Jerry Davich: ‘You’re never prepared enough for this’
Post-Tribune staff reports April 13, 2013 11:00PM
Post-Tribune columnist Jerry Davich lies in a casket but he's not dead. | Photo provided
Updated: May 15, 2013 6:52AM
Before leaving Bartholomew Funeral Home in downtown Valparaiso, I felt compelled to ask one last haunting question that had been on mind for many years.
Has any customer ever asked to lie down inside a casket, to see what it would feel like?
“No,” replied funeral director Chuck Harris, who also serves as Porter County Coroner.
So, I asked him, “Can I?”
Sure, he said with a curious look, rolling one out from a wall in the downstairs level of the funeral home.
I climbed inside with arms crossed, eyes closed, and mind racing. It felt more comfortable than I imagined, even though I plan on getting cremated.
I asked Harris to take a photo of my experience (another first for him), although I wasn’t quite sure what I would do with it. Until earlier this week when, late one night, I posted it on my social media sites.
“Jerry, that’s awful,” soon replied Shelley Seely of Chesterton.
“Creepy,” wrote Kathie Sizemore of Lowell.
“Dude, are you crazy?” asked Deb Ekdahl of Portage.
“How’d it feel?” asked Paula Snider-Larson of Merrillville.
“What are you doing? Get out of there. Not funny!” responded Mileva Gligic Savich of Merrillville.
“And the point is?” asked Fred Newman of Lake Station.
My point was to elicit knee-jerk and heartfelt responses from others about a subject we’d rather avoid until we no longer can – death.
The notion itself of willingly sliding into a casket, let alone the physical act, seems to touch us in a primal way that very few things do, I learned. This aspect of death intrigues the hell out of me in a sort of sociological, philosophical, and spiritual way.
So, I soon learned, nonstop images of sex, violence, and dying are easily digested in our society, but a photo of a (living) guy in a casket is crazy, morbid, and even sacrilege. Hmmmm...interesting.
“Most of us are totally afraid of it,” explained Sheri Graegin of Highland. “Death is such a mystery. Seeing someone in that casket maybe brings back memories of when grandma or mom or dad died. It hits home. We are all gonna have to do this one day.”
No one knew this more than Roger Ebert, the internationally renowned film critic, author, and philosopher who died on April 4. In his 2011 book, “Life Itself: A Memoir,” Ebert tackled death head on with simple words and candid emotions.
“I know it’s coming, and I do not fear it, because I believe there is nothing on the other side of death to fear,” he wrote. “I was perfectly content before I was born, and I think of death as the same state.”
Though, he also admits, “I hope to be spared as much pain as possible on the approach path.” He didn’t expect to die anytime soon but, he wrote, “...it could happen this moment, while I am writing.”
I appreciate such a pragmatic attitude when it comes to death, even though few of us ever think it really could happen to us at this moment.
“Someday I will no longer call out, and there will be no heartbeat. I will be dead,” Ebert wrote. “What happens then? From my point of view, nothing. Absolutely nothing.”
I understand this flies in the face of everyone who believes in the hereafter, heaven, or some kind of afterlife. People have told Ebert that “it is a tragic and dreary business to go into death without faith,” Ebert wrote. “I don’t feel that way.”
‘While Jesus tapped his toes’
I thought of this train of thought while I briefly closed my eyes inside that casket. I also considered a viewpoint from the opposite spectrum, thanks to Dorothy Creekmore.
I first met the elderly Hammond woman in 2003, after being told she was dying of terminal stomach cancer. Hospice care awaited her down the road. She faced it head on, like Ebert, but believing in her heart that Jesus was by her side.
Creekmore eyed her husband of 62 years like he was a stranger and marched into a conversation that most couples tip-toe around. The Baptist believers sat across from each other in their tiny living room and I watched on from a nearby chair.
“I’ll have to go to the hospice again,” the 84-year-old woman told her husband.
Ed, who spent words like they were $100 bills, just stared at her, thinking.
She wouldn’t be returning home. They both knew it.
Dorothy, who gave out hugs like they’re smiles, lived with the certainty of heaven, salvation, and Jesus’ waiting arms. She knew every nook and cranny of the Bible. The good book. The only book, really.
Over the several months I spent with Creekmore – from her home to hospice to heaven – she rarely spoke of death and dying. But when she did, it came matter-of-factly, like talking about what’s on TV that night.
Creekmore wanted to die on her own terms, not hooked up to some fancy machine while Jesus tapped his toes, she once told me.
By January 2004, Creekmore could no longer speak. Or read. Or pray aloud. It had been days since she swallowed whole food. Or drank on her own. If faith blazed inside her, she was unable to show it.
I visited her at the William J. Riley Center in Munster, part of the Hospice of the Calumet Area program, where a cushion propped up her head. Nurses fed her drops of ice water through a syringe. Like a baby at bottle time, Creekmore’s eyes locked onto the nurse’s without saying a word.
Two days later, she died. It was a Sunday, her favorite day, she once said. The Lord’s day.
At her funeral, I remembered something she once told me. I recalled it again while laying inside that casket.
“You’re never prepared enough for this,” she told me, pointing her crooked finger in the air.
Maybe this helps explain why we fear death, dying and, possibly, even empty caskets.
Find more of Jerry’s writings on Facebook, Twitter, Linked-In, and jerrydavich.wordpress.com.