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Experience July/August 2023

Dancing Back from the Grave

Stephen M Terrell


  • Coming to terms with your own immortality.
  • Realizing your body becomes a cadaver, ask your friends and family that when you pass, celebrate that your life was lived and be happy it wasn't you in the casket.
Dancing Back from the Grave Images

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When the editors of Experience told me the theme for this issue was death and asked if that could be the focus of my column, it immediately took me back to the spring of 1974.

It was the spring of my senior year at Ball State University. I’d cooled on plans for law school and grad school in political science in favor of working for a couple of years in journalism. It was, after all, the heyday of Woodward and Bernstein, Watergate, and All the President’s Men.

I sent out resumes and got some interest. My first interview was south of Indianapolis at a small-town daily. I prepared the best I could, got a new suit, and even got a haircut—which in those days was quite a sacrifice.

The managing editor met me in a largely deserted newsroom. He pointed me to a desk and gave me an assignment: write my own obituary.

At 21, I’d never written an obit. Hell, at 21, I didn’t have much to put in one. But I went to work, and 15 minutes later, I handed him my obit with the punchy lead: “Franklin Daily News reporter Stephen Terrell, 21, passed away unexpectedly while working on an assignment for the newspaper.”

I apparently passed the test since I got a job offer.

No stranger to death

But while obituaries were strangers to me, death wasn’t. Two grandparents had died before I was born, and the other two were gone by the time I was 5.

My maternal grandmother was the first dead body I saw. I still vividly recall her body in a flower-draped casket in the parlor of her house on Brotherton Street. Calling hours were still often held at homes rather than funeral parlors, as they were called.

With much older parents, deaths among my uncles and aunts were regular occurrences from the time I was little. Heck, one aunt, a mother of two, died in 1919. Living in rural Indiana, with no knowledge of nutrition and little available medical care, uncles, aunts, and cousins died from stroke, heart disease, and the effects of alcohol and tobacco. One cousin died of suicide in his teens and another in a construction accident.

Auto accident fatalities were all too common. A neighbor (and my brother’s father-in-law) died when thrown from his car in the pre-seatbelt age. Another neighbor and my best friend’s uncle tried to beat a train and lost.

My cousin Sam, serving in the Navy, died in a muscle car he bought with his reenlistment bonus. Another cousin’s wife died in a car crash, followed a few years later by his son, who died in a separate accident. A classmate and third baseman on my 8th grade baseball team was run down by a reckless driver. And on a Saturday night, after a dance, four teenage boys in my neighborhood wrapped their car around a tree at more than 100 mph, killing all four.

In all, I can count nearly 30 people I’ve known who died in car crashes.

Why not me?

Maybe it was something about our neighborhood. In a baby boom on Eastwood Avenue, four children were born to four families within six months of each other. Now, at age 70, I’m the only one left.

Kenny, who lived two doors away, died at age 13 in a hunting accident. Carol, who was my 5-year-old girlfriend, died in her late 40s of cancer. David, with whom I fished, rode bikes, and played every sport that had a ball, died two years ago.

Why them and not me? I certainly didn’t take better care of myself. I’ve always carried a bit too much weight. My relationship with exercise was hit and miss. I started riding motorcycles at 17, and I’ve always enjoyed driving a bit too fast.

But the question “Why not me?” kept getting bigger as I got older. A bridesmaid at my first wedding was the victim of a random murder. A bright young lawyer in the big firm where I worked dropped dead in his early 30s from an unknown heart condition. Another lawyer in the firm died in a motorcycle accident. A few years later, a lawyer I knew from law school and as good a person as I’ve ever known dropped dead at his desk before reaching 50.

And in the COVID-19 pandemic, a close friend’s daughter, always in good shape with no pre-existing conditions, a mother of two young children who did so much for others, contracted long-term COVID. She died after a two-year fight while I never tested positive despite nearing 70 years old and diabetic.

The question of why gets bigger, and the answer is nowhere to be found.

What comes next

Recently, I did find out more about what happens after death. No, I’m not going to preach about the afterlife. That’s something I’ll leave to everyone’s own beliefs.

But I found Mary Roach’s book, Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers. It’s remarkable and wickedly funny, if you have the right sense of humor. It details what happens to human bodies after death, particularly those donated to science—beginning with the trip to the morgue:

“Gurneys that ferry the living through hospital corridors move forward in an aura of purpose and push. A gurney with a cadaver commands no urgency. It is wheeled by a single person, calmly and with little notice, like a shopping cart.”

In her research, Roach found herself in a room with 75 heads in roasting pans, at the famous (or infamous) University of Tennessee Body Farm, and sometimes just sitting in a room of cadavers. She observed:

“[Cadavers] are the same sort of company as people across from you on subways or in airport lounges, there but not there. Your eyes keep going back to them, for lack of anything more interesting to look at, and then you feel bad for staring.”

The book puts efforts at ritualistic preservation of the body in perspective. As Roach noted, one minute you’re a person and the next, you’re a cadaver with collapsing eyes and an oozing brain. The pretense of using formaldehyde, methanol, ethanol, and other solvents to maintain the body’s appearance is, frankly, a mad and futile effort.

Ultimately, New Orleans has the best approach to death. The Crescent City is known for its wonderous jazz funerals. A band leads the procession to the cemetery playing a dirge or a slow religious song. But as the mourners begin to leave, a trumpet sounds a Gabrielle-like call.

Drums tap out a lively rhythm, and the band breaks into an upbeat tune, maybe “When the Saints Go Marching In” or “Didn’t He Ramble.” The mourners launch into a joyous freestyle dance. Bystanders join in what’s known as a second line, high stepping, shimmying, and marking the beat with parasols and waiving handkerchiefs.

When asked why this is done, one local remarked, “If you truly believe, then you are celebrating that your loved one has gone on to a greater heavenly reward. And if you don’t believe, then you’re celebrating that it ain’t you in that box.”

So when I’m gone, bid me farewell New Orleans style. Raise a glass, turn up the music, and dance back from the grave.