Some (unrefined) thoughts:
What a strange culture and a strange time in which we find ourselves. It appears sometimes that I live in a world full of thinkers. There are post-moderns, contemplative theologians, poignant poets, articulate atheists…and so on.
I think that one thing we have not thought very well about, though, is death. In fact, I am becoming quite sure that, on the topic of death, most of us are silly, shallow, thoughtless, backwards fools.
[The following is simply me thinking onto the keyboard. Some of these enquiries make me squirm, too. But I would much rather squirm, than be guilty of avoiding difficult questions simply because they are difficult.]
Our approach to (or retreat from) death is upside-down – or backward. A list might help elucidate the problem…
HISTORICALLY “NORMAL” DEATHS
(by this, I mean, individuals or groups that civilizations generally expected would frequently die – and whose death was surely mourned, but – in a way – embraced as a part of life’s tragic beauty)
- The very young, the very old, and the very ill
DEATHS THAT MUCH OF OUR MODERN CULTURE FINDS NORMAL
- Deaths in cinema (generally, men love violent films and video games; generally, women can’t get enough of a tragic death in an emotional drama)
- Deaths of civilians in our overseas wars (oh, we feign concern, but we’re just glad the RPGs aren’t landing in our back yards)
- Osama Bin Laden (where we danced in the streets after his death)
DEATHS THAT MUCH OF OUR MODERN CULTURE FINDS UNACCEPTABLE
- Soldiers (Where is the modern-day Achilles…or even Hector? But every man is a Paris…)
- Criminals (The death penalty is rarely used and mostly disparaged)
- The very young, the very old, and the very ill (I would be interested to see the percentage of our GDP that is spent on extending the years of these three groups)
- Animals (I would wager that much less than 50% of the American population has ever killed an animal for the purpose of eating it, but almost all of us eat meat – a 2008 poll showed that less than 4% of Americans are vegetarians. Our personification/humanization of animals is unprecedented [to my knowledge]; it lends itself to a general squeamishness about blood and death in animals.)
It’s all backwards. I call it neo-morbidism.
I often imagine what it must have been like to be a Jewish boy thousands of years ago, watching my father raise a lamb with the knowledge that it would be slaughtered at Passover. What would my view of death have been?
I imagine the colonial days, and those of the westward expansion – how many families lost at least one child to neo-natal frailty, or early illness?
I sometimes imagine what it must be like to observe death’s approach in the last few seconds of life. What are the final sentiments of the man who bows his head to death at the guillotine? Does he sigh, and smile? Does he capitulate in despair? Surely he can not but wonder (even if his avowed atheism condemns him for it), “What will I be/see/do a few moments from now? Will all go to blackness, or will everything be illuminated?”
I regularly wonder why we fear death. I never wonder why we cling to life – I have my own reasons, and both of those reasons are sublimely beautiful. I wonder why we fear death.
In instances of death, for whom do we mourn? Those who have departed? Or those who remain? Our faith speaks to the folly of the former (provided the deceased were in Christ). And what of the latter? Self-pity? Perhaps…yet is that so wrong?
My pragmatic questions:
We know naturally that death is something we want to resist, and life is something we want to preserve. Okay. But at what cost?
There is a direct correlation between money and longevity. Impoverished nations are filled with people who can’t afford the most basic medical interventions; these people often die from their maladies. Wealthy nations are filled with people who are insured enough to afford medical interventions, or who are willing to go into debt enough to obtain expensive treatments. (Then, presumably because we’re bored, we create illness in ourselves – obesity, for example – and then we create medical procedures to “cure” those illnesses – “lap band” procedures, for example.)
But for everyone, life must have a price tag. For example: If there were a body armor that could essentially guarantee that the one wearing it would not be killed, how much would we be willing to pay to outfit each of our soldiers with that equipment? One hundred dollars per soldier? One thousand? One million? One billion dollars per soldier? At some point, we say, “No. Being a soldier carries inherent risk, and we simply can’t afford to defray the risk that much.”
Concerning Obamacare (which I loathe, by the way), many of its opponents protest that the lives of citizens will now be preserved or ended based upon economics (via “Death Panels”). But such is the case even without government-run healthcare – it must be!
The beautiful, sad irony is that while we would avoid death at (almost) any cost, or at least wish to distance ourselves from it, death still barges in, rudely, daily.
Some of my favorite musings on death:
Shakespeare, Hamlet — “For in that sleep of death what dreams may come/When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,/Must give us pause.”
Martin Heidegger, Being and Time — “As soon as man comes to life, he is at once old enough to die.”….Death is the individual’s “ownmost potentiality-for-being, non-relational, and not to be out-stripped.”]
The Fountain [2006 film] — “Death is the road to awe.”
C. S. Lewis, The Last Battle — the swallowing up of the old Narnia, and the eternal venturing into the new Narnia
That’s more of a beginning than an end. But I’ll leave it there for now.