Courtesy of TheAtlantic.com | Studs Terkel | Originally Published October 2001, Posted 12.25.2017
Interviews with a paramedic, a social worker, an undertaker, and a mother about their experiences with death and dying
Will the circle be unbroken,
By and by, Lord, by and by.
There’s a better home awaiting
Far beyond the starry sky.
-old hymn, sung by Doc Watson
On December 23, 1999, as I was beginning to interview people for a new book on death and dying, my wife, Ida, died. She had been my companion for sixty years. She was eighty-seven. A few months later a friend of mine, disturbed by my occasional despondency, burst out, “For chrissake, you’ve had sixty great years with her!” Ida had lived seventeen years beyond her traditionally allotted three score and ten, though on occasion I’d heard her murmur in surprise, “Why do I still feel like a girl?” They were roller-coaster years we shared, after I first spotted her, in a maroon smock, in 1937. She was a social worker during most of those tumultuous years: the Great Depression, World War II, the Cold War, Joe McCarthy, the sixties, the civil-rights and peace movements. She was, as they say, “involved.” Garry Wills remembers her greeting him, years after the Vietnam War had ended, with “Oh, we were arrested together in Washington.”
A year or so before Ida’s death Laura Watson, a neighbor, “looked out the window and saw this slim young girl in jeans, with a flower in her hair, plucking out weeds in her garden.” The girl looked up. “It was Ida, of course.” Gwendolyn Brooks’s bet was “She could dance on a moonbeam.”
Yes, she did live to the ripe old age of eighty-seven, but it doesn’t cut the mustard, Charlie. I still see that girl in the maroon smock who liked yellow daisies. Each week there is a fresh bunch of yellow daisies near the windowsill. On the sill is the urn containing her ashes. On occasion, either indignant or somewhat enthusiastic about something, I mumble toward it (her), “Whaddya think of that, kid?”
Naturally, when I pick up a newspaper these days, the first place I turn to isn’t sports, or arts, or the business of business, or the op-eds. I immediately turn to the obituaries. The old doggerel with which many mature readers may be acquainted has become my mantra.
I wake up each morning and gather my wits,
I pick up the paper and read the obits.
If my name is not in it, I know I’m not dead,
So I eat a good breakfast and go back to bed.
A Chicago paramedic
“I’m a Chicago boy, born and raised on the North Side. I spent about fifteen years on the job as a paramedic in Chicago, working the streets all over the city. Ostensibly, you’re the eyes and the ears of a doctor. When a doctor can’t be on the scene, they’ll send guys like us. I like to call us ‘gutter medics,’ because we work in the gutter, we work wherever we find a patient. Sometimes it takes you to some pretty strange places, strange situations. The police don’t have paramedics. Chicago’s paramedics are strictly underneath the fire department’s auspices. We work twenty-four hours. We start at eight in the morning, we get off at eight in the morning. You take two days off, and every fourth day you’d get a day off. That gave you essentially five days off in a row, so you had time to decompress. During a twenty-four-hour period, when I first started out, we could do easily twenty-five runs, be a minimum of one run an hour. No sooner would you put a patient down than you’d be picking up another one. You’d be going like that all day for twenty-four hours. So when you got off work in the morning, there really wasn’t much left of you. You spent your first day walking around in a daze. The day after that, you’d just be recuperating, and then you’d go back to work.
“You can’t afford to leave yourself, any part of yourself, with any one of the victims. Grief is grief. Denial is denial. I don’t think anything used to make me more angry than suicides. The worst suicide that I ever saw wasn’t gory or anything like that. It was really contained. It was a nineteen-year-old kid who took a shotgun, put it in his mouth, and pulled the trigger. For some reason it didn’t make a mess like you would expect it to. He sat in a very contained position against the wall. And it was the attitude that we found him in, the body, bare feet. He looked like a child, he looked like a kid. He left a suicide note on the counter. That was my big mistake—reading it. You separate yourself from things and you develop a thick skin. You try not to identify with the people that you have to deal with. Well, this kid left a note to his father and his brother about how he was tired of being treated as if he were retarded because he was very hard of hearing. He couldn’t talk right, and he couldn’t hear. And that’s what drove this kid to suicide. My big mistake was instead of looking at him and walking out of the room and forgetting about it, I bothered to read the note. And that’s why it stuck in my head, it stuck in my mind.”
