The End of Days
A Handmade Map of Death
“When we are born, we start to die, and the end begins at the beginning.” Boethius
THEIR REMAINING DAYS were nearly countable now: those few women at that February morning’s mass. Four gray heads, two shrouded in silk scarves, four faces etched with age and more of living than I could yet imagine. Four names I knew: Mattie, Marge, Helena, Lorraine, though really little else about them except the steadfastness of their presence at that hour before the larger world awoke. The day was Wednesday, Ash Wednesday, the first of forty days of Lenten fasting that commemorated Jesus’s solitary season in the wilderness, the forty days of preparation, we were told, that preceded his certain and gruesome death.
The four women came twice to the chancel rail that day: They rose to take communion, of course, but first — and almost silently — they left their pews then knelt near us and the priest dipped his thumb into a pot of ashes and made the mark of a cross on each woman’s forehead, and finally on mine as well. Father Cole’s vestments shrouded all of him except his ruddy, freckled, many-angled face, and he spoke in little more than a whisper as he touched our several brows: Remember, O man, that dust thou art and unto dust shalt thou return. … Remember, O man, that dust thou art and unto dust shalt thou return …
Five times I heard the phrase, the soft admonishment, but for a fifteen-year old, it remained bewildering: If we were dust already, then how could we return to that condition? And if the ashes that followed life were identical to living, then why all the fearful fuss? I glimpsed the sooty forehead of each woman Father Cole passed and I tried to gauge from her face whether she was as puzzled as I was. But those four parishioners — kind and observant and caught in their private thoughts — were unimaginably old, I thought, and perhaps they were no longer troubled by such topics. It might be that as life grew very long and the dust of death inevitably approached, answers to those kinds of questions simply emerged somehow, like age spots.
Throughout that day I wore the mark of the cross on my forehead and at school I presumed it was proof that I was part of a mysterious process to which my classmates were surely oblivious: ashes to ashes, dust to dust, a boy’s life lived and then no longer lived with a kind of seamless continuity, I tried to convince myself. But the truth was that I was unpersuaded as the anguish of algebra ended the school day, unpersuaded still as I washed the cross away that night, and three decades later I’ve made only minimal progress in coming to terms with the end of time, in understanding how — or whether — death is allied with the life that it brings to a ruthless close.
Four decades following that February Wednesday, each of the four women is dead; I am far older now than Father Cole was during those years when I served at his side, and for reasons I cannot entirely explain, I am no longer devout. Yet I still look for the clarifying logic, call it the thesis of death, on the aged and infirm faces I encounter. And the simpler question of why death insists on arriving too soon crosses my mind as well when a similarly aging face daily troubles me in the mirror.
THIS DEATH DREW an uncommon obituary, one that was odd not so much because of the sentiments it expressed but because the deceased — a loving mother and stalwart member of her community — was a Tanzanian chimpanzee. “Flo has contributed much to science,” animal behaviorist Jane Goodall wrote in the London Sunday Times, “But this should not be the final word. … even if no one had studied the chimpanzees at Gombe, Flo’s life, rich and full of vigor and love, would still have had meaning and a significance in the pattern of things.”
In the pattern of things, Flo lived and died and nothing more, but none of us can brag of bigger accomplishments, and it is Flo’s death and one son’s response to it that seem most compelling to me. Observed by Goodall and her colleagues for eleven years, Flo was known for her friendly demeanor and many children, for her ragged ears and bulbous nose and a kind of sexual fervor that would have branded her a floozy had she lived in a culture as constrained as ours. No one knew Flo’s age at the end, but she was probably about fifty and it was old age rather than disease that slowed her, then finally spelled her demise.
On an August morning in 1972 one of Goodall’s assistants found Flo’s body lying face down at the edge of a shallow stream. The scientist herself sat a sorrowful vigil near the body that night, concerned that bush pigs might scavenge it, and she watched as eight-year old Flint was left alone to try to come to terms with his mother’s passing. The young male was aware that something was very wrong when Flo would not move; he did not stray far from her body during the night and repeatedly went to it, tugging at his mother’s hand as if to draw her out of sleep. By the second day he had grown listless, his eyes vacant, and he would not eat. “Never shall I forget watching,” Goodall later described, “as three days after Flo’s death, Flint climbed slowly into a tall tree near the stream. He walked along one of the branches, then stopped and stood motionless, staring down at an empty nest. … The nest was one which he and Flo had shared a short while before Flo died.”
