10 to midnight, just to be present with the souls."
When Alarcón's grandmother, Esperanza Alarcón Dominguez, died in January 1997, her own memorial rivaled a Day of the Dead celebration.
"My grandmother planned everything — everything," Alarcón said.
There would be music in the days before her funeral, specifically an indigenous Mexican type called chirimia and another called rondaya. She even picked which songs would be played.
The memorial service would be at her home, not a funeral chapel. The coffin would be made of wood, not metal. Wood is warmer, she said.
The coffin remained in the living room of the grandmother's house for two days of mourning, during which loved ones prayed over her while a special attendant scooped away portions of a sand tapestry called a tapete that had been built on the floor. Family members would later pitch handfuls of the sand into the grave at burial time.
And there would be a feast. The rice was cooked at one home, the mole at someone else's, the tortillas, beans and chocolate at a third house. A band sent her off on a procession through the streets to the church and cemetery, her coffin carried on the shoulders of her children.
"It was amazing," Alarcón said. "It was just lovely, beautiful — the closing of her life and the beginning of her new life. We didn't feel like she had died."
GLADYS BLAINE has designated a very specific farewell for her death, too. The goodbye party in May was the public event, Part 1. Part 2 involves being cremated and flown back home to Southern California ("first class!").
A half-dozen or so close friends and "good drunks," to use Blaine's expression, will guard her ashes at a five-star hotel until the big day, the spreading of her ashes at sea. Her husband was laid to rest the same way.
"We hired a yacht, a big yacht," for the proceedings, Blaine told the crowd at her party.
"They're going to take me out and throw me in the ocean," she explained. Then they'll drink heartily to her memory.
But for now, Part 1 was still in full swing. The harpists got ready to play another song.
"This one's to fly out on," one of them told Blaine.
"Should I go out on the patio?" Blaine asked, pretending to head outside.
She gently stretched out her frail arms like a bird and fluttered her slender fingers as the harpists sang the first bars of "I'll Fly Away."
Blaine smiled and scanned the mournful/happy, downcast/upbeat crowd, the face of eager anticipation in a room filled with people who'd come to say goodbye but didn't really want to let go. She had one last question:
"Aren't you sorry you're not going?"
Tyrone Beason is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff writer. Alan Berner is a Seattle Times staff photographer.