A worker at the University of Illinois Community Outreach Intervention Project, School of Public Health
“I don’t know anything about living wills. But I knew there was a form that all the case managers had that was like, ‘I don’t want to be hooked up to a machine.’ So we filled out this form. So Norma, she was an African-American transvestite, used to come in the office all the time. But she would always come in and say to me, ‘Matta, do you still have my papers, my living will? I want to make sure that you take care of me when I’m dead. I don’t want to be hooked up to no machines. When I’m buried, I want to look my best. Make sure that I have a nice wig, make sure that I have a nice dress.’ We know how the HIV makes people suffer. It progresses into loss of weight, all kinds of bad, bad illnesses. We talked about it—that maybe it would be better if she took a really, really nice picture when she’s all dressed up, and I would keep that picture until she died. And she did that. She got a picture, she was all dressed up with a red dress. Around Christmastime she had taken the picture, very nice.
“Then I started thinking Norma would not want this. She would absolutely not want this. So I started talking to them about taking her off the ventilator. Pull the plug. She had three different doctors: the head doctor, the doctor in the middle, and then the lowest one on the totem pole. All of them were telling me different things. One of them said, ‘If we unplug her, she will die.’ The other one said, ‘If we unplug her, she might live and she might continue to breathe.’ And the third one was telling me, ‘If we unplug her, it’s going to be a really ugly death and she’s going to be gasping and she’s going to suffer.’ So I had to think some more about this. This was such a difficult decision. This was a decision to take a human life. And I am not a trained person. The only thing I can go by are my instincts and my compassion, and what she wanted.
“Without my knowledge, they moved her to a coma center. It’s where everybody is hooked up to machines. First I called to see how she was. When I called, I asked about Norma Sanders. And they are telling me, ‘Oh, you mean Norman Sanders?’ I said, ‘No, Norma Sanders.’ They kept telling me, ‘Oh, there must be a misunderstanding on the computer.’ I think I heard them giggling in the background. So when I went to the hospital, I was very upset. I asked to speak to the head nurse. I brought a picture of Norma with me, that beautiful picture of her. And I said, ‘This is the person that’s lying in that bed. She always lived as a woman. She wants to be treated as a woman. And she wants to die like a woman.’ [A pause.] They all were laughing, showing it around, ‘Look at this, look at this.’ I was very upset. I asked to speak to the head person, and I told him, ‘I’m really upset. This person wants to die, number one, with dignity.’ So what I did, I stuck her picture above her bed in that coma center. And I asked them to take her off the ventilator because I wanted to allow her to die. [Infuriated.] And they’re still arguing with me. ‘Oh, we have to get the ethics committee together,’ and all this crap. I had a living will and they wanted to talk about ethics, okay? They had told me, ‘She will never come out of this. Her kidneys have failed, her liver has failed, her heart is failing.’ But they want to keep her there on that ventilator thing. I met with the social workers and I told them that I wanted her unplugged and they were supposed to unplug her the following day. I had the right.
“So I went into Norma’s room. I stuck my finger in her hand like this … and I told her, I said, ‘Norma, I have promised you for ten years that I would make sure that you died with dignity. I would make sure that you wouldn’t have to be in pain. And I’m here to take care of your wishes. If you understand me, squeeze my finger.’ And she squeezed my finger. And then I told her, I said, ‘Norma, your cats are okay. Your rent is paid. Wayne is fine. Everything is taken care of. Your house is clean. Phone bill is paid. Everything is okay. You can just let go. I know you’re in pain. I know you want to stop this. If you still want me to do what I promised you, squeeze my finger.’ And she squeezed my finger. The next morning she died from a heart attack. And that was the story of Norma.”
A semi-retired funeral director in Chicago. He once had five funeral homes in the city but now has only this one.