At last Flint’s spirits seemed to lift a bit, and he followed an older brother away from the stream and into the dense forest. Yet once more the loss of his mother seemed to overwhelm him, and after only a few days of travel, Flint returned alone. By now Flo’s body had been removed by Goodall and her colleagues, yet this was the place where Flint wanted to remain and he stayed there alone for more than a week. He grew increasingly lethargic; he ate nothing. Finally, almost too weak to move, Flint dragged himself to the exact place at the water’s edge where Flo’s life had ended. He curled himself into a ball, then he, too, died beside the stream.
“For the fate of men and animals is the same,” wrote Solomon, the Preacher, in Ecclesiastes; “one dies as the other dies; all have one breath and the advantage of men over animals amounts to nothing; all is uselessness. All go to one place; all are from the dust, and all return to dust again.”
Employing other words, the assiduous Sancho Panza affirms the same universality of our fates in Cervantes’s Don Quixote: “Death eats up all things, both the young lamb and old sheep; and, I have heard our parson say, death values a prince no more than a clown; all’s fish that comes to his net; he throws at all …”
Dogs, dolphins, chimpanzees grieve for the loss of their fellows, their mates, their mothers. The grief that descends on them, as Flint so sadly demonstrated, can be as profound, as catastrophic, as any human’s. Grief is the anguished response of the living to the blanched reality of death — the way in which it robs the earth of individuals whom others depend upon and care about in the manner we tend to call love — and the expression of that loss is elemental to many animals. Yet there is a key distinction between our species and all others: We, unlike the rest, are capable of imagining death, of shaping it into a malleable abstraction, of linking our physical fears with the potential outcome of trouble. We alone can consider death before it consumes us, and — unlike the horse who stands for weeks beside the rotting body of a field-mate — we can understand that the fate of one of us will be the fate of all.
Death belongs to everything that lives: a truth each of us can acknowledge. Yet we are inclined instead to imagine death as an interloper, some nefarious foreigner who remains external, separate, until at last it catches us in its enveloping jaws. “He’s no mower that takes a nap at noon-day, but drives on, fair weather or foul, and cuts down the green grass as well as the ripe corn,” expounds the portly squire Panza . “He’s neither squeamish nor queesy-stomach’d, for he swallows without chewing, and crams down all things into his ungracious maw; and tho’ you can see no belly he has, he has a confounded dropsy, and thirsts after men’s lives, which he guggles down like mother’s milk.”
However we conceptualize it — death the internal process that begins at birth, or death the thing that comes from far away when we aren’t wary — it is universal in a manner unmatched by any other physical process. Death is everywhere. Death is all the time.
THEY WERE BIG-BONED, massively muscled, and a brow ridge jutted outward above their eyes, yet these people labeled Neanderthal had become something other than apes. Although they probably did not possess pliant language, they made use of fire and stone tools and they, too, mourned their dead.
An arching cave called Shanidar cuts into rock that rises above the Zab River, a tributary of the Tigris in far northern Iraq. Today, Kurdish tribespeople live at Shanidar and it is possible that the cave has been continuously populated for 100,000 years. During his excavations at Shanidar in the 1960s, archaeologist Ralph Solecki encountered the remains of a Neanderthal man buried between two boulders at the lip of the enormous overhang. Solecki excavated the skeleton, removed it, and took samples of soil surrounding the spot where it lay. Sometime later, when the soil was examined for pollen content — a procedure that can lend valuable information about the season and climate at the time of a burial — something arresting emerged: Unlike typical soil samples, which include only a few grains of pollen broadcast by the wind, these samples contained enormous numbers of grains of yarrow, yellow groundsel, grape hyacinth, rose mallow, hollyhock, and blue bachelor’s button — each of these species still flowering at Shanidar today as summer subsumes the spring.
The pollen grains clearly could only be accounted for if they represented the remains of whole flowers rather than individual grains randomly borne by the breeze. And if blossoming flowers had been intentionally buried with the young man’s body, then these people — perhaps still absent abstract speech — were nonetheless capable of ritual and symbolic activity and therefore of complex thought. They, like the Tanzanian chimpanzees, must have understood the void of death and they too surely felt the depression, even despair, brought on by the loss of loved ones. Yet something more was made obvious by the fact that this body was buried amid flowers 60,000 years ago. Not only were the survivors capable of mourning their loss, they surely were aware of death in the manner that is uniquely human. They were beings who must have struggled to make metaphoric sense of it, who responded to death with the consoling symbol we still choose today to remind us of life’s beauty and its brevity. “No animal, merely as such, will ever know what it is to die,” observed the 18th-century philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau, “and the knowledge of death, and of its terrors, is one of the first acquisitions made by man.” Before speech had fully flowered and as the first tools took rudimentary shape, humans began to think about death. As we continue to do today, they surely asked themselves why death had to happen. They, too, must have wanted to know what followed death, and their fears must have been as potent and futile as ours.
