Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Death

Tim Kreider
I recently read an excellent article by Tim Kreider, entitled You are going to die. Some may find it excessively gloomy...which is precisely Kreider's intention.  He wants people to think about the fact that there's no way they're going to get out of life alive, and there is no one on the planet who will never face death.  The problem is that contemporary Westerners prefer to not think about death, and all the nasty stuff that comes with it.  How many funerals have you been to recently where the person was still alive?  Not many, I'd suspect.  Nevertheless, the people attending the funeral tend to act as though the person was still alive; they make jokes, they laugh about the fun things the person did, they talk about their family, their achievements, their highs and lows.  Anything except the fact that that person is dead.  And by the time the obligatory morning or afternoon tea comes round, as soon as the last hymn is played, everyone's back to 'normal life' mode.  It's scary.  
 
I remember attending the funeral of a friend who had died utterly unexpectedly. While travelling home late at night from helping at a function, her car slipped in some gravel, went off the side of the road, dropped down a few feet; a moment later she was dead after her side of the car hit a tree.  The young man who was with her came out of it with a few bruises, a few scratches. 
 
My wife rang me in deep distress when she heard the news.  We went to the funeral a few days later, still very distressed.  But other people were laughing while they drank their tea or coffee, and ate the teensy-weensy sandwiches or the boiling hot savouries.  My mind did a flip: hang on, was the woman still alive after all?  It certainly seemed so.  There was an air of celebration in the reception room.  Okay, there were one or two sober faces, but for the most part it was occasion to catch up with old friends and long-unseen relatives.  
 
I've become used to this atmosphere at funerals now.  It's unstoppable, because as a culture we've decided we don't want to be gloomy or sad at funerals.  We just want to get on with life. 
 
So I was pleased to see Kreider's essay, because it's a slap in the face for our culture.  Here's just one paragraph from it: 
You are older at this moment than you’ve ever been before, and it’s the youngest you’re ever going to get. The mortality rate is holding at a scandalous 100 percent. Pretending death can be indefinitely evaded with hot yoga or a gluten-free diet or antioxidants or just by refusing to look is craven denial. “Facing it, always facing it, that’s the way to get through,” Conrad wrote in “Typhoon.” “Face it.” He was talking about more than storms. The sheltered prince Siddartha Gautama was supposedly set on the path to becoming the Buddha when he was out riding and happened to see an old man, a sick man and a dead man. Today he’d be spared the discomfiture, and the enlightenment, unless he were riding mass transit.
I was reminded about his article because he mentioned yoga, and was glad to be reminded.  Yoga, of course, is merely one of hundreds of ways we try and keep ourselves young.  It doesn't work (in spite of endless yogaaccessories for yoga DVDs and the like), and we kid ourselves when we think that exercise is anything but exercise; it's good for us, but it won't stop death.  We're in the unfortunate position, as well, that we're actually living longer, which makes us think that we'll live forever.  The daily list of the dear departed gives the lie to this, but since we often don't know any of these names, they don't count as dead people.  They were never alive as far as we knew, so they can't be dead. 

When we see a known name amongst the list, however, that sets us back a bit - and I've seen a few over the last several years, people who were just like me: mortal, though seemingly invincible. 

In spite of our renouncing him, Death lingers in the back of our minds more and more as we get older.  We know in our heart of hearts that we have to deal with him some day, but somehow we don't want to believe it.  I'm sure I'm not alone in this. We ask, How can the world do without me?  How will my family cope without me?  What about all my achievements?  Sadly the world, and even your family, will eventually cope without you; your achievements will probably be forgotten after the obituary appears in the paper (if there is one).  There's a marvellous moment in C S Lewis' The Great Divorce, in which a recently deceased and rather pompous artist says to another artist (who's been deceased a good deal longer): 'One must be content with one's reputation among posterity, then.'  The older artist cries, 'My friend, don't you know?  You and I are already completely forgotten on the Earth.  We're dead out of fashion.' [pg 76]

Earlier this evening I was clearing some books off our shelves, books I've had - in some cases - for decades, and - in some cases - they're books I've never read.   I'm going to continue with this task tomorrow, and next week, and next month, no doubt.  We have a lot of books.  But in spite of knowing I won't read them again, I'm still managing to keep a lot of books.  (I don't like the idea of empty shelves.) I have this illusion that in some golden age in the future I'm going to have plenty of time to sit down and read them all again.  I've been retired now for nearly two years, and there is no more time than there was before.

The thing is, as my wife has often pointed out, when we go, our children will take one look at these books and say, We'll send these off to the Regent Book Sale, or an op shop.  I might as well save them some of the trouble...

Every morning recently I've woken and realised I'm still alive.  When you're young this is something that doesn't even cross your mind.  Of course you're alive!  What else would you be?  But at my age, going on 68, which is very close to 70, when you wake in the morning you think: I didn't die in the night, though I easily could have.  There was nothing to stop that happening, and however substantial I may feel, in fact I'm vulnerable and fragile.  The merest puff of wind could blow me away. 

Remember, man, that thou art dust, and unto dust thou shalt return.  This seemed like an absurdity when I was a child, when I used to hear it said by the priest on Ash Wednesday, year after year.   Well, it's Ash Wednesday tomorrow, so it's a good time to remember this old line, and think on't, as Shakespeare's characters were wont to say....

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