“After high school I attended Worsham College of Mortuary Science, in 1948. It was actually a two-year course in one year. We went to school from eight in the morning until five at night. If you were working in the morgue on a body, you had to complete it, no matter if it took you till six o’clock. We learned embalming, of course. Removing the blood out of the body and replacing it with embalming fluid to preserve the remains. I waited till I got my full license before I went into the service in 1952, the Korean War. I was with the Ninety-second Armored. I was there only thirty-nine days, and we were shelled about thirty of them. The battery commander finally says, ‘I see here by your records you’re a licensed mortician. What are you doing in the artillery?’ So they transferred me into the Fortieth Infantry Division, and that’s where I worked myself up to head of the burial detail. I was in the Division of Graves Registration. The bodies were all taken to an airfield and then sent back to Japan, where they were processed for shipping back home. We had no morgue set up for preparation of the bodies. We were only a couple of miles behind the lines. We just had to get them out of there, fast. It was very scary at first. Our company buried over three hundred enemy dead right there on the spot.
“I came back home in 1954 and for three years worked in several funeral homes in Chicago. Old established ones. I went on my own in March of 1957. I bought out George Westphall, who was there since 1907. Three years ago I gave my son the business. I’m semi-retired now, but I still come in on weekends so he has a couple days off to be with his family. I remember my first case when I started my own business. It was Mr. Knights, a good friend of my mother-in-law’s. He lived on Clybourn Avenue. Since then I think I’ve buried most of that family. They stuck with me. It was a little scary at first. I did everything myself. In fact, I still do, even when I come in on the weekends. If we have a death call, I go out on it, and I come back and embalm the body. If the person dies at home, then we go to the home. We have to call the doctor to sign the death certificate. Then we go and pick up the remains, bring it back to the funeral home. Most of the time it’s two or three o’clock in the morning, so the family’ll come in about nine o’clock the next day and make funeral arrangements. By that time I’ve got the body all embalmed and everything. I work all night, all hours. Seven days a week, three-hundred-sixty-five days a year, we’re on call. Now I’m on call Friday night till Monday morning, when Joe, my son, comes.
“The main thing was, you try and comfort them and help them. Especially if it’s a woman. A lot of times the man did everything and the woman didn’t know what to do, so you would help. If the man had been a veteran, I’d take them to the veterans’ office, over on Belmont, when it was there. Billy Duffy—I buried him when he died—would fill out all the papers for them so they’d get their benefits. Then I would take them to the Social Security office, sign them up for their benefits. Then I would take them, if they had insurance, I would take them to the insurance office. People would talk about how nice I was and everything. Of course, I had the time. I didn’t have that big a business.
“I was the only one for three years, till ’88. Then it was mandatory under the American Disabilities Act. They had to start taking them. One case sticks in my mind. This man came in, and he said, ‘My partner died.’ He had durable power of attorney. He wanted to go back home after his partner died. His partner’s mother says, ‘We don’t need you. We don’t welcome you no more.’ He went home, and the following week he hung himself. So we had the two within a week’s time. I’ll never forget that.
“I’ve had actors, florists, caterers, the organist from church here died of AIDS. Like I say, I’ve had every walk of life. The one case I had, a boy was in Vietnam and his father was, I believe, a colonel. The boy stepped in front of a train and the train hit him. My son and I worked about eight hours on him, putting him back together. The father insisted he wanted to see him. One arm was tore off. We sewed it back on. The father took a look at him and he says, ‘It don’t look like …’ I said, ‘It wouldn’t.’ There was nothing missing, it was just that from the impact his face was twice the size as normal. We fixed him up the best we could. He says, ‘I want to thank you,’ he says, ‘that’s him. But it don’t look like him.’ We worked from a picture.
“I don’t fear death. No. In this business, a couple of times I’ve shaken hands with a man coming out of church, and I get home and I get a call, ‘Mr. So-and-so died.’ ‘I just saw him a little while ago—I shook hands with him at the church.’ ‘Yeah, he’s gone. He come home, into the house, and down he went.’ It’s all over with. My wife and I both have the living will. We don’t want to be hooked up. I’ve seen so many people come in where the body is rotting already, but they keep ’em going with the machines. I think that’s so wrong. They’re rotting before the heart stops, put it that way.