IN A TOWN near my town, twin girls were born eight years ago, the two joined at the chest, sharing a three-chambered heart. Ruthie and Verena were healthy during infancy, but by the time they reached age five their separate pairs of lungs hadn’t had room to grow commensurably with their bodies and their single heart had become severely taxed. In an effort to help them survive, their parents moved away from Colorado’s high altitude and thin air to a sea-level town in Rhode Island. The girls understood that surgical separation wasn’t possible and that their prognosis was poor.
Their mother remembers that the girls’ distinct and competing personalities had emerged very early on. But out of profound necessity, they had learned to compromise, she explained, and they understood that their separate lives depended on their shared biology. They knew too that one would probably die while the other still lived, yet that one wouldn’t be left alone for long. Seven-year old Ruthie was the first to die, her brain’s myriad functions failing while the heart she shared still pumped. “This is the time we’re going to be dying,” Verena explained to her mother when it became clear to her that Ruthie was gone. Calmly, betraying scant evidence of fear, she asked her mother to go inform her father, who was in another room. She named the several people to whom she wanted flowers sent, then reminded her parents that neither she nor her sister wanted to be buried: Unlike the reality of their living, both wanted to be free in death, she said, not consigned to a slender box.
Throughout human history, contends ethicist Paul Ramsey, cultures that have emphasized, even celebrated, the uniqueness and importance of the individual also have tended to deny or rebel against death. And conversely, in essentially communal societies — their members envisioned as components of a larger whole — death commonly has been perceived as something acceptable, if not necessarily welcome. Throughout human history, Ramsey insists, when the group has been granted more intrinsic value than the individual, the weight of death has been easier to bear, its prospect less frightening, its outcome seldom deemed tragic, and I am reminded of that curious correlation when I consider Verena’s response to her sister’s death and her anticipation of her own. I’m struck by her immediacy of mind in those moments, by a developing sense of death that was at once candid and accepting, evidencing neither fear nor anger, not clinging in vain to life but neither assuming that life in some form would continue without interruption.
Verena, too, died within the hour, and although their cremated ashes later were commingled, her death and Ruthie’s death that day were essentially separate, as distant as mine will be from yours. Their lives had been more intimately allied than we can imagine, and although each girl died alone, their conjoined deaths also were communal, shared, their ends accepted with a kind of wisdom that belied their years.
DEATH IS SIMPLY the deepest sleep: so some small children will tell you. For other youngsters, it is easier to imagine death as a kind of extended vacation, one from which grandparents and departed pets never quite return. Until age five or so, living is the only comprehensible condition and death is therefore life only…different. Yet as the very young try to make sense of death in this context of departure, the notion of required travel, undertaken alone and for the long term, can seem more than a little frightening.
Between ages five and ten, death becomes personified, an evolution that is nearly universal, according to psychologist Maria Nagy. Death is now a personality, a character, whether skeleton-man or reaper: “Death comes when somebody dies,” one seven-year old explained to Nagy, “and comes with a scythe, cuts him down and takes him away. When death goes away it leaves footprints behind. When the footprints disappeared it came back and cut down more people. And then they wanted to catch it, and it disappeared.” Unlike the initial stage of awareness, during which physical death is virtually unimaginable, it becomes real yet remote in this second stage. It is definite and it is deplorable, but it only happens to those whom the death-man snatches.
As early as nine or ten, however, a more sober scenario emerges. Death begins to seem inescapable, no matter how you try to out-run it. And it isn’t a person anymore so much as a process, something that occurs, in point of fact, because you are alive. “If somebody dies they bury him and he crumbles to dust in the earth…the skeleton remains altogether, the way it was. That is why death looks like a skeleton. Death is something that no one can escape.” This ten-year old, already a symbolist, understands not only that death descends on everyone but also that most of us require metaphoric means to imagine it — whether we envision skeletons or heavens. Death is the end of corporal life, we already know by the time we’re ten.
HIS JOB, ONE he shared sometimes with his brother, was to use a .22 pistol to dispatch each cow to a better place before his father began the messier jobs of beheading, skinning, dressing, and quartering them at their small slaughterhouse in Dolores. My friend Ricky was thirteen when his father suggested it was time for him to play a role in the family business, yet he was already well-versed in what went on there, and for as long as he could remember he had accompanied his father on working trips to farms and ranches, where a cow or hog or sheep was sent from field to freezer during the course of a bloody afternoon.
