Personal Research Reflection, Blog Post #7
Following spring break the assigned topics, presented to the class, shifted to those surrounding the human experience. In particular, topics focused on the idea of an apocalypse, how race becomes biology, what it means to be human, genetic engineering, happiness, and end of life care. It was from this list of topics that I found the inspiration to choose my end term project subject. My subject choice evolved into Ancient Egyptian Funerary Technology; Mummification.
Given a choice, I believe all of us would prefer to write about something that we have had personal experience with. I am no different. After reviewing the syllabus topics, as listed above, I was comfortable in knowing that from the very broad topic of “Death and Dying” would come my research paper subject. My comfort writing about death and dying, also in a large part, comes from my personal experiences throughout my life.
In grade school, my best friend’s dad was my “larger-than-life” hero; Captain America and Superman would have had to surrender their place in line just to let this man be first. Dad Nick, as I called him, was an Army veteran and Chief of Police of a town west of Toledo, Ohio. He taught us to hunt and fish at a very young age. He taught us to respect the death of the animal we brought home. Dad would tell us that the animal surrendered its life to us that we could eat and be healthy. To note, we were strictly forbidden to shoot or catch anything out of season or that we were not going to eat.
My next introduction to death and dying came from the passing of family; grandpa, grandma, aunts and uncles. My mother’s family was Irish Catholic. The first funeral service I attended, on my mother’s side, was an old fashioned Irish Wake at the home of the uncle that died. When we arrived I was stopped in my tracks by the sight of my dead uncle sitting in a chair; with a celebratory drink in his hand, and the family laughing and toasting his passage to heaven. His death was seen as his greatest achievement in life; such that an all-out celebration was in order. The wake continued all night and into the next day; personal stories reminiscing about Uncle Bill could be heard all about the room. Even as a young boy I remember thinking about the overwhelming love and respect everyone bestowed on Uncle Bill.
My father’s family was old world German in heritage. Funerals for loved ones were only held at one particular funeral home, Jason’s. The family was galvanized when it came to certain beliefs and rituals. First, the signature directory was to be handled with care; one individual was assigned to make sure it went home after the funeral. Second, one or two family members took photos of the decedent, to be processed, duplicated and passed out to family members at a later gathering. And finally, decisions founded on beliefs regarding protection of the body were made well in advance of the viewing; the casket must be made of copper, the casket must be set into a sealed concrete vault in the ground, ultimately only the best of the best would do. I can remember my father and his sisters expressing their deep fear of water touching their body in the casket as well as insects.
I began my life’s work in medicine as a Registered Respiratory Therapist, spending 13 years working in all areas of patient care. I worked every position from Neonatal Intensive Care to the Trauma Team in the emergency room. My career took me to many hospitals in and around my home as well as hospitals in the Fort Myers, Florida area. This was the point in my life were death lost its surreal sheen. It was as real as real could get; I became a first-hand witness of death, from the still born premature baby to the geriatric patient whose body is just too tired. In between, death came as an automobile accident, a horrific gunshot, and the unthinkable blindsided blow that no one saw coming. I began to take courses on death and dying in an effort to get a grasp on this thing was insidiously seeding itself into my day. I studied other cultures and their beliefs and was impressed by the reverence and respect they had for the act of dying; not as an end, but as a new beginning of the next and final journey.
Whenever I covered the emergency room I often saw the dark side of death; the victim of a gun shot during a domestic crime of passion, the beautiful 14 year old girl who while walking along a busy road was struck in the back of the head by the side mirror of a truck speeding down her road, I remember crying for her father as he entered the trauma room to be with her. By this point I was becoming “Burnt Out” and began looking to other professions.
The cliff notes version, I went on to Veterinary Medical School and became a Doctor Veterinary Medicine. I loved working with dogs and cats; snakes – not so much. And then, there was that uninvited guest, “Death”, even in veterinary medicine death has its place. We see all the same end of life illnesses that humans face, only sooner. I will say that I have witnessed owners grieving more for the loss of their dog that I saw family grieving over the loss of a premature baby in the Neonatal Intensive Care. Currently, Veterinary Medicine offers euthanasia as a tool to end suffering of an animal. Euthanasia was a struggle for me to understand and to perform; it weighed heavy on my conscience, it went against everything I was taught growing up, it challenged my commitment to God and my faith beliefs surrounding death and dying. I almost stopped practicing medicine because of the stress it brought to my life. I had to find some means of reconciling the act of creating death. Finally, I settled on performing euthanasia if the patient met one of two criteria. One, the illness was terminal, there was no known cure, irregardless of cost, and it was clear the animal was suffering. Or two, it was a safety issue; a cat or a dog that had overt aggression issues and proven to have harmed another animal or a person. To this day I remain committed to this approach. I have turned away many clients, over the years, that I felt were turning to euthanasia for all the wrong reasons. I am proud to say that I have never compromised my position on euthanasia.
Each of my past experiences surrounding death led to my choice of writing about ancient Egyptian funerary practices, cultural beliefs and rituals, and the practice of mummification. From the first time, as a young boy, I saw an Egyptian mummy at the Toledo Museum of Art I have had an intense fascination and profound respect for the Egyptian civilization. I recognized their commitment to the cultural belief that death was merely a journey to continue their lives in another realm. They based their funerary practices on the most current social and scientific knowledge of the time. Moreover, the Egyptians remained committed to their beliefs and practices throughout their time as a civilization. Writing about their practices was an easy choice for me; like myself, the Egyptians saw death as a continuation of life that commanded respect, not sad ending. I will always remain fascinated with the Egyptian civilization and their cultural beliefs and practices.