That I, being still in my twenties, should write about death may seem improper. Perhaps it is. We might add that I am so far less acquainted with loss, in that sense, than the average person of my age. That is acknowledged—I don’t intend to apologize for it, just to acknowledge my vantage.
Firstly, I want to mention the threads or motivations for writing this at all. This piece is essentially my attempt at sorting out the collision between the two fundamental ideas about the role of death, and there were four experiences which got me thinking about this.
The first is the death of a twelve-year-old cousin, one year ago. Encountering the reality of his death, it was clear to me that the only proper and authentic response could be one of sound grief. To me, the impulse to say, “he’s in a better place,” or, “he lives on in our hearts,” actually seemed a travesty. Standbys like these felt cheap, a little like a postcard of the Grand Canyon. They had the impotence of the unbelievable, trick-up-the-sleeve salvation which inevitably accompanies Hollywood cliff falls. But honesty called for the acknowledgment of the unqualified emptiness at the edge of that precipice. That is, he is simply gone. Burial.
Simultaneously, I was aware of a tension between that need for burial (mourning), and a purged but still intact hope of Resurrection. The idea of heaven, in the somewhere-over-the-rainbow sense in which it is often painted, did not seem a match for the substantiality of death and burial. This is not to say that I do not believe in Heaven; I affirm the idea that there is a sort of state (can we know in which sense it is called place?) of peace, of real fellowship with the creator, which one enters while dis-integrated with the body—but more on that later perhaps. At any rate, in the face of reality, I was called to account by the tension of the totality of death and the sense that the only real hope could be the more difficult one of a longed-for resurrection.
Against this conviction, another view of what to do with death presented itself. It came through two films—The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and Beasts of the Southern Wild—and a late-night, somewhat inebriated, esoteric, “Kierkegaardian” discussion.
Marigold Hotel involves a medley of elderly Brits who venture to a retirement community in India and, basically, find themselves. It’s not that clichéd, I really liked it, but this is not a review. Well, a plot of retirement lends itself to a theme of mortality, as the tenants begin to face their futures and pasts. Without giving too much away, one character remarks to the effect that we spend our whole lives clutching at something we can’t have, rather than embracing our mortality [it was quite profound and original, I will find the exact lines and insert when I get a chance]. The setting in India invites an association of this sentiment with Hinduism, and taking this into account sent my thoughts on a little pilgrimage, which resulted in a sort of epiphany. By epiphany here I mean less a conviction of truth than an insight into a compelling way one might think. That is, I realized the other side of a grand fundamental question of life, and felt called to account by the question, which in one aspect could be framed as, “is death really a problem, after all?” My convictions mentioned in the first thread were challenged.
Another film brought me from awareness to disturbance about this notion. Beasts of the Southern Wild is a whimsical yet melancholic adventure set in a fantastical global-warming apocalypse in the Deep South— or it may be just a little psychological realism set in Louisiana at the time of Katrina. It is beautiful, let me say. But the relevant thread for this essay is in its possibly pantheistic portrait of life and death. The protagonist, a little girl who goes by “Hushpuppy,” narrates reflective lines, which I will brutally sew together here to show the philosophy I gathered from them about death:
“Everybody loses the thing that made them. The brave men stay and watch it happen. They don’t run.” I.e., everyone dies, but the brave don’t run from it. Why? Because, Hushpuppy muses, “I am a little piece of a big, big universe, and that makes it [suffering, death] right.” I.e., it is the cosmos that matters, not the individual which serves it, and death is just a part of it, like shedding dead skin is a part of us. Human death is like the “death” of an apple, whose matter and energy do not die but are simply reincarnated in the person who eats it and the garden that is fed by its composted core. Nonetheless, for the individual, there is comfort in the rather abstract immortality of memory: “In a million years, when kids go to school, they gonna know: Once there was a Hushpuppy, and she lived with her daddy in The Bathtub.” It is like Achilles, achieving immortality through Homer on account of his deeds.
