Prologue About this series
A series about the normal death
What awaits us after death is not only fodder for philosophers and mystics. The early days are a series of facts. A series about the ordinary death.
The population of Den Bosch. So many people in the Netherlands die every year. 150 thousand. Last year, the exceptional 2020, even just under 170,000 people died. That is more than the whole of Haarlem. What actually happens to them? And what will happen to us, once we one day belong to that statistic?
Roughly speaking, we know. They give birth to us and bury us. They cremate us and scatter our ashes. But what exactly happens with and around our body?
NRC spoke to dozens of people from the funeral sector in recent months to answer that question, in a weekly series of articles that starts this Tuesday.
Does it matter what happens to us? We are dead after all, some will say. People who have just lost their loved ones think differently. In January this year, a crematorium employee in Limburg accidentally shoved the wrong coffin into the oven. They cremated someone whose funeral service was scheduled for two days later. Employees were shocked, not to mention the relatives themselves. Their relative had eluded them for the second time. During the funeral service they said goodbye to ashes in an urn.
Or take the people looking for a family member who went missing, in a mountain or after an accident at sea. Even if there’s no question that the missing person must be dead by now, they yearn with heart and soul to find that body. Also lifeless it represents who we were or are.
What exactly happens to and around our body?
And that actually also applies to the relationship with our own body. Little is so close to our heart, and with nothing we coincide so much. We feed it, exercise it, discipline it in the gym. We satisfy it, camouflage it, curse it. We show off the beauty of our belly/buttocks/breasts/legs/double chin/eczema/nose hairs/beginning baldness (cross out what does not apply). We pierce our ears, paint our faces, straighten our teeth and tattoo our forearms to show who we are. Or we don’t do all that, leave things alone, and sometimes that’s just a statement. However we turn it or turn it, we cannot escape our bodies. So yes: we are our body.
That symbiosis doesn’t suddenly disappear, even if we’re dead. So what happens to us? Our fate after death, of course, has been fodder for believers, philosophers, and mystics for thousands of years – is there waiting for us a God, a heaven, an old ferryman by the Styx? – but this does not have to apply to the early days after death. Physically there is nothing mysterious about it. It is an accumulation of facts, a trajectory framed by the law and full of protocol. The majority of those 150 to 170,000 deaths in the Netherlands go through this process, which is the same every year, every day. In short, what awaits us after death is not only the territory of philosophers and mystics, but also of journalism.
NRC describes what happens to us and around us, each episode a step. About the postmortem caretakers who try to keep us presentable until our funeral with numerous tricks, about the why of a pillow in our coffin and about hearse drivers who are fed up with too many green traffic lights when they come to get us. About the ever-increasing burden of coffin bearers and the mores of the cremation staff who ‘entry’ our coffins – usually flawlessly – into the oven.
The focus of this series is not the sequel after a violent ending, not the police cases, not the infant mortality, nor the special religious funeral rituals. All that matters, but the fact is that the trajectory of the most common deaths is already a blur. And the most common death is a death after about eighty years, not as a result of an unnatural death (about 4 percent of all Dutch deaths), such as an accident, but of a natural cause (96 percent), whether that be dementia or a stroke. And although relatives are increasingly able to do and choose themselves, a coffin made of cardboard and funeral transport in their own motorboat, the series focuses on the usual paths on the way to the funeral. A series, in short, about normal death.