When a friend is driving erratically while I'm a passenger in their car, I often joke that I don't fear death; I only fear being maimed. "If you crash," I say, "You'd better kill me. I don't want my face burned off and have to survive after that."
I'm not really joking, though.
As a kid, judging by the short stories that I handwrote on lined notebook paper, I was obsessed with death, the afterlife, reincarnation, ghosts, and messages from beyond. As a kid, you do everything for some kind of reward (candy, trips to Burger King, staying up late), and as a kid being raised Catholic, you do everything for the ultimate reward: passage into heaven.
But beyond all of the promise of choirs of angels and St. Peter waiting at the gates - and the contrasting threats of hellfire and brimstone - I suppose Catholics are, at heart, just a bunch of creepies with all their relics and crypts and Holy Ghosts.
I don't believe in Heaven or Hell anymore, but I guess I believe in some kind of afterlife. I do think souls stick around sometimes - particularly in areas where they're not exactly welcome.
In my childhood, I witnessed the burial of my grandmother on my mother's side, and Grammy and Grampy on my father's side. I learned about death early. My godfather was the biggest joker you ever met - and a mortician, to boot. I adored him. Because of him, we knew about dead people. We understood embalming. We recognized the smell of formaldehyde when we had to dissect rats in high school biology class.
Growing up with our mother, my sister and I faced the threat of death on a daily basis. I always expected my mother to lose control and finally just kill me, always surprised she hadn't drowned us babies in the bathtub when she had the chance. When we were a little older, I had to intervene once when my mother was shaking my teenage sister so violently at the top of the basement stairs, I was sure she would throw her down, cracking her skull against the cement walls. So, in some selfless act of heroism, I grabbed my mother from behind - enough to make her turn around, away from my sister, away from the downward hurl to the basement, and unleash her fury on me.
It's OK. I could take it. I didn't fear death. It was my sister who did.
On and off when we were growing up, our mother threatened suicide. I don't think she was ever serious about sinking into her own bathwater and not coming up for air, but I do think she wanted to die. When she threatened - each year for a good ten years before we stopped talking - that this might be her last Christmas, I think it was really just wishful thinking. Then again, I didn't take it as much of a threat. I kind of hoped that she'd finally be put out of her misery and put out to pasture, for her sake.
She's still alive and miserable, as far as I know. When she finally goes, I won't be there for it, but I'll be happy for her.
And what of my fascination with cemeteries?
As a teenager, they were fun places to get spooked and hang out in the dark, though I would have just as likely swung on a swingset at Webster Elementary in Syracuse, NY. In college, I used to climb up to the old Colgate University cemetery and sit on a stone bench for moments of quietude and solitude, alone but not exactly alone. I would imagine the interred shuddering at the footsteps from above, careful where I walk but knowing I couldn't avoid them altogether.
These days, I like to read the epitaphs and compose my own - though, preferring cremation, I'm more likely to wind up in an urn than in a casket marked by a headstone. But if I don't get a wedding in this lifetime (which, it looks like I won't), I want a good party to send me off into the hereafter. I hope there are flowers and songs and a pretty dress and drinks. I hope two people find inappropriate comfort in each others' arms.
Spill my ashes into the spiked punch bowl and accidentally drink them up. Ash cigarettes into them and let the Santa Ana Winds blow them away.
Then again, when it happens, I hope I'm too dead to notice or even care. I hope when I die, I'm really dead, so I can be laid to rest, so I can finally sleep.
It doesn't scare me. I don't dread it. I've been living under death's watchful eye my whole life. I just hope, when the time comes, Santa Muerte is there to show me the way quickly and painlessly.