Epiphany in a Graveyard


We Boomers never think about death. We are too busy celebrating the fact that collectively, we are the luckiest, wealthiest and longest living generation ever born. We are the luckiest generation because we were born between 1948 and 1964, when vigorous postwar era economic expansion gave us a world with a strong labor force, high job security, generous pension plans, and guaranteed social security. We are wealthiest because we found reliable jobs directly after high school or, we paid for our post secondary education at a fraction of today’s cost. We bought our first home cheaply only to see that initial investment debt mushroom into a surplus as property values increased. The Boomers are living longer because of modern medicine and the many advancements in medical therapy that offset the afflictions of old age. As a result, we have more retirement funds than any previous generation and the health to enjoy them. Along the way, we have taken more than our fair share from the system and the planet and left less for the generations that follow. The Boomers are a generation that ignores death simply because we are too busy enjoying our luck, wealth and health. The sad reality is that we too, will die. From the first breath, we share the same inexorable pathway to life’s end. For the Boomers, time is up.

I am a Boomer, but I do think about death, perhaps more than the average individual. This is because I have seen death more often than most. In 3 decades as an MD, I have witnessed the ephemeral nature of life and the cumulative experiences have provoked sober thought and sometimes painful reflection. For me, caring for the dying has also prompted personal action. In my 30’s I composed a will, revised it when the children came, and will keep it up to date as the future unfolds. I am aware that the life expectancy of a woman in the Okanagan is 81 years, but I also know that between 50 and 70 many things go wrong, and some are terminal. (I am in that age group). My husband and I have had conversations about dying.  We have given each other the permission to move on should the other die, to remarry, or at least not to end life alone. I do not want the man that I love to face a solitary journey should I leave him early.

In spite of thinking I had dealt responsibly with the business of dying, I have recently discovered that there are parts of death that I had not considered. To my surprise, the epiphany occurred in a cemetery at a time when I have never felt more alive.

This summer in Paris I visited Pere Lachaise, a serene 140 acre cemetery in a city of 11 million. In 1804 when it opened, the cemetery was far from Paris, but as time went by, the city encroached upon Pere Lachaise, encasing it like a cocoon. Stone walls 30 feet high protect the silent inhabitants of this sublime place, buffering them from the cacophony of the surrounding city. Inside, ancient trees shade the cobbled roads that lead to the final resting sites of 1 million souls.

Pere Lachaise is the final resting place of many legends and heroes. I was there to visit, among others, Jimmy Morrison’s grave. Morrison is a touchstone for my youth long gone and I wanted a moment to recall a magic time before he tragically died in a Paris hotel. What I did not expect to find there were the young men who also came to pay their respects. I found them in the early hours, kneeling silently at Morrison’s headstone while they played Light My Fire on their iPhones. Forty years after his death, who could have imagined these young men? Born decades after Morrison’s passing, they needed to bear witness to a time in history that they did not share, but wished to remember. If Morrison was alone at the end of life, he was not in death.

I walked the uneven cobbled pathways past the winged sepulcher of Oscar Wilde and took a minute to thank him for making me laugh. With such a bitter end to his life I wondered what witty quip he would bestow upon the countless people who came to kiss his grave. (The lipstick of those kisses has eroded the stone and forced Paris to enclose his headstone in plastic).

Edith Piaf was alone, and I could imagine the strains of her beautiful music inside my head. I thought about our own Judy Rose whose voice brings Piaf back to life. Chopin was not far away and I marveled at his genius and industry. The rich legacy that is the body of his work was accomplished in the 40 odd summers Chopin spent on this planet.

Interspersed among the famous people buried in Pere Lachaise, are many ordinary folk – the spouses, children and parents of ordinary Parisians. I watched family members quietly tend the graves of their loved ones, watering the flowers and sweeping the headstones. It was these small acts by ordinary citizens that led to my epiphany.

I have never been in favor of burial after death, but in Pere Lachaise I could see and feel the benefits of a cemetery. A gravesite is not a place for the dead, but for the living. It is a physical place to reconnect with a loved one, now gone. As I walked Pere Lachaise in the peace and quiet, I wished that I could visit my own mother in the same way I had visited so many others that day, others I did not know. I recalled being 21 and for the first time, being taken to my father’s grave. No one in my family had taken me before; so raw was their own sense of loss for this man, my father dead at 26, a man I can barely recall. I witnessed their grief, but for me, the visit brought a certain peace and closure. The physical presence of my father’s grave reconnected me with the 2 precious memories, long forgotten, that I have of this man in my first 2 years of life. Although I have not visited my father for many years, I did replace the weathered headstone last year, finding that the act provided me some small comfort.

