On Watching People Die

The speech I delivered yesterday at my mother’s funeral, at Zion Mennonite Church in Souderton, PA (yesterday being November 18, 2023)

There is a community called Watch People Die.

It is exactly what it says it is: people sharing with each other photographs, descriptions, and especially videos of human death, of any cause.

  • Crashes.
  • Falls.
  • Violence.
  • War.
  • Illness.
  • Age.
  • Peaceful goodbyes.
  • Unexplained collapses.
  • Sleeping.
  • Forklift accidents make a regular appearance.

Many find it disturbing, offensive, and insensitive, if they can find it at all. The community exists in periodic waves and shadows: out in the open for a few years on different platforms and protocols, typically before getting banned by moderators or administrators or law enforcement.

I find it to be full of love, support, curiosity, and people trying to understand something which happens to 166,324 of us humans every day, at least count, but which likely only a few of you have, yourself, witnessed.

Often people discover it after witnessing something they need to talk about, but very few are prepared to hear, and which many of us have been trained to avoid.

This is what it is like to watch somebody die:

You sit in your and their living room, sipping a beer. You make small talk with people in the room, while an Amazon Alexa and Spotify collude on an infinitely shuffled playlist.

Your mother can do two things: fuss with her hair with her left arm and hand, or groan in some mix of discomfort, pain, or involuntary noise.

Your father and sister are authorized to administer morphine orally every 4 hours. She resists receiving it, but it does make her calm.

You’ve been there two days. Your sister Emma has lived this for months, done so much more, and seen so much worse. She’s seen how much more difficult we living can make it for the dying.

Your girlfriend of 9 years—Catie—sits next to you, and begins to cry. Everybody cries in little waves and you eventually lose the instinct to ask what’s wrong, but this time it seems acute.

It is the music.

Now playing based on whoever last prompted Alexa is Call Your Mom, the version with Noah Kahan and Lizzie McAlpine.

Catie informs me it is about calling one’s mom (or calling one’s mom on their behalf) when one is on the verge of suicide.

Catie says it is a deeply inappropriate song for the circumstance.

I say it is deeply appropriate.

And I realize this all sounds overwhelming like utter chaos but in it there is actually a strange calm.

It is the calm of realizing there is nothing you can do, but witness:

Watch people die.

You reflect on how similarly, utterly helpless and unhelpful you also are around someone being born. It is a process of life, which largely perpetuates itself.

One of my favorite rediscovered songs recently has been Priests and Paramedics, by David Bazan. The version with Vitamin String Quartet. I first heard it at a concert at Bowery Ballroom, at the last-minute invitation of Durelle Leaman, in the audience today.

A husband stabbed by his wife is losing a lot of blood and the paramedic hears him say “oh my god, am I gonna die?”

Am I gonna die?

The paramedic says “calm down, you’ll be alright.”

I’ll read you the the final stanza:

Several friends came to his grave His children were so well-behaved As the priest got up to speak The assembly craved relief But he himself had given up So instead he offered them this bitter cup “You’re gonna die, we’re all gonna die Could be twenty years, could be tonight Lately I have been wondering why We go to so much trouble to postpone the unavoidable And prolong the pain of being alive

Thank you all for being alive, prolonging pain, with me and everyone else. It is worthwhile.