The eternal taboo of death & dying

Dan Hughes
Oct 25, 2019 · 6 min read

It’s integral, it’s inevitable, but it’s seldom talked about.

Death & culture
Death & culture

“Even death is not to be feared by one who has lived wisely.” — Buddha

Despite its inevitability, death is a subject that we seldom talk about.

Dwell on the planet long enough and you will be taxed, you will experience loss. And at some point, you will die.

Regardless of your personal beliefs or social standing, death is enormous — it’s like the sun —you can’t look at it directly for too long.

But, should we as a society talk about passing on or passing away more than we do?

Would it indeed prove to be a healthy pursuit? Ignoring it won’t help you escape the inevitable, after all.

So, let’s talk about the cloaked elephant in the room for a moment, shall we?

Life is uncertain and filled with unexpected occurrences. The only concrete certainty is death, yet its predictability doesn’t flood our souls with security — and understandably so.

We often chuckle at a morbid reference in a comedy or spectate as masses of people are executed in an epic Hollywood battle sequence, but when it comes to discussing death as a final, eternal concept, most of us would rather put the kettle on and brush the subject under the doormat.

Even when we experience loss and we’re faced with the prospect of our own mortality, it’s not often that we sit down to talk about it in any great length.

Most of us don’t discuss the end of our lives with those closest to us. In fact, studies from Dying Matters show that more than half of Britons don’t have the faintest clue about their partner’s end-of-life wishes.

Death and dying are taboo topics, and that’s it. We must Keep Calm and Carry On at all costs, never sparing a thought for the end.

I don’t find the idea of death particularly digestible if I’m honest. It’s a tough path to tread and something that (akin to many others on the planet) I kept buried deep down inside, until I read, ‘Not That Kind of Love’ by Claire & Greg Wise.

This raw, wide-open account of cancer and mortality was written by both sister and brother so eloquently, with wit, humour and unwavering poetic honesty.

After turning the last page and sitting quietly in reflection, it dawned on me that perhaps we should talk about the subject more openly — that it is an extension of us — and being open about it might make us fear death, less.

Greg Wise on the importance of talking about death.

“We will have to give up the notion that death is catastrophe, or avoidable, or even strange.” — Death in the Open, Lewis Thomas

Here in the Western world, we seldom talk about death and what it means to us. If you have faith and, therefore, the belief of an afterlife, ceasing to exist in your current form may be far easier to handle. That said, even some of those endowed with spiritual faith are scared of dying.

Back in Elizabethan times, life expectancy was significantly shorter (around 40, I believe). As such, people knew, without doubt, their time on the planet was incredibly short, making it a common conversational subject.

Then over the years, our conversations surrounding the d-word started to recede, until it has more or less become a big old taboo. In the East, things are inherently different.

Typically, in East Asian culture, death is viewed as a vessel for celebrating life rather than an ominous annihilation of everything we hold dear.

Research reveals that the Eastern response to dying or death is a reinvigorated commitment to enjoying life to its fullest potential. By staring down the barrel of our mortality on occasion, could we all learn to cherish our lives more while shaking hands with the idea of The End (with less sweaty palms, at least)?

In Japan, for instance, death is viewed as a liberation. Bodies are cremated and the ashes separated from the bones. Typically, the remains are divided between the temple, and even the employer of the dearly departed. Also, the dead are remembered, nationwide, during Obon, a three-day holiday that takes place in August.


Culturally, in Japan life is seen as cyclical. The dead leave behind a meandering legacy and sometimes return in spiritual form, holding power over the living.

From a less abstract standpoint, this makes a lot of sense: we experience, we learnand we leave behind wisdom that enriches the lives of those that are still breathing. If we’re born, we’re woven into life’s rich and relentless cycle and while we’re here, it’s up to us to give our existence meaning.

People fear death even more than pain. It’s strange that they fear death. Life hurts a lot more than death. At the point of death, the pain is over. Yeah, I guess it is a friend. — Jim Morrison

The FaceApp gizmo that makes you look decades older caused an entire generation of digital natives to fall into some sort of premature existential crisis. The results of the app were so realistic that droves of people started to contemplate their own fate, a stark realisation flooded peoples’ bodies and brains with anxiety. If we exposed ourselves to the subject more often rather than tucking it away, we might be a little more comfortable with the idea.

As they say, life is short — blink and you’ll miss it.

Personally, I believe that once we stop breathing, the lights go out (although, I am open to suggestions). It will be like none of it ever happened. But, whoever you are whatever you believe, it did happen, it does happen, and that’s the most important thing of all.

I often ponder life’s only certainty and use it as a vessel to celebrate my existence and the existence of others. Now is our time, it’s our turn, and it’s precious.

One day, you will have to make way for the new, but by doing something of value while you’re here, you will live on indefinitely, long after you’ve evaporated in a physical sense.

You might not be known for something in particular (like a Jim Morrison, a Vincent Van Gogh, etc.); however, something you say or do today may have a positive effect on another — a gesture or nugget of knowledge that will get fed right the way down the line for decades to come.

So, what’s it all about, really? No one has enough time to figure it out. Our mere existence is mind-blowing and being privy to that fact, even for a string of fleeting moments is something that I’ll hold on to until the day I die.

All I know is that as awful, uncertain, and heartbreaking as it can be, life can be pretty cool at times — and you should bleeding well do what you want to do — so tear the proverbial arse out of it every single day.

If you want to run ultra marathons, do it. If you want to drink several cans of Bass beer while doing a semi-naked jig on your living room rug, do it. Do you fancy learning Morse code, becoming a Soduku expert or taking on one of those gut-busting Man vs Food Challenges? You know what to do.

Hold onto what is dear, pursue a path that gives your waking moments personal meaning, and do your best to give others the best shot at enjoying their one chance. Oh, and don’t be afraid to talk about you know what from time to time, either.

There’s no time to waste.

The Geist by D I Hughes

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