No particular emotion accompanied Ricky’s tasks: The job of killing cows wasn’t what you would call fun, but neither was it frightening or repelling. He simply pressed the pistol to the animal’s head and pulled the trigger. He would rather be fishing downriver in the hole by Blind Joe’s swinging bridge, yet this work was endurable. He spent no time thinking about whether human beings ought to remain carnivorous, nor did he suppose that death was a terribly tangled issue. People died, and they did so under circumstances that sometimes were fraught with complications. The animals at Mountain Packing died as well, but something about their demise seemed inherently simple, and the whole idea of death was one that seemed part and parcel of the world he was getting to know.
Adolescence is a period marked by a burgeoning ability to think abstractly, and a few teenagers, like Ricky was, are able to weave the idea of death rather seamlessly into the fabric of all they observe — at least at those moments when it consciously crosses their minds. In contrast, I remember presuming during those awkward years that the fact that death to me seemed both bewildering and harrowing surely foreshadowed the certainty that I would die before I made my way to adulthood, before I saw the world or served mankind or did that other thing that lately I yearned very much to do. I was not a confident kind of teenager, and together with my tentative struggle for adulthood came a vexing sense of vulnerability, my realization that socially, materially, physically things weren’t always going to go well, and for a few years I actually presumed I was doomed to die soon. I did try my best to bargain away that unfairest of fates, as I recall: I would become a priest and commit my life to service, I professed, if only I could live, if only I could become the adult I so much wanted to be.
Yet for every teenager for whom life seems about to end in tragedy, there are five more who presume they will be forever immune from death. Wrapped inside their own “personal fables,” in the terminology of the developmental psychologists, these adolescents believe they will never be harmed by anything. To them, death seems to differ only by degree from the exasperated history teacher who talks tough but who never follows through on his threats. And like the taunts that they aim at that long-suffering instructor, these teens find myriad ways in which similarly to flirt with death, to test it, to expand the heroic stories they tell about themselves in an effort to keep them from growing stale.
Ricky readily could have been this latter kind of kid — he might have flaunted the power of his pistol and insisted that his buddies come watch him blow cows to Kingdom Come. But as far as I knew, Ricky never did try to turn death into entertainment, nor did it seem to worry him in the ways that it regularly terrified me, and the truth is that early in the 1960s he didn’t belong with those of us at either sophomoric emotional extreme when it came to the question of dying. Unlike the rest of us, Ricky actually knew a little something about the subject. At the end of every work day, before his dad drove him home then let him have a sip or two of his Schlitz, the two of them — father and son side by side at the steel utility sink — had to wash death off their hands.
IN THE MYTHS that survive from the Greeks, the ferryman whose small boat sails the shadowed waters of the River Styx is called Charon. He is old, crotchety, truly bad-tempered at times, yet he is strong and tenacious. The dead must cross the river in his ferry if they are to reach their destination in the underworld, but Charon assesses a fee for the crossing, and although he can be flexible about the amount, he insists in every case that a fare is paid. When Menippus, a philosopher recently deceased, demands free passage across the river, the ferryman inquires, “Didn’t you know that you had to bring the fee?”
“I knew,” replies the philosopher, “but I didn’t have it. What was I to do? Not die?”
By way of offering a solution to the impasse, Menippus suggests that if he really cannot cross to the underworld without the payment, then Charon can bring him back to life instead. Grumbling that such charity would break an even more elemental rule, the ferryman relents and lets Menippus on board, but he complains during the crossing about the philosopher’s good humor, asking him if he won’t moan and wail a little like the other souls.
The fables that surround Charon and the crossing of the Styx underscore the concept of death as a journey, of course, a voyage one must undertake to pass from this life to the next. But it is the price of the passage, it seems to me, that keeps the story current. At the end of the twentieth century and in my middle age, I’m at ease with the idea that dying does exact its price. Add time to the primal stuff of matter and energy and some sort of transformation becomes a certainty. Among living beings as inclusive as protozoa and college professors, life yields to death and death to decay, rules as unbreakable as Charon’s requirements. The evolution into death does cost us dearly in the end, and it’s a toll we pay with the tick of days.
Days. The ordered gauge with which we mark our progress, our tarrying through time. Light to dark and dark to light again. Days the events that in my forties I’m learning to relish at last, now that it’s likely that more of them lie behind me than wait impatiently ahead. And it’s only from this perspective of middle age that death assumes new resonance, a kind of urgent reality it hasn’t heretofore included. And it’s from this temperate vantage point that many people like me begin to view death anew for the first time since the maudlin turmoil of their adolescence finally settled into the day-to-day we call adulthood.
For some, it is the wondrous birth of children that somehow awakens insistent questions about mortality, but for many of us it isn’t until the decline and deaths of parents — our own status as children only truly ending at ages forty-five or fifty-two or sixty— that we can begin to sense viscerally that however long we live, it won’t be long enough. Like it or not, we live in our parents’ images, and despite the attendant discomfort, we know by middle age that we mirror them in everything from turns of phrase to nagging cholesterol counts. And when our parents prove no different from the masses — dying, in the end, just like ordinary human beings — that dolorous reality doesn’t do much at all to boost our own prospects for permanence.