“I took over in 1957, in March, and my mom died in ’58. We were all laughing and joking, she’d baby-sat for my children the night before, and the next day she was gone. I had taken out a baby to be buried, and I got home and my dad called and he says, ‘Come over quick, something happened to your mother.’ She had diabetes bad and she went into a diabetic coma. We got her an ambulance, got her over to Masonic, and in an hour and twenty minutes she was gone. She was only fifty-one. And then I lost a sister in ’53. She had cancer of the throat, esophagus. I lost my brother, the baby of the family. We just buried him two years ago. He was sixty-five. I’ll be seventy in December, and I was glad to get out of my fifties. My grandmother I think was fifty-two when she died. My mom, I had my friend do because I just couldn’t handle it. My sister that died of cancer, I used to go every week to talk to her. She was at home. She was resigned that she was gonna die, and she said, ‘Bill, I want you to promise me that you’ll embalm me. I know your work is beautiful.’ She, too, had lost a lot of weight. I says, ‘Oh, Cheryle, that’s a big promise.’ She says, ‘Bill, please do it.’ And I did. I embalmed her. In fact, all the rest of my family I took care of. My mother I couldn’t handle. All my aunts and uncles … they didn’t bother me as much as my own siblings. That’s where it gets a little sticky, when you have to do your own family. It’s kind of hard.
“I want my son to do it for me. Like with my sister, he said, ‘You’re asking a lot of me, Dad.’ I said, ‘I know, but I respect your work.’ Everybody that comes in there that he’s taken care of, the family says, ‘Oh, your son, he did a beautiful job. My mom looks so nice.’ A lot of these boys that died from AIDS, sometimes they wither away to just about nothing. I go and rebuild them from a picture. I use silicone. People come in, especially their partner, and they say, ‘Oh, that’s how he looked before he got sick. Thank you, thank you.’ That’s what makes you feel good. Joe is the same way. He goes out of his way to try and get that likeness again. I’ve been to some funeral homes, they don’t take the trouble. Where the coat was like this, careless, I went up and straightened it out. Or if he wore his hair straight back and they’ve got it parted to the side, I say, ‘No, he wore it back, give me a comb.’ And the family goes, ‘Thank you, thank you. We didn’t want to say nothin’.’ They were afraid to say anything.
“I buried two of the boys that were found under Gacy’s house. [John Wayne Gacy, the murderer of dozens of young men, whom he buried under and around his house.] One, the funeral directors all got together. I had six funeral directors for pallbearers. There were no outsiders. I was so proud of the Funeral Directors Association that time. I think there was thirteen or fourteen unclaimed bodies. The cemeteries donated the plot, and the monument dealers donated a stone. The one I had went to Irving Park Cemetery, and the stone read ONLY KNOWN BY GOD ALONE.
“They all went out of here fully dressed and most of them in tuxedos. When the tuxedo went out of style, a friend brought me in a whole carload of them. So when they had nothing, indigent, veterans that we got out of the TB sanatorium or the VA hospital, they would send them over to me and I would bury them for Veterans’ and Social Security. Whatever I got, that’s all I got. I put them all in tuxedos. People would say, ‘I thought he was penniless, I didn’t think he had any money.’ I said, ‘I took care of it.’ I gave him suit, shirt, tie, underwear, everything. They went out first class.”
A retired Chicago public school teacher. In 1955 her fourteen-year-old son, Emmett Till, was killed while visiting relatives in Mississippi. He was her only child. Two white men, Roy Bryant and J. W. “Big” Milam, were accused of the murder. Though the evidence against them was overwhelming, they were acquitted by an all-white jury. The case had international repercussions and is still considered a significant prelude to the civil-rights movement. This conversation took place in September of 2000, forty-five years later.
“Emmett just barely got on that train to Mississippi. We could hear the whistle blowing. As he was running up the steps, I said, ‘Bo,’—that’s what I called him—’you didn’t kiss me. How do I know I’ll ever see you again?’ He turned around and said, ‘Oh, Mama.’ Gently scolding me. He ran down those steps and gave me a kiss. As he turned to go up the steps again, he pulled his watch off and said, ‘Take this, I won’t need it.’ I said, ‘What about your ring?’ He was wearing his father’s ring for the first time. He said, ‘I’m going to show this to my friends.’ That’s how we were able to identify him, by that ring. I think it was a Mason’s ring.
