Death becomes us

“To live fully is to live with an awareness of the rumble of terror that underlies everything.” 

Ernest Becker, “The Denial of Death”

For some of us, the above “rumble of terror” is a buckling, earth-cracking tremor felt many times each day, a sort of clockwork bell that tolls every hour, on the hour. It is, of course, death, our unavoidable mortality, crooking a finger, baring its teeth and uttering a horror-movie cackle.

Drama aside, what Becker says is that without a sharp recognition of the reality of your own death you paper over a critical dimension of existence. Without death, paradoxically, a major chunk of life is muted. You reside in the dark.

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The existential denial Becker speaks of amounts to an ignorance as willful as it is mystifying. To mention dying has become taboo. How can the most important stage in life, the great closure, the monumental punctuation mark, be off limits? I don’t want to think about it,” goes a common refrain. “It’s just too horrible.” 

But is it? By being aware of your mortality, knowing you will die, that it is an unstoppable event, you can cultivate a richer, more philosophical, existentially awakened life. The aim of this consciousness, as I’ve written before, is to “put you in touch with an untapped aspect of your spirituality, to jolt you out of complacency and into perhaps uncomfortable soulfulness.”

Instead, people distract themselves from the big questions and tough realities. Texting, Facebook and binge TV shows are potent diversions. We think we have control over our lives by doing the right things — exercising, eating healthfully, thinking positive, traveling, communing with art and nature, procreating.

Rubbish.

“Modern man is drinking and drugging himself out of awareness, or he spends his time shopping, which is the same thing,” Becker says.

Death isn’t on my lips — I rarely broach the subject — but it weighs on my mind like an anvil. I’m not talking about the gruesome, corporeal details of death — the corpse, the medical examiner, the venal funeral industry, the land waste of burial — but the chilly philosophical fact of mortality, of dying. Not how we die, but that we die.

Hans Larwin's amazingly evocative 'Soldat und Tod' ('Soldier and Death') from 1917

It’s confounding that people dodder through life without considering death, as though it’s some vague, distant inconvenience that won’t afflict them — not even when they’re crossing a busy street or speeding down the highway or eating a marbled slab of steak or hauling around 100 pounds of extra body weight. The musty cliché “ignorance is bliss” could not be more fitting.

Accepting our fate now, in the present, dulls the fear factor. The idea of dying — Becker’s “rumble of terror” — is inarguably frightening, and that’s certainly why so many of us keep it at bay. But awareness makes you smarter, more prepared. It eases the angst. “The fear of death follows from the fear of life,” Mark Twain said. “A man who lives fully is prepared to die at any time.”

To live fully, says Becker, means to live mindfully, to be cognizant of that lyrical rumble of terror, to embrace one’s fate, or to at least be on cordial terms with it. It is, in fact, consciousness in full bloom.

A darkly delightful book of the dead

For the record, family: Do not donate my body to science when I die. Let them harvest an organ or two, scoop out my eyes like melon balls, carve off a carpet swatch of skin.

Then burn me up good.

Scary to say, but my obsession with death, dying and the post-life has only rocketed since I recently re-read Mary Roach’s weirdly engrossing, and joyously gross, 2003 bestseller “Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers.”

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The title nearly says it all: Roach’s beautifully reported book is a blunt, euphemism-free, aggressively lighthearted examination of exactly what happens to cadavers that are donated to science and research. (Cue: barfing emoji.)

Facts, history, grisly details and the author’s vivacious gallows humor make the unutterable utterly readable. Roach is smart; she pauses for philosophical reflection about what’s before her, providing a finish of deep and dignified meditation to what could have been perverted voyeurism catering to “Faces of Death” sickos. 

The breezy read features jarring chapter subtitles — “Human Crash Test Dummies and the Ghastly, Necessary Science of Impact Tolerance”; “On Human Decay and What Can Be Done About It”; “Medicinal Cannibalism and the Case of the Human Dumplings” — that are so graphic, they may be all you need to get it. For example, that first one: Yes, dead bodies are used as crash test dummies in vehicles. Splat.

Plunge into the pages and you’ll get the smells, sights and sounds of expired bodies rotting, ripping, being gutted and even crucified. (Scientists still want to know how Jesus died on the cross. Freshly dead bodies are a prime instructional aid. Pass the nails.)

The doctors and scientists Roach meets are a reticent assortment. But she intrepidly presses on. 

o-SYNTHETIC-CADAVERS-facebookSometimes a source will turn his back on her, suspect of her macabre motives.