Newly awakened to the inevitability of death, the end of days a subject we now begin to take personally, middle age is a time of regret for some and of renewed resolve for others. Life’s limitations and its host of disappointments — those myriad things that might have been — often become the prickling focus. Others in middle age seem actually invigorated by the clangorous ticking of the clock and the realization, even prior to menopause or the certain swelling of the paunch, that they are running out of time. We know dozens of people, each of us, for whom every birthday is a punishment. Yet I want to believe there are as many more for whom this terminal predicament, these fleeting days, are simply the fare the universe extracts for our eventual demise. And what else can we do but pay the price? Not die?
“I THINK LIFE is a very sad piece of buffoonery,” complained playwright Luigi Pirandello. “My art is full of bitter compassion for all those who fool themselves, but this compassion can’t help but be succeeded by the ferocious derision of a destiny that condemns man to deception.” Throughout his work, Pirandello repeatedly expressed his conviction that each of us lives inside cocoons of false reality, which we painstakingly and constantly spin round ourselves.
In his short play entitled “The Man With the Flower In His Mouth,” Pirandello attends to our ready deceptions about growing old and dying. Late at night in a street café in Rome, his title character interrupts a stranded train commuter with whom he is conducting an impassioned conversation as a means of passing time. “Let me finish!” the man with the flower in his mouth insists,
“Wouldn’t it be nice, my friend, if death were merely some sort of strange, disgusting insect someone might unexpectedly find on you. You’re walking down the street and some passer-by suddenly stops you. Carefully, he extends just two fingers of one hand and he says, ‘Excuse me, may I? You, my dear sir, have death on you!’ And with those two fingers he plucks it off and flicks it away. That would be wonderful, wouldn’t it? But death isn’t like some horrible insect. Many of the people you see walking around happily and indifferently may be carrying it on them. No one notices it. And they are calmly and quietly planning what they’ll do tomorrow and the day after.”
Then, the man gets up and leads the commuter into the light of a nearby street lamp:
“Look, here, here, under the mustache. There, you see that pretty violet nodule? Know what it’s called? Ah, such a soft word — softer than caramel — epithelioma, it’s called. Pronounce it, you’ll feel how soft it is. Epithelioma … Death you understand? Death passed my way. It planted this flower in my mouth and said to me, ‘Keep it, my friend, I’ll be back in eight or ten months.’”
As he explains his medical predicament to the commuter, it is the pleading of the man’s wife and friends for him to stay home and keep peaceably to his bed while he waits for death to come for him that he finds particularly demeaning. If people could know in similar fashion that a calamity such as an earthquake soon would kill them, would they simply take to their comfortable beds?, he asks. It is an intriguing question, of course, and the curious answer is that, yes, some of them probably would.
By the time many people reach an age at which that most hideous of appellations — senior citizen — can be attached to them, I suspect they bear more in common than they care to acknowledge with the Man With the Flower In His Mouth, not because insidious flowers are necessarily growing in their own corporal nooks and crannies, but because steadily diminishing abilities and the mounting loss of friends surely begin to bring relentlessly home the issue of the amount of time remaining to them. But as Charles Dickens insists in Barnaby Rudge,
“Father Time is not always a hard parent, and, though he tarries for none of his children, he often lays his hand lightly upon those who have used him well; making them old men and women inexorably enough, but leaving their hearts and spirits young and in full vigour.”
So, old age could be imagined, at any rate, from Dickens’s youthful perspective at twenty-nine, and no doubt he did define accurately enough a kind of elderly person for whom “every wrinkle [is] but a notch in the quiet calendar of a well-spent life.” Yet for millions of others, the shrinking of life’s final season induces not contentment but festering disgust instead, anger pitched not so much against the great unknown or what will be missed in one’s absence but specifically against the utter inescapability of physical decline. “The tragedy of old age,” understood Oscar Wilde, “is not that one is old, but that one is young.” It was not the end of life that Wilde lamented but rather what he saw as the cruel and inexorable transformation of the old into weak, uncertain, incapable characters, as dependent as little children come the close of their days.