That day in Paris I thought about my parents, and I thought about my husband and myself. I realized that, during all of our discussions, it had never occurred to me that I might outlive my husband. I had assumed that I would be the first to die.

And then the questions came. What if my husband died and I remained? How would I touch him? Where would we talk if he were cremated? If I needed his advice, how would I reach him if he were scattered on the wind? On a cobbled path in Pere Lachaise I realized with clarity and intensity, a personal desire previously unknown. Should I outlive my husband, I would want to bury him in such a place as this, a solid place, one that I could visit, one that would be a touchstone for the memories of a life shared, a place to anchor my experiences with him in a present and future I faced alone.



The History of Vanity



I wasted time, and now doth time waste me.”
― William ShakespeareShakespeare’s Sonnets

“The air is saturated with the stink of perfumes at war. There are video screens on which flawless complexions turn, preen, sigh through their parted lips, are caressed. On other screens are close-ups of skin pores, before and after, details of regimes for everything, your hands, your neck, your thighs. Your elbows, especially your elbows: aging begins at the elbows and metastasizes. 

This is religion. Voodoo and spells. I want to believe in it, the creams, the rejuvenating lotions, the transparent unguents in vials that slick on like roll-top glue… But this doesn’t deter me, I’d use anything if it worked – slug juice, toad spit, eye of newt, anything at all to mummify myself, stop the drip drip of time, stay more or less the way I am.” (Cat’s Eye p113), Margaret Atwood

The history of vanity is as old as time, and for thousands of years cosmetics have been a big part of the vanity toolbox. Cosmetics provide a plethora of social signals designed to enhance beauty, indicate status and advertise sexuality. For centuries, they were the palate of the privileged class (and the oldest profession). For example, Cleopatra’s day would have commenced with slaves applying emollients composed of beeswax, olive oil, castor oil and fragrance to soften her skin. Kohl, a mixture of lead, copper, ash and burnt almonds, was applied to encircle her eyes to give the cat – like look so coveted in her time (and in the 60’s as well).

Flash forward to the 1600s when the pale face symbolized ultimate beauty. The highest class of European women responded by sun avoidance and to best their competitors, many resorted to bloodletting. The voluntary loss of a pint or two would achieve the desired pallor. The pale face became even paler in the 1700s when Ceruse, a white paint composed of lead and arsenic, became available at a time when smallpox scars were ubiquitous; the plaster- like substance could fill the depressed areas and hide imperfections. The downside to ceruse, however, was deadly.  Lead and arsenic caused eye swelling, rashes, tooth loss and even death. Another poison, belladonna, was placed in the eye to mimic the enlarged pupil of sexual arousal. The quest for beauty accelerated in the 1800s with the increased accessibility to the mirror and the invention of the photograph. To present a beautiful complexion for the camera, 17th century women ingested Fowler’s solution, a dilute concoction composed of arsenic to improve the skin.

The driving force behind the cosmetic boom of the 20th century was the movie industry. Cosmetic enhancement became mainstream and entrepreneurs like Max Factor, Elizabeth Arden, Helena Rubenstein and many more delivered what women of ancient times dreamed of, a whole constellation of products guaranteed to enhance the female face and body at an affordable price. Coco Chanel, for better or worse, convinced the modern woman that a tan was the new fashion accessory. At the start of the 20th century the average life expectancy of a woman was only 42 years. As advances were made in public health and medicine, people lived longer and the demand for cosmetic product to fight the visible signs of the aging process became big business.

In the 21st century the cosmetic industry became a multibillion-dollar industry and it keeps growing. Cosmetics, however, could only enhance ones features or hide imperfections, but as women lived longer, cosmetics fell short of the mark. Older women needed more. The movie industry and its aging leading ladies led the charge towards antiaging surgery and the niche of the cosmetic surgeon was born. The arms race towards youth and away from the grave escalated with the proliferation of plastic surgery procedures. Now a tighter face, flatter stomach, larger breasts, slimmer limbs and designer vaginas were only a nip and tuck away.

For those unwilling to go under the knife, Botox and tissue fillers opened up a new world of possibilities. Now for a price, anyone can have a wrinkle free face, plumper lips and look years younger.

Some may ask; When does the madness end?  My answer is that it doesn’t. As long as men and women are still breathing, there is a desire to be relevant in a culture that values beauty, status and sexual attractiveness.  Some may be shocked by the voluntary exsanguination by women in the 15th century to achieve pale skin, but today’s woman is willing to to do far more. Lest we think derisively about our ancestors, we should look at the behaviors we sanction today, before casting the first stone.