Thursday, May 03, 2007

Into the dark

Well, I'm back.

To celebrate: some not-so-idle thoughts about death.

From Sam Harris, who is quite right to point out that 'what one believes happens after death dictates much of what one believes about life':

You could die at any moment. You might not even live to see the end of this paragraph. Not only that, you will definitely die at some moment in the future. If being prepared for death entails knowing when and where it will happen, the odds are you will not be prepared. Not only are you bound to die and leave this world; you are bound leave it in such a precipitate fashion that the present significance of anything -- your relationships, your plans for the future, your hobbies, your possessions -- will appear to have been totally illusory. While all such things, when projected across an indefinite future, seem to be acquisitions of a kind, death proves that they are nothing of the sort. When the stopper on this life is pulled by an unseen hand, there will have been, in the final reckoning, no acquisition of anything at all.

(The End of Faith: Religion, Terror and the Future of Reason, 2004, pp. 37 and 38 -- thanks to Anja for pointing this out to me.)

From Norbert Elias:

Death is not terrible. One passes into dreaming and the world vanishes -- if all goes well. Terrible can be the pain of the dying, terrible, too, the loss of the living when a beloved person dies. There is no known cure. We are part of each other. [...]

There are indeed many terrors that surround dying. What people can do to secure for each other easy and peaceful ways of dying has yet to be discovered. The friendship of those who live on, the feeling of dying people that they do not embarrass the living, is certainly part of it. And social repression, the veil of unease that frequently surrounds the whole sphere of dying in our days, is of little help to people. Perhaps we ought to speak more openly and clearly about death, even if it is by ceasing to present it as a mystery. Death hides no secret. It opens no door. It is the end of a person. What survives is what he or she has given to other people, what stays in their memory. If humanity disappears, everything that any human being has ever done, everything for which people have lived and fought each other, including all secular or supernatural systems of belief, becomes meaningless.

(The Loneliness of the Dying, trans. Edmund Jephcott, 1985, pp. 66 and 67).

From Julian Barnes:

When my mother died, the undertaker, from a nearby village, asked if the family wanted to see the body. I said yes; my brother no. Actually, he said (to me, when I passed on the question), “Good God, no. I agree with Plato on that one.” I didn’t have the text he was referring to immediately in mind. “What did Plato say?” I asked. “That he didn’t believe in seeing dead bodies.” When I turned up at the undertaker’s—which was more like the rear extension to a haulage business—the funeral director said apologetically, “I’m afraid she’s only in the back room at the moment.” I looked at him questioningly, and he expanded: “She’s on a trolley.” I found myself replying, “Oh, she didn’t stand on ceremony,” though I couldn’t claim to know whether she would, or wouldn’t, have wanted to do so in the present circumstances.

She lay in a small, clean room with a cross on the wall; she was indeed on a trolley, with the back of her head toward me as I went in, thus avoiding an instant face-to-face. She seemed, well, very dead: eyes closed, mouth slightly open, and more so on the left side than on the right, which was just like her—she used to hang a cigarette in the right corner of her mouth and talk out of the other side. [...]

At the undertaker’s, I touched her cheek several times, then kissed her at the hairline. No, she didn’t look awful: there was nothing overpainted about her, and her hair, she would have been pleased to know, was looking good. (“Of course, I never dye it—it’s all natural,” she once boasted to my brother’s wife.) Was she so cold because she’d been in the freezer, or because the dead are naturally cold? Wanting to see her dead came more, I admit, from writerly curiosity than from filial feeling, but there was a bidding farewell to be done, for all my long exasperation with her. “Well done, Ma,” I murmured.

('The Past Conditional', The New Yorker, Dec. 2006)

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