When I try to imagine how I will respond if one remote morning I awake and ascertain that I am eighty, it is hard to envision being simply satisfied — as Dickens would have it — with the life that lies in the weedy field of my memory. If I can no longer hike or swim or even sit atop a rusty tractor, if sports and sex and robust activity of every kind are lost to me, I don’t suppose I’ll find true solace in the fact that I took so much pleasure from them once upon a time. If somehow I succeed in reaching four-score years, I hope I’ll feel some gratitude for my survival; with luck, I’ll know I’ve learned a bit with each advancing day, yet I have a suspicion that I will also comprehend very viscerally what Simone de Beauvoir meant when she observed that “It is old age, rather than death, that is to be contrasted with life. Old age is life’s parody.” If the essence of living is possibility, opportunity, action, then she must be correct: The atrophy and, for some, even the boredom of old age surely offer mocking counterpoints to what has gone before. The elderly necessarily succumb to a state of disquieting inertia, to a point at which living literally lies behind them, and I cannot imagine drawing Dickensian vigor from that declining condition.
But it needs to be said that the old, all of them, are privileged in this curious, if singular respect: At least they have not died young. What we tend to call the injustice of death that comes too quickly — life ending before its lush bouquet of stages and experiences can be collected completely — is a fate from which only the old can be sure they have been entirely spared. It is not an enormous consolation, but it has some substance nonetheless: Collectively, we value survival nearly above all else, and the old — those who lead flourishing lives till the final tick of time as well as those whom Pirandello’s character so despises for retreating to their beds — are our truest survivors, people who have lived thirty thousand days and therefore must inevitably pay this concluding price of decline.
ALTHOUGH HE HAD become a pauper and his remarkable body of work was little appreciated when he died at thirty-five, the short life of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was as lush with experience and accomplishment as it might have been had he lived for nine decades. But mere longevity does not determine the excellence of a life, of course, and it was Mozart’s recognition of his mortality, effected by his failing health, which foremost enriched his living, he was sure. In a 1787 letter to his dying father — whose death preceded his own by only four years — the son tried to persuade the sire that “death, when we come to consider it closely, is the true goal of our existence.” That goal included Christian afterlife, as Mozart imagined it, an eternal continuum free from failure or pain or illness, a realm only accessible through dying. “I have formed during the last few years such close relations with this best and truest friend of mankind, that [its] image is not only no longer terrifying to me, but is indeed very soothing and consoling! And I thank my God for graciously granting me the opportunity…of learning that death is the key which unlocks the door to our true happiness.”
Death is humankind’s “truest friend” because it ends the suffering and uncertainty of living and replaces them with the reward of perpetual bliss: It is this view of life as a rutted and difficult road that must be negotiated on the way to paradise that lies at the core of many religious traditions, and there is no surer means of mitigating the fear of dying than to believe that instead of oblivion, one’s death will lead to life without end. Yet it is a view that is profoundly simplistic as well, one that not only denies death’s reality but also steals from it the meaning it lends to living. If this life is nothing more than a span of temporal trouble that has to be muddled through in order to reach the good life, then our living is reduced to little more than a capricious kind of practice, a waiting game en route to the time when time disappears and true happiness is launched at last.
Even during my early and adolescent years, when religious observance grounded my days and securely marked the seasons, the notion of heaven — or an afterlife of any construction — never held real resonance for me. Assurances about the hereafter seemed even then like elaborate kinds of craving, and decades later I come closer to an alliance with the contention of American essayist and novelist Paul Theroux that “Death is an endless night so awful to contemplate that it can make us love life and value it with such passion that it may be the ultimate cause of all joy and all art.” I suspect that death indeed is what imbues life with its richest qualities, that absent the knowledge of death we would be as uncreative as animals. Without death, ethics, aesthetics, and even the longing to love would lack conviction. Life would have little urgency, and questions about how best to live would never demand to be asked.
Yet death itself does not seem to me to be “too awful to contemplate.” Surely there is an accessible mid-range between the denial of death grounded in the glib assumption of afterlife and an utter abhorrence of death seated in the suspicion and the breathtaking fear that these immediate days are all we can ever know. During the days that I still live, I want to search that largely uncharted middle ground, to map its complex terrain, to probe whether it is possible to accept and even revere the drab reality of dying cognizant of the prospect that death is the utter end of things. And I want as well to anchor myself to evidence that the process of death actually has much to offer us: a door perhaps…perhaps…but maybe solely an endpoint, one embued with the rich mystery of the universe at its sober terminus, one that not only punctuates the living that precedes it but that also offers it shape and art.
TOO YOUNG STILL — or too naive — I can’t yet agree with Simone de Beauvoir that old age is the antithesis of living. As I struggle to define this obscurity that is dying, I discover that I can truly grasp only its opposites, what it palpably is not, and solely this seems certain: Death is the opposite of living. Death is the end of days.
Death is not laughing, is not pain. Not a baby’s smile nor a rapturous sunset, nor is it snowy blindness. Neither splendid sex nor ceaseless work. Death is not animus — not dancing, not lying still. Death brings an end to growth and to growing old; it stops the beating of hearts and the flashing of synapses in the brain, stops the ceaseless brushing of teeth, stops taxes.
