A Primer on Death
I woke from a dream of death to day's amazing/death grass death rice death chairs death death asleep or awake
-- Ikkyu, 15th-century Japan
Life is absolutely wild--unpredictable--uncontrollable--unfathomable. Anything can happen. For instance, in one generation the strongest and most secure nation on earth can defy every expectation and become a crippled colossus where millions are homeless, there's no job security, and the future frightens everyone. But life expresses its anything-can-happen nature most relentlessly by an absolute insistence on its only predictable element, the common fate awaiting all: death.
Death transcends all categories, even the category we call "life." Not only mammals, insects, and plants, but rocks, seas, mountains, planets, stars, and galaxies, all end, all die. Ideas, paintings, books, languages, civilizations--all participate equally in death. (This would seem to indicate that death is not a judgment.)
You, in particular, are going to die. No matter how much money you have. No matter how much you know, or how you exercise, or what you eat. No matter how useful or useless you've been. No matter how much, or well, or badly you loved. No matter which side you were on. (This would also seem to indicate that death is not a judgment.)
There is no way to predict when you will die. There's no way to control or predict when anyone else will die. Your children, and every man and woman you care about, are going to die as you are, and in no special order of age or virtue--no matter what you do or don't do for them, and no matter how much you love them.
This is worth emphasizing, since it constitutes much of what frightens us about death: It could happen tomorrow, or 50 years from now, or before you finish reading (or I finish writing) this paragraph. It could just have happened in the next room, or miles away, to someone you love. And, beyond a few fragile precautions against death's more senseless varieties, there's nothing you can do about it.
Almost anything can cause death if it happens in the right amount, at the right time, in the right place, to the right person. People die of sudden joy as well as sudden fear. People die of mysterious allergies they never had before. People waste away of broken hearts. At the same time, diseases that kill almost everyone don't kill every single one. Drug addicts, alcoholics, and smokers sometimes live into old age, while health fanatics and athletes sometimes die suddenly of conditions their quite competent physicians never guessed at. It is even well documented that in some cultures, people sometimes die when others stick pins into dolls (even though the victims didn't know about it)--and people sometimes don't.
Some die peacefully, calmly. Most do not. Most die messily and painfully, or in fear, or suddenly, or all of the above. (It is worth remembering that this is true of every species of life, and thus seems endemic to the nature of death.)
It is impossible to predict from the way people have lived whether they are going to die peacefully (or at least calmly), or in fear and agony.
Virtually everyone, if they have time to think at all, is surprised when they realize that they are, in fact, dying. This is more than a little odd, since the inevitability of our own death is the only thing we can count on without disappointment.
A few don't seem to fear death. Some of these are sages. Some are car-bomb suicide terrorists. This leads one to believe that "enlightenment" and "psychological development" don't seem to be factors.
Many people who fear death have nevertheless been known to sacrifice themselves, dare death, and willingly die, for others--even for strangers, or for an idea or a cause. Love, at least personal love, does not explain the range of this behavior. Nothing does. In the face of the power and finality of such behavior, theories become quibbles. We only know that sometimes even death becomes an unimportant consideration.
This behavior, by the way, is not strictly human. It can be observed in all manner of mammals, birds, and insects. This seems to indicate that, so far as defiance of death is concerned, something beyond human psychological factors is taking place. You cannot talk about such things as "heroism" or "the transcendent power of a higher meaning" when, in circumstances like war, human beings and ants defy death in identical ways. (Imagine pinning the Medal of Honor on an ant?) That stark similarity of behavior indicates that something else--something trans-human, if you like--is operable when death is defied in this manner. These correspondences in behavior have not, to my knowledge, begun to be investigated.
Some people, medically dead, have been brought back to medical life. A few of these people report seeing lights, visions, or their deceased family and friends awaiting them, etc. Most don't see anything. No one knows what this means. (There are lots of theories. That's different from knowledge.)
Almost all people brought back from medical death report that they were very, very calm in their "dead" state--felt no fear, no sense that they were being obliterated, and often no special desire to return to life. No one knows what this means, either.
It is well-documented that many people have known when their loved ones have died, even at great distances and when there was no explainable way to know. And no one knows what this means, as well.
There are many stories through the ages of visitations from the dead in various forms--too many witnesses to discount. But they are only subjective stories, so they are equally difficult to analyze. To say it's all hogwash or imagination is to say that millions of otherwise credible witnesses from every culture and every level of intelligence are wrong. This is possible but unlikely. On the other hand, it is not possible to verify these accounts in any way. Oh, well.
Most people in every culture known to history have believed in an "afterlife"--a continuance of identity, in some form, after death. These people range from village idiots to quantum physicists. It is either a mass delusion or there's something to it. No one knows.
Since the advent of modern science many subscribe to the sentence: "When you're dead, you're dead, period." It is the only scientifically respectable thing to say, because the only scientifically verifiable fact about death is that body functions stop and there's nothing measurable left. But we don't know if this has to do with the limitations of life or the limitations of our measurements. We really don't.
Many people, even children, take their own lives. Many others, demographically "normal" in every way, admit they've sometimes seriously considered taking their own lives. In most cultures, this is both against the law and against the dominant religion, and no one makes taboos about acts others don't want to commit. Thus there are states of mind in which death becomes preferable to life. It seems important not to take this for granted, nor to rationalize it with theories--theories such as "this constitutes a failure of the life principle," or "they're just fucked up," etc. These theories are clearly biased, weighted (by the living, as is inevitable) toward life. Those who have chosen suicide don't get to argue back, but certainly theirs is an act that says: There are times when death is attractive. This seems a terribly important fact about death.
All writing about death--including and especially this modest effort--is an attempt to domesticate the wild, fantastic fact of death. But no matter how sophisticated, sympathetic, empathic, clinical, factual, profound, bla-bla-bla, all these words are an incantation spun around the unknowable.
Arguably, that's all words ever do--spin prettily and perhaps uselessly around the unknowable, the wild, the uncontrollable, the unpredictable, the great overwhelming fact that everything in existence equally shares: that all must die.
At least in our language we have a fine word for it, a word with a sound that both soothes and menaces, both evokes what it speaks of and makes a small, temporary space between the speaker and the fact.
Say it over a few times. (Softly, would be preferable.)
Death. Death. Death.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss City Pages' biggest stories.