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.