Reflections on the Modern Way of Dying

It is difficult for us to contemplate the possibility, let alone the certainty, that life is a matter of cosmic hazard, its fundamental purpose mere self-perpetuation, that it unfolds in emptiness, that our planet will one day drift in frozen silence, and that the human species will completely disappear and not be missed, because there is nobody and nothing out there to miss us. That is what growing up means. And it is frightening prospect for a race that has for so long relied on its own invented gods for consolation. The sealing-off of death is a recent shift in Western culture, born in the mud and blood of the trenches. The scale of the First World War slaughter was so vast that mourning dress had to be abandoned, and the battalions of bodies couldn’t be returned to their families. This is when mourning shifted from being based on the corpse to being based on memory – and death began to be hidden away. We all live longer thanks to the dazzling advances of medical science, and most of us die in hospitals receiving treatment. But this has enabled us to take a natural human instinct – the denial of death – too far. Death will always be hard to contemplate particularly when we abandon the anaesthetics offered by religion. As Philip Larkin put it: “Not to be here, /Not to be anywhere,/And soon; nothing more terrible, nothing more true.” But it only becomes more frightening – and more corrosive – if we suppress our fears, and it produces strange dysfunctions in how we live. Yet there is something exhilarating in the truth of it too. When you rush around pretending your life is eternal and for ever, you use it casually and wastefully, like any other resource you imagine is not going to run out. But when you are forced to see how finite it is, this seems almost scandalous. A culture that doesn’t see its dead – that believes it is sick and spooky to do so – forgets how to live.


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