“You want a vivid description of what’s going through my brain as I’m cutting through a liver and all these larvae are spilling out all over me and juice pops out of the intestines?” snaps a vexed forensics examiner. 

Roach responds to us, sotto voce: “I kind of did, but I kept quiet.”

“Stiff” rests on my growing, groaning shelf of superlatively morbid but essential books on mortality, like “How We Die,” “Final Exit,” “The Denial of Death” and other festive titles. I recommend them all. They will, while you’re still living, change your life.

One wedding and a birthday

So I let myself get a little worked up and twisted about yesterday’s big birthday. But it mostly flowed like any other day, except, and this is remarkable, I wore a dark blue Hugo Boss suit, purple striped tie and black and purple Cole Haan wingtips the whole day. It was the very first time I’ve worn a suit, unless you count the three times in my life I’ve donned tuxes (one prom, two weddings).

Worrying about one’s birthday is futile, frivolous, fun-free. Age truly is, as the maxim goes, just a number. I don’t like my new number one bit — it’s ugly and has fangs — but fretting over it is so much twaddle. Life blunders forth. Let us proceed.

Some boldly aver, “Bring it on!” but that’s a scary invitation. I’m not welcoming the disease and decrepitude waiting to pounce as time advances. Death I’m not uptight about. I could use a few extra years of uninterrupted slumber. But hospital beds, catheters, sippy cups, hospice — I’m having none of it. I have given notice. 

But life was lived on my birthday. As noted in a blog dated one day before the monumental occasion, my friend happened to slate his wedding for the same day, so my brother and I hit Manhattan, natty in suits and ties, for the connubial affair, which was intimate and lovely and all manner of florid, fortuitous festivity. 

Set at the tweedy, incomparably cool Library at the Public Theater in the East Village — book-lined shelves, leather sofas, dim lighting, no windows — it was resplendent. The open bar was hugely appreciated by all. (That’s what I call a birthday present.)

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The Library at the Public Theater.

Following the afternoon nuptials, we walked long and far across the city, down Broadway and into the Saturday farmer’s market in Union Square (I bought the dog a pig’s ear), past the Flatiron Building, where selfie-takers swarmed and giggled, to the Todd Snyder shop, where my brother, an incorrigible clotheshorse, shopped for eons. 

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The Flatiron.

As I reclined in a chair while he agonized over product and prices, an employee, kind of crazily, offered me a snifter of The Balvenie Scotch whisky — liquid gold. I accepted. When finished, he offered me another one. I accepted. I told him it was my birthday, to give his lavish generosity meaning. He shook my hand. His name is Carlos. He is heroic.

More walking and a subway ride took us to dinner at Tom Colicchio’s ritzy Temple Court in the Beekman Hotel in Lower Manhattan. Exquisite whiskey sours, divine tasting menu, ultra-classy service, including several congratulations on my birthday. Dessert arrived speared with a candle and the server assured me they would not be singing “Happy Birthday.”

Something clicked yesterday. What was it — the lovely wedding, the big city, the complimentary whisky, the sumptuous dinner, the mindfulness of the staff not singing that goddam tune that made me think: birthdays, they’re not so bad.

Bitching about the birthday

The birthday blues are too obvious, an emotional cliche as lamentably predictable as Christmas cheer and Valentine’s self-pity.

Too bad. I’ve got those jangly, moaning blues, just a little bit, for tomorrow I smash head-on into one of those big, hairy birthdays, the kind with horns and tusks that makes you spin yet makes friends and family giggle. 

I’m getting older when I specifically asked the calendar to cease and desist from advancing. It’s disgusting. But I can do this. 

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Plans for the Big Day? Hilarious. A good friend scheduled his wedding for tomorrow, so I’ll be spending a chunk of my time celebrating someone else’s milestone. That should keep my mind off things. Pass the Champagne.

(Truth be told, I haven’t actually “celebrated” — party, gathering, friends — my birthday since I turned 13. The attention mortifies me.)

Spiffy (or is it scratchy and twitchy?) in suit and tie from the nuptials, I will then be taken to a suave dinner at Tom Colicchio’s swanky Temple Court in the Beekman Hotel in Lower Manhattan, courtesy of my swell brother, who is also attending the marital event. (Kudos, Jeff and Debbie!)

Do birthdays really change anything? Will I wake up tomorrow with a jungly, gray Moses beard? Will my insistent lower-back ache go into sudden overdrive? Will the pain in my left hand morph into full-blown grandpa arthritis? Will my ambivalent outlook on life, a fraught shade of charcoal-gray, turn black, black, black?

