Try eating live things. They don’t like it and usually put up a fight. The fact is that we normally like to eat our food dead. There are situations where we like to get close to the line between life and death, say when we boil lobster or crab alive, or when we go to a restaurant featuring live fish in large tanks and pick out our dinner as it swims by. But by and large we like to be assured that our food is nicely and fully dead. Vegetables are no problem. We hardly consider them alive in the first place although they are of course. Not everyone likes their veggies, but their dislike is generally not based on whether or not they are dead. With animals, it’s another matter.
We ‘relate’ to animals, animate things, especially if they’re young, cute and cuddly. When we in the West find out that some people in China and Korea eat young dogs, preferably St-Bernards, we find it hard not to gag or throw up. We know that ‘veal’ really means baby cow but we try not to think about it. Lamb is the same, baby sheep. So are weaner pigs, that is, pigs that have just been weaned. We know killing happens. We wouldn’t be able to eat steak, bacon, roasts or ham without the killing. It’s just not right to think about it or bring it up in polite conversation. The fact is that humans slaughter millions if not billions of animals every year (for food or as ‘pests’), sometimes by specialists like in the West, but by lots of non-specialists in Africa and other ‘poor’ parts of the world too. People all over the world realize that they like to eat their food dead and somebody has to do the dirty deed. Now, isn’t that an interesting way of putting it: do the dirty deed? Of course you’ve heard that. To do a dirty deed…ultimately means killing someone or something. The reference to dirt we’ll come back to. But for now, let’s face it. Although we don’t like to admit it, death is really important to us. But of course death is important to us not just in terms of the food we eat.
If things didn’t die, things couldn’t live. If people didn’t die, there would be standing room only on the planet in very short order. We think there’s a lot of people on the planet now! If people didn’t die, I’m not sure how they would be born, but that’s an issue for another post. So our underlying unquestioned assumption that life is good and death is bad is patently ridiculous. Not that we’ve ever shied away from espousing ridiculous ideas. No, people need to die so others may live. The problem is all about the quality of death and dying. We know that we are born at one point, grow up, mature and then die, at least on a ‘normal’ trajectory. There’s lots of variation in the length of time we live. For instance, in some parts of Africa an individual is lucky to live to be 37 years of age. Here in Canada we’re looking at a normal life span getting into the eighties. In the ‘poor’ countries, many children die very young. We think that’s a shame, really. But we don’t like to think about it too much. We see the starving children in the OxFam or whatever commercials and cringe a little, but it’s not really our problem. Distant death is barely death at all whether we are talking about time (as in death centuries ago) or space, (as in death in Somalia or Mali, far away in Africa). We have some vague sense that many people die in Canada every year, but we don’t really know how many, nor are we particularly interested. But death gets more interesting the closer it gets to us, especially so close that we just can’t deny it.
When my cousin’s daughter was murdered on Halloween night last year, I was shocked and angry. She was just at high school graduation age. Some very disturbed young man -who’s since been caught and faces first degree murder charges – killed her that night and she’ll never be coming home. Many other thousands of people died that same day all over the world, but that doesn’t matter. What matters is that someone in the family met a very tragic, unnecessary death. I didn’t know Taylor Van Diest personally. She lived a long distance from where I live on Vancouver Island. My uncle Denis (my father’s brother) moved his family (including Taylor’s mom) to the Okanagan Valley decades ago. He’s since passed away. That broke the tie that kept our families in close contact. Since then we’ve had large family reunions, but I haven’t attended many of them. Too busy working most of the time. Families drift apart. There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s just the way it is in a world that encourages radical insularity and downplays family except for ideological purposes. Still, when a family member meets such an untimely death, it hurts. For the immediate family the pain must be almost unbearable and it doesn’t wane. The passage of time does little to heal the still gaping wound that is the absence of Taylor. But, like I said, death is only meaningful to us when it’s close and it’s importance to us is inversely proportional to it’s distance to us in time and space. What I’ve found in my career is that there isn’t just one kind of death. There are many kinds of death just as there are many kinds of life. Taylor’s death is not the same kind of death as the death of the pig that made it possible for me to eat bacon this morning. One seems senseless, the other necessary. We are horrified by Taylor’s death, rightly so. When my father-in-law lay dying at Burnaby General Hospital twenty-three years ago, I was struck by the traffic noise, the talk in the hallway, the realization that death matters little to most of us most of the time. The world doesn’t stop every time a person dies even though we think it should when that person is close to us. No, we are really little affected by death. Our systems of death denial are very strong indeed making it all the more horribly distressing when the experience of death is so personal that our usual systems of death denial no longer work and we have to face it unmediated by ideology. The experience is soul destroying and extremely isolating. The visceral reaction of most people in this situation is to reach for meaning anywhere it can be found. No search for meaning is entirely satisfactory. There is always a residual emptiness.
To finish this up, I want to just say that death is not the opposite of life. Living and dying are one in the same thing. Distinguishing between the two is the result of a feeble attempt on humanity’s part to deny death. To be blunt about it, the moment we are conceived we are on a death trajectory. How can we live with that realization without effective ideologies of death denial? More on that in the next post.