The other thread was a late-night, more or less inebriated discussion. It was esoteric in an almost laughable way. As far as I could make out, it had something to do with the great question of suffering, and, by extension, death. The reason it was part of my motivation for writing this piece is that rhetorical challenges were posed to the literal Biblical view of death as an unnatural, and thus to the idea of a deathless future paradise. One of the arguments was simply that without death, the earth would quickly be overpopulated, and therefore we were not designed to live forever; so death is natural, and the problem lies in our lack of accepting it. However, I felt there was a bit of straw-man-making in this discussion, and that our own historical situatedness was not adequately accounted for. So this piece is in part a reaction to that dissatisfaction, a dissatisfaction both with the susceptibility of my own views to the critiques of many who are suffering, and with the logical presumptions in those critiques.
From “to dust you shall return,” to the politics of medical insurance, the human story has to a vast extent been formed by the problem of death. One could say that every religion is essentially a response to this problem, valid or not. As far as I know, all religions, and therefore all peoples, have offered an explanation of what happens after life, without which the prospect of death seems unbearable. And I would argue that, perhaps more significantly, nearly every immoral act is in some sense or degree a reaction to the threat of death. All humanity are “those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery” (Hebrews, 2.15). It is our attempts at self-preservation, survival, that harm others. Life is a limited resource, and we all snatch at it to the exclusion of others. This creates a vicious cycle, a theft economy as it were, as each one steals to replace what is stolen.
There seem to be innumerable ways not to answer the problem of death. Perhaps the most looming example today is of the suicide bomber who is cajoled into facing death by the likely offer of an eternal harem. One does not have to be a habitual cynic to see through that one and wonder how political the motives of all such afterlife promises might be. However, the cynical conclusion that all religion must therefore be nothing but a device for the powerful, a sinister “opiate for the masses,” is plainly an emotionally derived conclusion. We might never think this if not for the emotionally charged experience of 9/11. It is to see reality through the biased lenses of our historical moment without acknowledging that condition. (On that note, I can’t resist addressing a pet peeve: the old line about God inciting “genocide” in Deuteronomy. It is an equivocal fallacy and an unethical manipulation of the emotions to use the word “genocide” for its modern connotations, where only its technical denotations are applicable.)
But not all religions offer paradise as an answer to the problem of death. In fact, it may be the minority that do. Eastern religion (not to mention Plato and Hegel for that matter), in general, solves it by calling it illusion. Death is merely change. Naturalism likewise contributes that matter and energy (all that is) cannot be destroyed, but merely changes form. When one dies, one is recycled (Naturalism) or reincarnated (Hinduism). This basic view answers the problem of death by accepting it as something as beneficial as compost.
Therein lies my objection. Given human history, I don’t think we are capable of honestly accepting death in this way. Such blissful acceptance is no more true-to-life than clouds and harps. If we are meant to accept death, why can’t we? The true Naturalist might interject here, “The evolutionary impulse to survival prevents us from embracing death; but if we are not fit enough to survive, we ought to die.” But as C.S. Lewis points out, the Naturalist, having only premises in the indicative, has no grounds for making conclusions in the imperative. And as a holist, I must hold to a universe in which innate desire and situation have some point of resolution; i.e., if humanity is designed to fear death, death must not be normal.
One may certainly argue that the abnormality in the equation is not death but fear. By that logic the curse on humanity is not death, but a misguided desire for immortality. In the biblical mythology, “To dust you shall return” (death) is not then the curse; rather, the curse is “the sweat of your brow” (in this reading, fear) which would now arise from the already existing mortality. One could pursue this further and link this fear of mortality to the desire to be God, which was after all, the first sin. So fear of death is a logical consequence of hubris.
To my contention that we are incapable of curing this by accepting death authentically, one might retort that we are no more capable of curing our fear of death by rising from the dead. But this leaves us at an impasse; each seem coherent enough, so only a correspondence to reality could shift the balance. I cannot deny that resurrection seems less plausible as a balance-shifting fact than a psychological acceptance of mortality. One has to believe in miracles to confront the problem of death with resurrection rather than acceptance of mortality.
Yet, why are we so dissatisfied with the idea of acceptance? Why do we tend to prefer resurrection? The average Hindu does not live his life free of the fight to live. Life is attractive to us all, and we do not gladly let it go. We gladly let suffering go, and sometimes this can only be done by letting life go; but it is not life itself that we ever despair of, only the death/suffering within it. Do not we all prefer a happily ever after?
