In Sarah Ruhl’s For Peter Pan on Her 70th Birthday, death is an idea we have to sneak up on. The play imagines that five children are gathering to help their father die well and to navigate the aftermath. The first movement of the show is set at his deathbed, the second at his wake, the third in a fantasia incorporating elements of Peter Pan. Only in the realm of the imaginary are the characters able to grapple with the reality of death—in the real world, they don’t know how to deal with it.
As their father moans and moves, but does not speak, the siblings disagree, with patience and love, about how to care for him as his death approaches. Ann, the protagonist, opposes her brothers’ plan to keep upping his morphine—regardless of whether it is necessary to treat his pain—to help him avoid a protracted, difficult death. Groping for a way to explain her reluctance, she tells them that when she euthanized her dog she couldn’t shake the feeling she had killed her pet, and she doesn’t want to feel that way about her father. As I watched the play, I was struck by the fact that she had to turn to the example of an animal’s bad death to try to illustrate what a good one might be for a person.
But how many of us are any better equipped than Ann to care for the dying? I realized, watching Ruhl’s play unfold, that all the deathbeds that I’ve seen have been onstage and onscreen. I’ve never been present at one. Or, at least, I’ve never been able to care for someone dying who had already been born—I have been the deathbed for my three children lost through miscarriage. My husband and I arranged memorial Masses, but we didn’t have the opportunity to care directly for our children as they died, or to tend to their bodies. For many people, a parent’s death will be the first one that they see up close. There will be no apprenticeship. They will be responsible, without preparation, for doing right by someone dear to them. Why hold death at such a remove, making us all novices, waiting for a death too close to be avoided before we learn about how to help someone die well?
In American history, death began to be professionalized and managed at a remove from those closest to the dying during the Civil War. In This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War, Drew Gilpin Faust explains how clergy and doctors stage-managed the deaths of the soldiers they cared for, narrating a good death that drifted toward standardization in the letters they sent to inform the dead soldiers’ loved ones. The bodies, too, were prepared for them, not by them. Embalming first took root in the United States during the Civil War. It offered a way to preserve bodies that otherwise would not have made it home whole.