Surrendering to Death in “Cremains”

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In the story “Cremains,” Sam Lipsyte explicitly explores the theme of death. Death familiarizes itself with the protagonist as he tries to adjust to his new day-to-day life in his now-deceased mother’s apartment. He attempts to move on but is held back by his inability to decide on how to dispose of his mothers cremains. Meanwhile, he continues to get high off of her leftover morphine, until he eventually combines her ashes with the morphine and shoots them into his veins. Before doing so, he hears on the radio “our culture is afraid of death, and considers it something we must wage battle against.” It’s Tessa, his mother’s pain specialist, and she continues: “I say, surrender, submit. Go gentle. Terminal means terminal.” Tessa’s statement illustrates the issue the protagonist has in dealing with death. To the protagonist, it isn’t natural to surrender to death, it’s not easy to go gentle, and he is fighting his grief just like he would fight death itself.

After moving into the apartment, the protagonist is faced with constant reminders of his mother. When describing his new surroundings, we see him struggle to accept his mother’s death. “The trade-off is doilies on the arms of the flower-print couch. I tried to take them off, but they were still somehow there, so I had to put them on again,” he says. The protagonist references the existence of the doilies at multiple times throughout the story, and when he notices them around the apartment he is reminded of his mother. He could have easily removed them, but after attempting to he says that “they were still somehow there.” It is easier for him to put the doilies back on and fight his grief than to remove them and acknowledge the death of his mother. “This is why I haven’t moved stuff around,” he continues. “It doesn’t help. Even empty, your mother’s apartment is your mother’s apartment. You just have to adjust.” However, the protagonist is not taking any steps to adjust to his new life without his mother. He...
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