On all counts, I think not. Tomorrow, April 7, will be an overcast Saturday, breezy and easy, featuring a soiree that I don’t even have to throw — I’ll pretend it’s my birthday party — a day in New York, and a dinner sure to stagger. 

The calendar pages flip. It happened one year ago, no big deal. It happened the year before that, ditto. A dear friend said not to worry, I have scores more years to go. I’m not sure that’s the best news — I’m really not digging visions of me in my nineties.

I fear aging, not dying. One will beat the other; it’s a race to the finish. My birthday is just another lap.

To hell with Hell

Pope Francis was quoted last week saying there is no Hell. 

Beautiful, or blasphemous?

Bad souls “are not punished,” the pope told an atheist Italian journalist. “Those who do not repent and cannot therefore be forgiven disappear. There is no hell, there is the disappearance of sinful souls.”

Whatever that means. Poof, sinful souls just vanish? They’re off the hook? No eternal rotisserie of mortal flesh and soul? Is Dante discredited? Did my heavy metal records lie? 

The Vatican quickly denied Francis uttered such sacrilege, rebuking the whole conversation, which happened to be between a writer who has historically put words into the papal pie hole. Perhaps the unscrupulous scribe will get a taste of the writhing pits himself. (Or maybe he’ll just disappear. Poof!)

“Had the pope been speaking as the vicar of Christ on earth, he would be contradicting 2,000 years of Catholic doctrine, rooted in the teachings of Christ himself,” writes unreconstructed right-winger Pat Buchanan. “It would be rank heresy.”

APP-033018-POPEI sincerely doubt the pope declared there is no Hell. But I wish he did. Why? Because, I humbly offer: There is no Hell. (Now it’s my turn in Beelzebub’s barbecue. Pass the sunscreen, SPF 50,000.)

The proof is paltry. Yet maybe there is a Hell of the sort Dante depicted in his “Inferno” with such wondrous, gruesome gusto. If so, then there should be a Heaven, too, and I really can’t go that far. All dogs go to Heaven, it’s said. True that. People? I think not, for a panoply of reasons. For one, they’re stinkers. 

Dante limned Nine Circles of Hell for sinners: First Circle (Limbo); Second (Lust); Third (Gluttony); Fourth (Greed); Fifth (Wrath); Sixth (Heresy); Seventh (Violence); Eighth (Fraud); Ninth (Treachery). 

He ticked most of the boxes, though he could be more specific (treachery?). And a little more lenient (gluttony?). And where are rape and murder? Do they fall under the violence rubric? He should have added a Tenth Circle for man buns. I’m afraid Dante’s prioritizing is scattershot.

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Trying to figure with certitude if Hell exists is a fool’s errand. Unless, I suppose, you listen to an evangelical site I tripped and fell upon, chipping a tooth. It talks about people who have had “hellish near-death experiences in which the individual descends into a hellish location — an otherworldly place so frightening, desolate and horrible that it changed their lives instantly” and put them on a path to Christ. 

I shudder. With my luck, if I have a near-death experience, I’ll land at a Celine Dion concert. I’ll return, eyes bulging, screaming the Lord’s name.

But that’s not possible, because I don’t buy any of it. Belief in Heaven or Hell goes hand in hand with belief in the mythological overlords of those domains, God and Satan. They’re like cartoon characters to me, figments of desperate human imagination, magically supervising our collective conscience from an airbrushed ether. 

And Jesus? Well, I’m certain he was an actual historical figure, a masterful personality and a brilliant and wildly charismatic rabbi. He was executed on a Roman cross, for no one’s sins. He never rose from the dead. He was the son of mortals — mom, no virgin — not of gods. He was human, not divine. And he was just one of countless so-called messiahs of his time. But he got the most press. He had an amazing agent.

Queasily, as I type all this, I keep thinking (or am I praying?): I really hope the pope actually said there is no Hell. If not, I’m probably cooked.

Being gutsy with the ultimate donation

Clearing out emails yesterday, I came across one labeled “Donor registration.” It could have contained all manner of information — my monthly donations to the Humane Society and SPCA, clothing donations to the V.A., etc. — but, no, it was something nakedly startling.

The email, dated mid-2016, regarded my registration to donate my organs when I die. It rushed back to me, and once a morbid residue burned off, I was again at peace with my decision to be chopped up and disemboweled when the big day comes.

Fact: one organ donor can save up to eight lives. That’s a pretty good payoff. I can live —or die  — with that.