It is not enough, I know, to label death “omega.” The end is simply not enough of an answer, not an answer of any sort for people intent on the bliss of eternal life or those determined to return to this life as soaring birds or celebrated ballerinas. Even if you presume that you join nothing more than an unfathomable oblivion at the instant you depart — that you simply cease to be — still there is an insistent desire to better define death in the context of the wondrous living it brings to a close. If death is what lends life its luster and its meaning, then nothing ultimately matters more than dying and our complex anticipation of the moment when it commences. We awkwardly navigate our way to the day of our demise; we move blindly, some of us, and the course for everyone is often obscure, to be sure. Perhaps it isn’t possible truly to define the destination, but at least we can scribble maps that help mark the relentless route. We can draw tentative lines on scraps of paper, if little more, watch for hands that wave us in truer directions, listen for the enlivened voices that occasionally say “this way.”
THERE WAS A time when death seemed indistinguishable from ceremony to me. While I was still a faithful acolyte, I would feel the stirring proof of my importance on those occasions when Father Cole would knock at my classroom door and inform my teacher that I had been excused to assist him at a funeral. I’d jump officiously up from my desk and dart out of the room with an air intended to display my puny prestige, and, especially since those occasions meant being away from school without being sick, it was rare when my attendance at a funeral didn’t seem like a piece of luck.
Requiem masses at St. Barnabas’s; the more generic sorts of services at the local funeral home, often featuring the “Lord’s Prayer” sung by tenors in aging suits; processions to cemeteries led by police cars with flashing lights; graveside rites that sometimes featured foolish-looking men attired in top-hats and aprons — I enjoyed them all, in part, of course, because I seldom had an emotional connection to the departed person, but partly as well because rituals of every kind appealed to me. I enjoyed the ancient liturgies of the church, the tacky pageantry of local parades, and even the overweening pomp and circumstance of high-school graduations, which nowadays make we wince. Yet the several rituals that surrounded death held a particular ceremonial allure and I’m still not sure I entirely understand why. Perhaps it was because there was something secretive, unspoken, hence inherently interesting, about death. Maybe I somehow got the point that the transition being observed was the major event that it turns out it actually is. I do know that even the death of my grandfather — the first time I had to deal with the loss of someone truly close to me — was something I responded to ritually rather than with much latent emotion.
Eighty-years-old when he suddenly collapsed on the kitchen floor of his farmhouse, my maternal grandfather’s death was a mournful but far from tragic event. He had not been what you would term religious, yet the Methodist minister who conducted his funeral told everyone in attendance that he was sure he would have liked him had he known him. My grandfather’s memory was further demeaned at the small country cemetery near his home when the men in top-hats and aprons took charge and the grand muckety-muck didn’t know his lines and had to be prompted continually as the rest of us stood there and ached. When that travesty at last was over, people simply wandered away from the grave, the coffin still suspended above it, the gentlemen in suits from the funeral home making theatrical gestures to usher us on our way.
But my cousins Mark and Matt — teenagers, as I was — lingered a while beside the green carpeting that covered the mound of dirt, and it was Mark’s idea that we set things straight as best we could by burying our grandfather ourselves. The mortuary men thought the request was a little unseemly, but they knew us and they acquiesced, and soon our coats and ties were off and the wheels were cranked that lowered the coffin into the hole. A lid had to be fitted on the fiberglass vault that contained the polished wooden box, and then we were free to shovel.
It felt absolutely fitting and fine, of course, to sweat in the mid-day heat, and our ad hoc shoveling ceremony did for the three of us what rituals are meant to do: It marked our grandfather’s passing in a way that was meaningful to us. It washed that Masonic effrontery out of our mouths, and it was a way to say a final farewell to a workingman that seemed precisely appropriate.
Years later, my experiences of death are far broader, and my several perspectives are more complex. Death can be messy, even gruesome, I now know. Tragedy is sometimes its attendant and sometimes death is surrounded only by a void. I am no longer drawn to ritual in the way I once was, yet rites of every sort, I’m sure, play constant and critical roles in preparing the dying for their deaths and in providing solace and closure for those the dead leave unguardedly behind.
We were adults by the time my grandmother died, and we shoveled earth this second time in largest part because we had done the same for him — buried only inches away — back when the world was a more innocent place. This time Matt’s and Mark’s brother Tony was old enough to join us, and I remember that while we worked it seemed appropriate to Tony to regale us with dirty jokes. At the time, it seemed like the worst kind of taste to me, but I said nothing, and I’m glad now that I did not. Laughing and grieving are closer kin than I realized then. Surely there was some sort of necessary ceremony for Tony bound up in his light-heartedness, and now I make no claim to know the right ritual way for anyone to respond to the waylay of death.
