By Bhanu Pratap Kushwaha
Death usually does not attract a large readership, as the admission of it as a fact of life is one of civilization’s taboos. We all admit to its inevitability in an abstract way, but steadfastly refuse to acknowledge it as an existential fact of life.
The exception may be seniors, who know its inevitability is closer rather than further at their stage of life. They even are reminded of this in TV reruns of the “Lawrence Welk Show,” often sponsored by a mortuary. This may seem macabre to some, but not to the oldsters who know the sands of time are running out.
Jokes about death, though, are commonplace and often involve “gallows humor.” Example – A man doesn’t quite know what parting words to say to his friend who is about to be electrocuted, so he simply says, “More power to you.” It was author Mark Twain who spoke of the “reports of his death as being highly exaggerated.” On the other hand, Albert Camus, the existentialist-novelist, insisted that there is only one real philosophical question – that of suicide.
The word “death” has a certain harshness and finality about it that makes us reluctant even to use the term. We do not say a sick pet dog or cat was killed by the vet, but rather that it was “put to sleep.” Seldom do we express directly that one’s friend died. Rather, we euphemistically report that he “passed away,” entered a “better world,” or went on to “meet his Maker.”
Young children scarcely appreciate the fact and meaning of death, for most kids somehow presuppose that they are immortal. As the song from the movie musical “Fame” has it, “I’m gonna live forever.” That is why they are particularly shocked at the death of someone who is their own age, or of one who is particularly close to them, such as a parent.
The trauma of seeing death so nearby often calls for therapy sessions in which they come to realize that every living thing dies, so death really is something natural. Supposedly, this assists in so-called “closure,” which really is not possible.
When a couple marries, how many have the slightest concern for the stark phrase, “till death do us part”? As Hamlet said in a different context, it “falls trippingly from the tongue.” Despite its “everydayness,” we are hesitant to look death in the face. Perhaps this is one reason for objections to the death penalty for capital crimes – that we see our own selves in a mirror image. Another explanation is that we are uncertain of what, if anything, lies beyond death. We secretly wonder if this life is all there is.
Psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud wrote of the Thanatos Factor in man, which accounts for what seems to be an unconscious death wish. It explains, in part, people who are “accident prone” and those who seek the adrenaline rush of extreme sports. Possibly, it even accounts for heroes who risk their lives. The presence of such a tendency can be illustrated as follows: Most of us are a bit hesitant to lean out over a window sill and look down at the street 20 stories below. Is that because we are afraid we might fall out the window, or is it because we are scared that we might jump out of it? Most of us refuse to be honest in our answer. Teenagers, too, have a fascination with death, perhaps explaining the disproportionately high suicide rate in this age group.
Some philosophers regard death in a positive light. Peter Koestenbaum’s The Vitality of Death points out that, just as we have deadlines that help us to accomplish many tasks in life, we need an ultimate deadline in life itself for it to have any meaning. Counselors and lawyers are there to help us get our affairs in order, like making out a will. Our procrastination in matters such as these is just another sign of refusing to accept the reality of our coming death. Clergy assist us in seeking forgiveness of those we have wronged and possibly making amends.
Most of us have an innate fear of death, observes Karl Jaspers, a psychiatrist-philosopher. Tongue in cheek, he notes that the only exception might be those currently in a state of vigorous health. Interestingly, though, the Greek philosopher Socrates seemed not to fear death. His disciple, Plato, wrote that Socrates, ready to drink the hemlock, reasoned that should there not be anything after this life, then death is similar to falling asleep.
If there is an afterlife, people who have done their best in life should have no worries. However, this sounds too reasonable to most. Nonetheless, it does point to an ultimate resignation to death, which author Elizabeth Kubler-Ross argues is generally the last psychological stage we go through in dying, the first being denial.
Many see life essentially as a stream of consciousness with no particular meaning. We simply come into being and then cease to be. Others, mostly those who are religiously oriented, view death as a prelude to a better life. Emphasizing this some decades ago, the Catholic Church changed the funeral mass to one that celebrates the life to come. White vestments have replaced black ones. Often, priests urged believers to pray for a “happy death,” but the phrase rings hollow.
Critics ask where there is the slightest smidgen of evidence of an afterlife. The expectation or hope for it is simply human hubris combined with wishful thinking. Death reveals the mysterious in life, as, try as we might, we cannot comprehend the fundamental unfairness of life and why some die so young and suddenly and others are so long-lived. These inequities seem bereft of meaning, and to explain them by piously declaring “The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away” could easily be translated as “Well, that’s the way it goes.” Neither says anything intelligible.
What is clear is that death is a one-time affair and that author Joseph Conrad was right when he wrote, “We live as we dream … as we die … alone.” So gentlemen, life like death, is like a poem… …we sing it alone, and love it alone, live it alone. So let’s all make the best of what we have. Learn to live and let live. Amen.