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I’ve always ticked the donor box on my driver’s license, yet it’s remained an abstract, faraway concept, like: This really doesn’t concern me in the here and now, so why the hell not?

So I signed up for an official donor program called Donate Life America. I have no idea how I chose them. I didn’t interrogate their credentials, and there are many other donor companies. I could be making a terrible mistake. Maybe they’ll drop my eyeballs on the floor, kick them around as they scramble to fetch the errant orbs.

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DLA describes itself like this: It’s a 501(c)3 nonprofit “to increase the number of donated organs, eyes and tissue available to save and heal lives through transplantation while developing a culture where donation is embraced as a fundamental human responsibility.”

The group’s website also features the page “The Deceased Donation Process,” featuring tantalizing (terrifying?) links to “Brain Death Testing,” “The Organ Procurement Organization” and “Recovering and Transporting Organs.” (For gooey, grisly FAQs, go here.)

As I’ve said before, when I expire I plan to be torched into fine powder, suitable for an enormous ashtray. Frankly, being harvested for body parts — skin, eyes, heart, liver, kidneys, bones, arteries — makes me momentarily queasy, even a mite scared. But buck up we must. (Still, I am certain I don’t want to be poked and prodded, chopped and chiseled as a cadaver in a medical school. Family, please note.)

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My eyes, brown and clear, are strong, though they require reading specs, a big caveat to donor recipients, I imagine. My ticker is in fine fettle, thumping to the mid-tempo pulse of the Bee Gees’ “Stayin’ Alive” when at rest and Metallica’s “Whiplash” when worked up, and there’s minimal plaque or bad cholesterol gumming up the works. Plus, it’s a big heart: it loves to love and has capacious room for dogs.

Although I’m afraid my liver is probably as useful as a burned charcoal briquette, my kidneys, I think, are performing their business fluidly. I have decent, soft skin, and my bone marrow, healthy, hale, is possibly edible. The subject of my intestines will be mercifully avoided.

Using the one-body-can-save-eight-lives calculus, I reckon I could perhaps save five or six lives. Better than zero. Better than one or two. It’s ghoulish, but golden. This is important work, and really, it’s no work at all.

Want a reminder that you’re going to die? There’s an app for that

I don’t get people who don’t consider their mortality — the actual, undeniable fact that one day they are going to die, forever (because you are, reader, you are) — at least once or twice a day.

Surely that’s because I think about my death specifically and death as a brute phenomenon generally many times a day. This has been going on for years. Like since I was seven. I maintain a shelf of books about death, from “The Denial of Death” to “How We Die.” (My id is a vivid, hyperactive place. My therapy bills, exorbitant.)

Who needs a reminder of death? I wonder. It’s right there in the face that looks back at you in the mirror.

Who wants a reminder of death? my friends retort.

Apparently a lot of people, mostly millennials, do. They want a brief if pointed reminder that they are indeed going to buy it sometime. And they want it exactly five times a day, randomly. On their phone.

10We-CROAK1-blog427That’s what the new app WeCroak offers: quick, jarring jabs calling attention to users that, yup, death is waiting around the corner. With homilies like this from Herman Melville — “Death is only a launching into the region of the strange Untried” — the 99-cent app exists expressly to galvanize consciousness, a little existential poke to nudge you into the now. And maybe to scare the holy hell out of you.

“Each day, we’ll send you five invitations to stop and think about death,” says the WeCroak site. “It’s based on a Bhutanese folk saying that to be a happy person one must contemplate death five times daily. The invitations come at random times and at any moment, just like death.”

By turns soothing and somber, quotes are culled from the likes of Emily Dickinson, Thoreau, Charles Bukowksi, Lao Tzu and Margaret Atwood.

“The grave has no sunny corners,” goes one. (For pessimists.)

“Begin again the story of your life,” says another. (For optimists.)

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(That one, for fatalists, I think.)

We think we have control over our lives by doing the right things — exercising, eating healthfully, thinking positive, traveling, communing with art and nature, procreating.

It’s rubbish.

WeCroak’s passages are meant to put you in touch with an untapped aspect of your spirituality, to jolt you out of complacency and into perhaps uncomfortable soulfulness. In fact, hokey as it sounds, I’d say the messages are nutrient-rich food for the soul.

The benighted disagree. People have actually called the app “sick” and “disgusting.” These people are babies. They are in craven denial. No matter — they’re still going to die.

“Death never takes a wise man by surprise; he is always ready to go.” — Fontaine

I don’t know if WeCroak offers that jewel, but it should.

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