Wellness: A Fond Farewell

Why a post-funeral romp may be death's natural antidote.

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Thursday, June 04, 2009

On a Yelp message board, the question "where to flirt" in San Francisco ignited a vigorous online debate. Jason D. ranked funerals as the fifth-best flirting hot spot, beating out bars and nightclubs. "Whoa, whoa, back up," objected Jordan M. "People flirt at funerals? Really? Huh. I'm not sure I could pull that off." That prompted Grace M. to note that "the first three letters of funeral is FUN."

Some years ago, before I married, I had fun after a funeral—at a shiva, to be exact. My pal's elderly mother had died, and mourners gathered in her Bronx apartment for the traditional Jewish ritual of lending support to surviving family members. Given the decidedly unsexy setting—mirrors covered in black fabric, a circle of hushed mourners on folding chairs—I was surprised by my strong attraction to the busty strawberry blonde who sat next to me. Linda (as I'll call her) and I commiserated with our mutual friend, but we had not known his mother. We quickly bonded over our shared passion for politics, as Linda worked in the field and I often covered it. By the time the rugelach was put out, we agreed to share a taxi to Manhattan.

We briefly stopped at a tavern conveniently located near Linda's apartment and ordered shots of whisky to toast our mutual friend's mom. Then we hustled over to Linda's place. It was a delightful one-night stand, a pre-matrimonial notch on a belt I no longer wear.

But the memory of that post-shiva schtup popped up recently when my wife and I attended an open-casket viewing to honor her close friend David.

He had succumbed to cancer at age 50, just seven weeks after receiving the grim diagnosis. The combination of the corpse on display and the palpable heartbreak of David's survivors proved painful to witness. Nevertheless, when my wife and I arrived home, we went to bed but not to sleep.

Mourners seek solace in different ways: some cry, some eat, some fuck.

"Post-funeral sex is totally natural," says Alison Tyler, author of Never Have the Same Sex Twice. "You need something to cling to—why not your spouse, your lover or that hunky pallbearer? Post-funeral sex can be life-affirming in a refreshing way you just can't get with a cold shower or zesty soap."

A realtor I know, who requested anonymity, agreed. "Each time someone close to me dies, I turn into a satyr," he admitted. "But I've learned to accept it. I now understand that my desire for some warm frame to cling to, or clutch at, is a... need for physical warmth to counteract the physical coldness of flesh that death brings."

Diana Kirschner, a psychologist and author of Love in 90 Days: The Essential Guide to Finding Your Own True Love (Center Street), believes some post-funeral romps are "diversions" from dealing with death. Kirschner points out that funerals may be fertile ground for romantic encounters because mourners are more "emotionally open" than those attending other social functions: "There's more potential for a true emotional connection... Funerals cut down on small talk."

Paul C. Rosenblatt, author of Parent Grief: Narratives of Loss and Relationships (Routledge), studied the sex lives of 29 couples who had lost a child. The death of a child at least temporarily sapped the libido of all the women in the study, but a few of their husbands sought sex soon after the loss, which caused conflict. "Some men wanted to have sex as a way of finding solace," says Rosenblatt. "If I can't say 'hold me,' I can say 'let's have sex.'"

Adult children struggling with conscious and unconscious loneliness after the loss of a parent are likely candidates to soothe themselves with sex, suggests Kirschner. That hypothesis recalls a pivotal scene in the romantic comedy High Fidelity: Rob (John Cusack) and Laura (Iben Hjejle) reconcile in her car right after her father's funeral. "Listen, Rob, would you have sex with me?" pleads a bereft Laura. "Because I want to feel something else than this. It's either that or I go home and put my hand in the fire."

Jamie L. Goldenberg, a professor of psychology at the University of South Florida, co-authored a 1999 study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology that examines the link between sex and death. Researchers exposed participants in the study to "death-related stimuli." For instance, the researchers asked study participants to write about their feelings associated with their own death compared to another unpleasant topic, such as dental pain. Highly neurotic subjects were subsequently threatened by the physical aspects of sex. Less neurotic subjects were not threatened. "When you are thinking about death, you don't want to engage in some act that reminds you that you are a physical creature destined to die," explains Goldenberg. But "some people go in the opposite direction. When they are reminded of death, it actually increases the appeal [of sex].... It makes sense for a lot of reasons. It is life-affirming, an escape from self-awareness."

Despite that positive diagnosis, society tends to scorn any emotional reaction to death other than weeping. The Jewish religion puts it in writing, mandating seven days of abstinence for the deceased's family. But while convention and religious rules pressure mourners to say "no, no, no," the brain may have the last word on the matter.

According to Helen Fisher, a biological anthropologist at Rutgers University and author of the new book Why Him, Why Her (Henry Holt), the neurotransmitter dopamine may play a role in boosting the libido of funeral-goers. "Real novelty drives up dopamine in the brain and nothing is more unusual than death... Dopamine then triggers testosterone, the hormone of sexual desire in men and women."

"It's adaptive, Darwinian," argues Fisher, who regrets that desire after the death of a loved one remains verboten. "It's almost like adultery. We in the West marry for love and expect to stay in love not just until death but forever. This is sacrosanct. Society tells us to remain faithful during the appropriate mourning period, but our brain is saying something else. Our brain says: 'I've got to get on with things.'"

 

David Wallis contributes to The New York Times Magazine, The Washington Post and The Observer of London, among other publications. He is the editor of Killed Cartoons: Casualties from the War on Free Expression (W.W. Norton).

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