Let’s talk about…death

Why, you are no doubt asking, is this guy writing about death? And why would I want to read about it? After all, it’s hardly the most engaging or inspiring of subjects. But that’s my point. Why don’t we talk about it? Back in the eighteenth century both Daniel Defoe and Benjamin Franklin thought that there were only two certainties in life, death and taxes. Fast forward to the twenty first century, and, if all the leaked papers are to be believed, we are down to just the certainty of death. So accepting that this will happen to each and everyone of us, without exception, why don’t we openly discuss what it means to us?

I have pondered this question many times, but it’s current incarnation is the result of two nearly back-to-back, yet completely unrelated occurrences. First was a conversation in the pub last Thursday evening. For no apparent reason two of us ended up discussing how inevitably, once you reach a certain age, you become very aware that you have already lived far more days than await you, and that you have already consumed most of your life experiences. So, what to do with the days that remain? A popular option at this point is to compile a ‘bucket list’. But isn’t this just an excuse for some middle-class indulgences? And apart from the obvious waste of resources just so that we can have the satisfaction of having had certain experiences before our ability to experience them ends, there’s also the obvious point that we can’t take these experiences with us. Experiences are only of value if we still able to consciously recall them! So, rather than focusing on activities that distract us from our finitude, would this not be a good time to take stock of what we have so far taken from, and contributed to, society, and, more importantly, what we have done for future generations? The problem with such reflection, of course, is that it would probably bring our own inevitable death too far into focus. I suspect that we are too fearful of such self honesty. But why? What have we to fear?

Which brings me to the second occurrence. The following morning, purely by chance, I happened to catch a programme on Radio Four on the ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus. Some years ago I did quite a bit of work around his work, thoughts which came flooding back to me as I listened. Epicurus was famous for his materialism and support for ancient atomism. He didn’t go as far as to deny the existence of God / gods (that would have been far too dangerous in a very superstitious Athens) but he did argue that they took no interest in human affairs – so were not to feared. Coupled with this, he also argued that death was not to be feared. He did not believe in any afterlife, and therefore he did not believe in any punishment or retribution for any behaviour deemed wrong by non-existent or non-interested gods. Life was purely a material phenomenon. Therefore, death “is nothing to us, since while we exist, death is not present, and whenever death is present, we do not exist.” He adds: “The wise man neither rejects life nor fears no living.”

If, as Epicurus argues, because we cannot actually experience death it makes no sense to fear it, what is there to fear? Well one obvious reply is a painful death – a situation in which the process of dying is long and painful. Another is the fear of incurring an injury or contracting a slow degenerative disease which so erodes our quality of life that, whilst any physical pain is numbed, our emotional or intellectual pain at not being able to do any of the things which make life worth living is overwhelming. And, arguably, if these emotional or psychological pains were numbed with pharmaceuticals in the same manner as we expect physical pain to be, in what sense (other than a purely basic biological one) could we say that life still existed? There are no definitive answers to these questions, but my point is that we tend to shy away from discussing them. It may be that discussing the issues involved together with our associated thoughts and feelings with friends and loved ones, that bringing our private anxieties and nightmares out of the shadows, would, in itself, reduce any associated fear.

Another fear arises from our attachment to others. We quite naturally feel grief at the loss of someone who was significant to our life. A significant other person is a main character in our own life narrative, and their loss affects the meaning and worldview that this narrative gives us. Likewise, again quite naturally, we are no doubt are aware of the sense of loss that our own passing will have on the personal narratives of those we hold dear. But again, if we were more open about our thoughts and attitudes towards death, if we not only tried to rationalise our fear of death but our fear of talking about it, perhaps we would develop better emotional health, and that as a result we would be better able to recover from the loss of loved ones. Our background health affects our ability to heal and recover from emotional trauma as well as physical trauma.

If we were able to talk more freely and openly about the inevitability of our own death perhaps, as we reach that point in our life where we suddenly realise that we are about to grow-out of middle age, we would be better able to reflect on what we have achieved and what we will leave behind. If we do this on our own we tend to focus on personal achievements and material inheritances, but if we were able to reflect in a more open and inclusive atmosphere perhaps be would be better able to review what we have achieved collectively, and perhaps, far more importantly, what sort of world we have left for future generations to inherit.

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