In defense of death

A new book is out and contains a passage that provides a frisson of happy recognition: 

“The human cannot abide the thought of death … Most people aren’t wrestling with dread so much as trying to ignore a chronic background anxiety.”

This comes from Sallie Tisdale’s windily, and wittily, titled “Advice for Future Corpses (And Those Who Love Them): A Practical Perspective on Death and Dying.” It’s a slimmish, scintillating book, pimpled with wisdom and knowledge from the stance of a professional thinker, steadfast Buddhist and registered nurse — a trusty troika.

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But why does that quote sing? As I’ve touched on in prior posts (like this one), we are the whopping deniers, gymnastic dodgers, when it comes to confronting or even thinking about death. We know it’s there, lurking in the gloom of the collective id. Most people, as Tisdale says, are “trying to ignore a chronic background anxiety.”

I find this absurd and annoying, because I wonder: How, on a daily basis, does one not consider their inevitable, totally inescapable and at once entirely unpredictable (how and when will you die?) and completely predictable (you’re gonna die!) mortality?

“Advice for Future Corpses” examines that idea with a graceful, empathetic touch and it adds to a mini-mountain of mainstream literature about dying that includes Atul Gawande’s mega-hit “Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End” and Cory Taylor’s “Dying: A Memoir,” to name just two.

Why this death-book boomlet? Because lots of us are understandably freaked about the fearsome finality. (At least those who even consider it.) For one, people are living longer than ever and we find ourselves taking care of aging, often incapacitated parents and relatives. Death is in our face. And still, so many look away.

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Brompton Cemetery, London, 2017

Call me sick. Tisdale quotes William James on two personality types: the “healthy-minded … with its strange power of living in the moment and ignoring and forgetting,” and the rest, the “sick souls” who cannot blot out the naked prospect of mortality. Yes, a sick soul am I, but also enlightened, awakened and aware that our flimsy, fleshly bodies will someday fail us and atomize to dust.

I’m a nervous type so the fact that I look death in the eye doesn’t mean it’s a steely gaze. I lose that staring contest every time. Death scares me, even if, as I believe, it’s one big great nothingness — no heaven, no hell, no paradisiacal virgins — and we shouldn’t be scared of nothing. Yet the unknown is killing us, so to speak. Its foreverness terrifies.

Tisdale writes: “The psychiatrist Irvin Yalom describes the ego facing extinction as being ‘staggered by the enormity of eternity, of being dead forever and ever and ever and ever.’”

Totally.

“At some point,” Tisdale says, “most of us shift from realizing that sooner or later some future self will die to realizing that this very self, me, precious and irreplaceable me, will die. It’s a terrible thing to grasp, and though this insight may last a mere second, it changes your life.”

Her breadth on the topic dazzles. She addresses both sides of death-phobia (terror vs. liberation), our response to death (unalloyed grief), the certainty that we will die, the notion of the “good death,” personal anecdotes such as her dying friend shopping for biodegradable coffins and shrouds, and Zen-worthy declarations like “cremation can have a kind of stark beauty.”

She naturally can’t get to the bottom of it — death’s mystery is all-engulfing, impenetrable, the Big One — but her Buddhist-nurse compassion touches every page and she sheds copious slats of light into our shared abyss. My favorite citation comes from a dying Rabelais, whose last words were: “I am going in search of a great perhaps.”

The beauty in that is bottomless.

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Brompton Cemetery, London, 2017

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.