February 21, 1991

La morte est de rigeur (death is mandatory)

I strove with none; for none was worth my strife.

Nature I loved, and next to nature, art.

I warmed both hands before the fire of life;

It sinks, and I am ready to depart.

Walter Savage Landor on his 75th birthday.

I think that everyone prefers life to death. If there are those who don't, they're not around to tell us about it. However, it's much harder to live than to die. As a Greek philosopher who lived 2,000 years ago said, "death is nothing".

To a child, death means a painful personal loss. It could be a beloved grandparent, a dog or a cat. If it's a parent or a sibling, the feeling of loss and desertion is much greater. When the child finds out that he, too will die it is often an occasion for much fear. "If I feel so terrible about grandma dying, how will I feel if I'm dead? Since I love me even more than I loved grandma, it will be so much worse." Yes, that's the way that small children reason --and adults.

Far from death being as natural a thing as life, many people view death as something that is fundamentally abnormal. If the scientists and doctors knew what they were doing, no one would die. Death is viewed as a failure of man. Most people expect that, in the future, man will live longer --if not forever.

To most of us, death is the enemy. This attitude, that we should fight death, pervades the practice of medicine, the anti-abortion movement, the animal rights movement, the ACT-UP AIDS movement and a variety of other mass movements whose driving force seems to be that everyone should feel as they do about death -hate it and fight it. They stand as symbols of mans limitless capacity for self-delusion and self-aggrandizement.

While it is true that the average age of death in the industrialized world is greater than it was in the past, the maximum age that a person can live to hasn't changed at all. What has been accomplished is a reduction in infant mortality and death from infectious diseases. The chances of an 80 year old man living to be 90 or 100 hasn't changed much, if at all. The process of ageing and the age at the time of death seems to be built into man's genes.

One alternative to fighting death is to deny its existence. It is the prevailing attitude in most Christian sects. This says that when you die, you don't really die, but go somewhere else where you continue living. Most religions at least imply this in their theology. Even without a theological basis, most people can manage to deny death. There are great differences between people within Christianity and other western religions as to how they approach death. They range from complete rejection to complete acceptance.

Some cultures glorify death. Warrior cultures consider death in battle as something greatly to be desired. This goes along with a special heaven for warriors who die in battle.

My impression is that cultures which live close to nature have a basic philosophy that accepts death as a part of life; at least more so than ours does. Urban cultures seem to distance themselves from death more than do cultures that live with nature, where death occurs frequently with all living things.

Elizabeth Kubler Ross, wrote a wonderful book called On Death and Dying, which called for a more wholesome attitude about death and dying. She later was heavily into the denial of death. Not only do different people deal with death in different ways, but the same person deals with it in different ways at different times.

Many old people don't fear death. I really didn't believe my ageing parents when they told me that they no longer feared death. Now I find that I am getting to feel that way myself. It brings to me a sense of peace that I have never known before. I like the feeling so much that I would like to go on feeling it as long as possible. I assume that my attitude will probably change when my health fails.

I know of young people who have cultivated this attitude; but only in exceptional circumstances. There was a girl who had a disease that could kill her at any time. She learned to accept it. Her wholeness was a beautiful thing to behold. She inspired everyone who knew her. It seemed as if her closeness to death had enabled her to live with unusual intensity.

If it sounds as if I am not as opinionated about death as I am about other subjects, it's because I'm not. I really believe that it makes no difference how someone dies, or how he deals with the process. How a person lives is important!

As Landor's poem implies, some people who have embraced life can also accept death as an integral part of the whole life cycle. It seems to me to be a good way to die.

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