“I got four letters from him in a week’s time. My aunt in Mississippi wrote me a long letter in praise of him. How he helped her in her kitchen, with the washing machine, preparing the meals. The way he did things at home. He’d say, ‘Mama, if you can go out and make the money, I can take care of the house.’ He cleaned, he shopped for groceries, he washed. Do you remember when Tide came out? It was in 1953, two years before he went to Mississippi. He told me about the advertisement: ‘Tide’s in, dirt’s out.’ All the neighbors knew him.
“I didn’t know what happened to him until the following Sunday.
“I’m a seventy-eight-year-old woman. I have lived all my life being brought up in the church. I feel that I’m a very strong woman. When I lost my son, that’s when I found out that I really had two feet and I had to stand on my own feet. I had to stand and be a woman.
“There was nobody around who could really help me. Everybody was so in tears. I had to calm them down. They couldn’t help me if they were going to be hollering and screaming. So I found out, in 1955, that I was very capable of getting the job done, even though I couldn’t see for the tears.
“The spirit spoke to me and said, ‘Go to school and be a teacher. I have taken one, but I shall give you thousands.’ I have to identify that as a spirit being bigger than I am. I was the only one hearing that voice.
“I said to the undertaker, ‘Give me a hammer. I’m gonna break that seal. I’m gonna go into that box. I don’t know what I’m burying. It could be a box full of rocks. It could be cement. It could be dirt. I’ve got to verify it is my son in that box.’
“They had laid him out on the cooling board. His body was still in the body bag. [She has difficulty, weeps. A long pause.] The undertaker unzipped the bag. And that’s when I saw all that lime. They hosed him down. And, oh, my God, I knew what that odor was by then. It was not the lime. That was my son I was smelling.
“I glanced at his head and it was such a mess up there, I just had to turn away. I started at his feet. I knew certain characteristics about him. I knew how his knees looked. I knew how his ankles and feet looked. I made my trip from his feet up to his midsection, identifying what I could.
“And then I saw this long tongue hanging out of his mouth. What on earth? They were looking for me to fall out, and I told them, ‘Turn me loose. I’ve got a job to do.’ I said, ‘I can’t faint now.’ I began a real minute examination. I looked at his teeth, and there were only about four of them left. He had such beautiful teeth. I moved on up to the nose. And it looked like somebody had taken a meat cleaver and had just chopped the bridge of his nose. Pieces had fallen out. When I went to look at his eyes, this one was lying on his cheek. But I saw the color of it. I said, ‘That’s my son’s eye.’ I looked over at the other and it was as if somebody had taken a nut picker and just picked it out. There was no eye. I went to examine his ears. If you’ll notice, my ears are detached from my face and they kind of curl on the end. And his did too. There was no ear. It was gone. I was looking up the side of his face and I could see daylight on the other side. I said, ‘Oh, my God.’ The tears were falling and I was brushing tears away because I had to see.
“Later, I was reading the Scriptures. And it told how Jesus had been led from judgment hall to judgment hall all night long. How he had been beaten. And so much that no man would ever sustain the horror of his beating. That his face was just in ribbons. And I thought about it and I said, ‘Lord, do you mean to tell me that Emmett’s beating did not equal the one that was given to Jesus?’ And I said, ‘My God, what must Jesus have suffered?’
“And then I thought about some of the pictures we see, where he had this neat little crown of thorns and you see a few rivulets of blood coming down. But his face is intact. And according to Scriptures, that is not true. His visage was scarred more than any other man’s had ever been or will be.
“And that’s when I really was able to assess what Jesus had given for us, the love he had for us.
“And I saw Emmett and his scars. Lord, I saw the stigmata of Jesus. The spirit spoke to me plainly as I’m talking to you now. Jesus had come and died that we might have a right to eternal life or eternal hell or damnation. Emmett had died that men might have freedom here on earth. That we might have a right to life.
“That was my darkest moment, when I realized that that huge box had the remains of my son. I sent a very lovable boy on a vacation. Emmett, who knew everybody in the neighborhood. They’d call him whenever they wanted something done. ‘Mom, I gotta go help Mrs. Bailey.’ He was the block’s messenger boy.
“What might have been? He’s never far from my mind. If Jesus Christ died for our sins, Emmett Till bore our prejudices, so …”