SIR THOMAS BROWNE, the seventeenth-century Anglican theologian and physician, offered this concise explanation for why we react so awkwardly both to the deaths that occur in our midst as well as to the plain reality that our own deaths soon will follow: “The long habit of living indisposeth us to dying.” Three hundred years later, another physician, this one the essayist Lewis Thomas, noted that nowadays “the habit has become an addiction: we are hooked on living; the tenacity of its grip on us, and ours on it, grows in intensity. We cannot think of giving it up, even when living loses it zest — even when we have lost the zest for zest.”
“At the very center of the problem is the naked cold deadness of one’s own self, the only reality in nature of which we can have absolute certainty, and it is unmentionable, unthinkable. We may be even less willing to face the issue at first hand than our predecessors because of a secret new hope that maybe it will go away. We like to think, hiding the thought, that with all the marvelous ways in which we seem now to lead nature around by the nose, perhaps we can avoid the central problem if we just become, next year, say, a bit smarter.”
The ten leading statistical causes of death in the United States, ranked first to tenth by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention according to the total number of lives each claims, are these: heart disease, cancer, stroke, lung disease, accidents, influenzas, diabetes, AIDS, suicide, and homicide. Each of us possesses close acquaintance with these maladies — they intricately lace our lives; they are our common currency. Yet despite the constant company we keep, we still cannot prevent their occurrences, nor are we very adept at accepting their obdurate outcomes. Four hundred years ago, although Browne knew next to nothing about the biological mechanisms that induce these or any other species of dying, he nonetheless grasped something elemental about the stubbornness of living, a drive to survive that always will be with us.
Coded into the genes of every living entity is a wish, a desire, a longing to live. We live out of habit because something in our physical construction utterly compels us to preserve this animated condition as best we can. As humans, conscious of our lives, this is our unique and acute conundrum: Death is the endpoint we move toward each moment, yet it is a direction we inherently fear, a destiny toward which we are utterly indisposed.
“IN HORROR OF death, I took to the mountains; again and again I meditated on the uncertainty of the hour of death,” wrote Milarepa, the Tibetan Buddhist poet and saint who lived in the twelfth century. As a young man, Milarepa had been a sorcerer and had induced the deaths of many foes with his potent black magic. Yet it was the terrible fear of his own death that at last set in motion his journey toward enlightenment, and along the way he encountered a scrap of insight that did much to quell his constant anxiety: “This thing called ‘corpse’ we dread so much is living with us here and now,” he began to understand.
This is the question I’ve carried with me like an acolyte’s cross on a satin ribbon since the days when I first became acquainted with funereal affairs if not, in fact, with death itself: Does our inability to grow comfortable with this thing called corpse already dying inside us rob us of a means of enriching our private and public humanity and of more fully living our lives? Or does death so completely crush and counter life that the only affirmative and sane and sustaining response is to turn away from it, to deny it fundamentally?
It is a question that comes back to me on a flood tide when I look at a haunting photograph published recently in the San Francisco Chronicle — a group portrait of the 122 members of the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus. Standing on six rows of risers that sweep up from a foreground grand piano, almost all of the men are dressed in black tuxedos, their faces unseen, their backs turned toward the camera. Only seven men, dressed in white dinner jackets, look forward. They are the sole members of the original chorus who have survived since 1989. The stark whiteness of their jackets and starched shirts is all that makes them visible in the midst of the massed black coats that symbolize the 115 chorus members who have been stricken and killed by AIDS.
We live in the midst of plague years, of course, and it seems unimaginable that these singers and others for whom this scourge is most terribly immediate have literally turned their backs on the subject of death in ways akin to the daily denial practiced by the rest of us. Certainly those seven survivors know death’s grim terrain all too intimately, and as I look at the photograph I want to press my question to them. I want to know whether this by now ubiquitous disease and its fateful outcome have valuably instructed them about the end of days. I want to ask them: Are any of us capable of acquainting ourselves with the realities of death in ways that manifestly can assist us with our living? Or should we shout that we will not draw near to the ugly mystery of death, that we will live instead, at least for this moment and perhaps for the next? I want to know whether it makes some sense to them to think that all of us are dust — and that their brother choristers have turned to dust again.
Russell Martin is a filmmaker, novelist, screenwriter, and nonfiction author, and the principal of Say Yes Quickly Productions.
Copyright © 2015 Russell Martin. All rights reserved. Except for brief quotations in critical articles or reviews, no part of this essay may be reproduced in any manner without prior written permission from the author.