Is not life aesthetically superior to death then? A flood of opposition comes down on this proposition. The literary critics agree that tragedy is the greater art over comedy. Pristine suburbs are in bad taste compared to the chipping paint and warbled glass of a historic neighborhood. What would music be without minor chords? And no one will deny that Autumn is beautiful. The Platonic aesthetic which associates beauty with perfection seems especially erroneous in a day when the vintage, the messy, the flawed, are in vogue. The perfect seems an insult to our human experience. Death, decay, suffering, in fact, seem to be the aesthetically superior. The best things in life are fleeting: “Nothing gold can stay” (Robert Frost).
However, as much as I am a proponent of this aesthetic, it must be qualified by our historical situatedness. I am not referring to the vintage or grunge trend, I am referring to the “Fall.” I have mentioned above that the perfect seems an insult to our human experience, which is why we are repulsed at the rosy whitewashed woodwork in many church sanctuaries, as well as at the familiar whipping boys: the Joel Osteens, the Thomas Kincaids. These are like bright lights in the eyes when we have a headache and are really in need of a dark room. But, it is only because we have a headache that we need a dark room. Can it be that tragedy is the better art, Autumn (if associated with death) the more beautiful season, minor chords the more emotionally resonating, only under the condition of the “Fall”?
Deep, dark, profound mourning is the appropriate response . . . to death, that is. The sad song, the tragic play, is indeed better in this post-Fall condition. To be crass, we all need a good cry. But to lament is not to despair. Quite to the contrary, lamentation is the very face of desire and hope under the condition of loss and dissapointment. To be at ease with death or loss is not the definition of mourning. Such passive acceptance is called apathy, disengagement, self-protection, walking dead. Proper mourning is to not deny the darkness, but also to “rage, rage against the dying of the light.” Weep, be angry, but to give up feeling is as much a denial as to jump to the happy image of heaven before you have wept.
I have still left unturned the argument about overpopulation. I must admit, it is compelling. As a mythology, to which all discussion is a footnote, Genesis seems to take this into account. “Fill the earth,” God says to the animals and humans. Then what? I don’t pretend to know. But it is a terminable command in its very wording; that is, the earth has limits. The command wasn’t, “multiply indefinitely,” but, “Fill.” Theoretically, if this order were filled (no pun intended), what would happen? From a limited perspective, either creatures would stop reproducing, or would be given another place to fill, as ridiculous as that sounds. I admit, this is not a satisfying answer, but it is at least one to think about.
But even if human reproduction stopped or slowed, plant reproduction, and therefore plant death, would still be necessary to sustain human life. Fruit has to “die” in order to be digested and for its seeds to grow. There is still “death,” and it could not be considered a perfect world. Again, I will play the historical situatedness card. Yes, gardens need compost, fruit must rot if the seed is to grow from it. Even Jesus seems to concur, “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (John, 12.24). How could a deathless world work, if even our food would not break down (die) for us to digest it?
But the mistake in this reasoning is a distinctly modern equivocation. That is, in modern biological terms, which have pervaded our ontology, human death is in the same category as the death of an apple in the compost bin. Biologically speaking, they are the same; therefore, a deathless paradise means that fruit cannot die, which would be absurd. But our little era is unique in this equivocation. Don’t get me wrong, the quote of Jesus above is evidence enough that the ancients compared human death to plant death. But to quote Robert Frost again, perhaps they had a better “education by poetry,” which enabled them to know the role of metaphor, and exactly how far to take one. The Modern is not so comfortable with the limits involved in “saying one thing in terms of another.” I am comfortable with an Eden, and a renewed future earth, which are not static. Leaves and fruit must “die,” if you call it that, but that is not the same as human death. Whoever said that a hope of “eternal life” has to apply to leaves, or even to rabbits?
In a Fallen world, the Autumn season is indeed a profound cathartic play. But it is only likened to our own death when placed on such a stage. The proper response to death is to bury, to fully mourn; but that is to hope, and to hope only in a real resurrection.
Margaret, are you grieving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
Leaves, like the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?
Ah! as the heart grows older
It will come to such sights colder
By and by, nor spare a sigh
Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;
And yet you will weep and know why.
Now no matter, child, the name:
Sorrow’s springs are the same.
Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
What héart héard of, ghóst guéssed:
It is the blight man was born for
It is Margaret you mourn for.
— Gerard Manley Hopkins