When Death Comes Calling


Don’t worry. I haven’t gone completely morbid or so focussed on death I’m forgetting how to live. However, I’ve been fascinated my whole career on the overwhelming but often covert death denial we have built into so many of our institutions and which is at the core of much of our morality.

That’s one reason I was amused, yes, amused, when I came across this YouTube video of a long retired philosopher who in his 97th year of life, after a career writing about death and dying in an abstract sense often poo-pooing our personal fear of dying, come around and admit that he was scared. He was scared of dying. He’s dead now, but in this video we get a pretty good sense of what he was going through in the last few weeks of his life. It’s not about cancer. I figured I’d give you a bit of a break from that for one blog post.

So, Herbert Fingarette, author, teacher, husband of 70 years to the same woman (who died seven years earlier), devoted rationalist and philosopher (Stoic I expect), writes about death and dying in an almost flippant manner, virtually sniggering at the weakness of being fearful of death. Then, he’s ninety-seven years old and on his way out. He knows that, and now he’s scared. He still has time to be scared. His question is: “What is the meaning of all of this?” Well, that’s a legitimate question, one that Tolstoy asked himself about his life and work as he lay dying. Truth is, there is no meaning. No cosmic meaning that’s for sure.

I also wrote some (no books, mind you) about death and death denial from sociological, psychosocial, and anthropological points of view mainly through the work of Ernest Becker, the author of several books, the last one being entitled Escape from Evil. I do a detailed review of Escape from Evil in the early days of this blog. You can do a search for several posts on Becker by using the ‘search’ function on the right scrolling menu of this blog. Here’s an example:https://rogerjgalbert.com/2017/11/

One of my favourite BBC documentary presenters is Brian Cox who is an astrophysicist and has a beautifully produced series of documentaries on the cosmos, entropy, life and death. For him, everything, every structure comes into being using materials in the environment, grows, matures, then decays into its constituent parts and dies. Ocean floors are pushed up into mountains, sharp at first then eroded finally into plains and flatlands. Galaxies come and go. The whole universe is destined to die. For us, following Ernest Becker, death and disease are the twin evils of our world. Of course, we need death because we usually eat dead things. We need death to live. It’s when our own lives are at stake that things go messy in our heads. We don’t mind death at all and we’re quite willing to inflict it on anything we wish to shove down our gullets or we think might be a threat to our continued existence. The movies these days are full of death and destruction, but it’s always of the good kind, when threats to our existence are defeated. It’s a lot more complicated than I’m portraying it here. There’s a lot more explanation in the archives of this blog.

We don’t mind killing things, other animals, including humans. Some of us glory in the idea. As Becker points out, war is a venue for the creation of heroes. Some people trophy hunt to show how tough they are. So, it’s not death that bothers us so much, it’s death with insignificance.

I have no evidence of this, but it strikes me that most of us don’t think about death and dying on a regular basis, we have way too many other things to think about, like where the next rent payment is coming from or how can I confront my cheating husband or wife, or whether to get a latté or mocha on the way to work. Decisions, decisions. Way too many to be meditating on death. It’s true, the closer we get to dying the more immediate the threat, the more we sit up and take notice. Some of us deny the terminality of our own lives until our kidneys stop working in the last few hours of life. Some of us, if not most of us, push the thought of death and dying so deeply into our subconsciousness that it barely has time to surface even at the moment of death. “What, I’m dying? Nah, must be a mistake! Check my numbers again.”

Right now, I’m trying to conjure up my last moments on earth. It’s not coming easily. Sometimes I get scared, but mostly I’m curious about the process. I’ve been thinking of talking to a death doula to see how they approach coaching someone who’s dying. See, I can still intellectualize dying, but before I know it, I’ll be face to face with it and no denial will be possible anymore. Will I be like Herbert? I don’t think anyone of us knows for sure how it’s all going to do down. I certainly don’t, and it’s the uncertainty that is probably the most frightening thing of all.

11 thoughts on “When Death Comes Calling

  1. A death doula is a great idea, provided that they are not affiliated with any religion, organized or otherwise. Maybe someone like John Cleese? Michael Palin? Sarah Silverman even? But my thoughts have been leaning more to death as relief from boredom, or even as a release from frustration about not only the progression erosion of sundry faculties but also with respect to the apparently expanding capacity of humanity to dismiss obvious damage to both the planet and human kindness all round. There are days when opting out sounds like an attractive option. But then, I never was Little Miss Sunshine. I want to change too much in this world but have so few tools at my disposal. The sword might indeed be mightier than the pen. Though Aunt Neet always claimed that it was my tongue that would get me hanged

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    1. I don’t think I’m interested in being a client of a death doula. I am interested though in their tactics. Do they try to coax a dying client into relaxing about it? Is it best to be relaxed when we die? I’m thinking sedation might be just fine. It seems weird though to contemplate orchestrating my last hours of life. Probably best to just let it happen, but the speculation is fun too. Like planning a vacation! Yeah, that’s it!

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  2. I came across this video some time ago and have watched it a couple of times. One of the things I took away from it was an affirmation of my own belief in the futility of finding some more profound meaning to our existence outside of ourselves (supernatural God(s), rational order to the universe, 42!). It strikes me as an existentialist viewpoint on the meaning of our individual existence, which is to say, that we give meaning to our lives by our actions. The loneliness he expresses for his lifelong wife and partner when he hears that music is truly heartbreaking. We have all struggled to push back against the absurdity of life by seeking to make a connection with another person that is more than fleeting and yet I know that my death is the most personal of experiences and cannot really be shared with anyone else. Keep writing my old friend and “push at the darkness until it bleeds daylight” (B. Cockburn)

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    1. Thanks, Paul. I always appreciate your comments even if you’re making them from a beach in Mexico. Existentially I guess your beached life is giving you meaning! 😉 I’m an existential stoic…if such an animal is allowed to exist…and that means that I do derive meaning in life from my actions, although even that heady approach is wearing thin for me. I guess I’m really struggling with the word ‘meaning’. The more I use it the slipperier it seems to get. That may be a consequence of all the meds I’m taking. Thinking about it, most of my actions these days, besides writing, are involved with taking meds and dealing with their effects. My meds and me. They truly take over daily life.

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  3. I saw Brian Cox`s BBC documentary. I thought it was very enlightening and excellent. I felt that new life was created from waves flowing back and forth over withering rocks.

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  4. I saw Brian Cox`s BBC documentary. I thought it was very enlightening and excellent. I felt that new life was created from waves flowing back and forth over eroding rocks.

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  5. I saw Brian Cox`s BBC documentary. I thought it was very enlightening and excellent. I felt that new life was created from waves flowing back and forth over eroding rocks. I feel death is harder on the loved ones we leave behind and the less regret we have the more peaceful our own death will be.

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    1. You must have had some trouble posting these comments. You have three here that are closely related.
      Cox is good. He has that funny little smile that annoys me a bit, but his mannerisms aside, I think he’s brilliant. He’s a real scientist. There aren’t too many of those around. I fully agree with your comment about regret. I do have the odd regret resulting from high expectations I have of myself, but I expect my death will be a peaceful affair after all is said and done.

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