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Whatever happened to death?

Death has always fascinated us. We fear it; we love it; we run from it; we run to it. We hope to conquer it.

We invest it with elaborate ritual. The enduring signs of all cultures and civilizations are their sacrificial sites, tombs and memorials to the dead. Witness the pyramids.

That’s why we use so many euphemisms to talk about death. Some one dies and you hear that he has passed away. But then that too sounds so final!

So we say that someone has passed on, or, from a religious perspective, he has passed over. And now many people simply say he has passed, which makes the irreverent part of me want to ask: “Passed what?”

I know the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas, advised us:

Do not go gentle into that good night,

Old age should burn and rave at close of day;

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

But then he drank himself to death at the age of 39.

It’s one of the tragic ironies of life that we are reluctant to mention something that is the whole point of life. Yes. Without death, life is not only meaningless; it is terrifying. Think about it. Suppose you were made immortal; that is, could not die under any circumstances. Your first reaction would be: Yes!!! Now I can enjoy endless sea baths, roast pork, macaroni pie, pudding and souse, fetes galore, sex, sex, sex, and watching sports on an 86-inch HD TV. Or whatever else your desire or fantasy is.

But hold on. If you can’t die, you don’t need to eat. And if you don’t need to eat, you don’t need to work. And if you don’t need to work, you don’t need to study.

In other words, you don’t need to do anything. And on and on it goes.

So after the first few months of euphoria over your immortality, you’ll then ask what’s the point of existence. You might as well stay in bed, because this immortal life goes on and on forever and forever, whether you want it or not. That’s when it becomes terrifying.

Then, after that nightmare of having to live forever, you suddenly wake up and realize that it is the awareness that life comes to an end which makes it so precious. You only have so much time to achieve whatever you want to do.

Of course, the death of a young person is always tragic, as is the unnatural violent death of anyone. When confronted by such tragedies, we instinctively feel that a life has been interrupted and a potential unfulfilled. The sense of loss is overpowering. The grief is unbearable.

When you’re young things are different. Death is definitely not among your thoughts. That’s why youth is so passionate and full of daring. It’s only when you get past 65 and actuarial statistics begin to kick in that death begins to stare you in your face. And some of us don’t like that.

“Get the f–– out of my face!” is our usual response.

“Who me? Age is only a number; I’m 70 years young.”

As we age, we ought hopefully to see death as a friend. Our mental and physical faculties start to atrophy. Even though we try to keep physically and mentally fit, it will inevitably happen. It’s nature’s way of helping us let go of life.

At some point the quality of life will deteriorate to such an extent that we welcome death. I have a friend who worked in a hospice for the terminally ill and very old in North America. She told me that over half the patients in their 90s starved themselves to death, because that was the only way out.

Some people think I’m morbid to dwell upon death. But they misunderstand my point. It’s knowledge of our certain death that makes life so irresistibly sweet. We treasure life, in our different ways, because we know it is fleeting (carpe diem, “gather ye rosebuds while ye may”, and so on).

This is all the more true the older you get. Retirement, which I recommend you take as early as possible if you can afford to, isn’t about putting your feet up and waiting for death to drop in for a cup of tea. It’s about doing what you want to do rather than what others want you to.

It’s about pursuing your dreams: learn a language, write a poem, read Anna Karenina, take up cycling or some other sport, grow a vegetable garden, join a cause, volunteer to help others, mentor
a young person, pass on your wisdom, fall in love, whatever turns you on.

Some mornings you wake up and are vigorously active all day. The next three mornings you don’t feel like doing one damn thing. That’s the beauty of retirement. Of course, if absolutely nothing other than work turns you on, then you deserve to die or, worse still, continue working till you drop dead.

If we don’t believe there’s any transcendent purpose to life –– it’s all random meaningless chance –– and see death as the final extinction of our consciousness, we may find comfort, as the Stoics did, in the knowledge that before we were born we were without consciousness, a fact which does not terrify us.

If, on the other hand, we believe, as I do, that life –– the cosmos –– has a purpose towards which it’s evolving and we have a role in it, and that beyond/within it is a loving intelligence, we must also accept that decay is an intrinsic feature of this creation, and that, for whatever reason, death is the ordained end of this natural life. So why worry? Trust the Creator.

On the other hand all our instincts urge us to cling to life. It was Woody Allen, who, when told that his films would make him immortal, remarked: “I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work; I want to achieve immortality through
not dying.”

(Peter Laurie, a former Barbados diplomat, is a noted social commentator.)

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