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2009: A Year to Look at Death

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Maybe it's just me, but it seems like a lot more people are dying these days. Or, at least, that a lot more famous people are dying.

The news has become an endless parade of celebrity mortality, to the point where one death competes with another, a new demise overshadowing the last one. Ed McMahon passes away, then Farrah Fawcett dies days later (not to mention Michael Jackson's shocking demise just hours later on the same day).

And then celebrity pitchman Billy Mays dies just days after that.

There's been no let-up since, either, with Walter Cronkite, Sen. Ted Kennedy, and actor Patrick Swayze just a few of the other names recently boarding the express train away from this mortal coil. Indeed, Swayze's end this week came just before news that Mary Travers of Peter, Paul and Mary had also passed on.

It's to the point some days that newspaper and website editors find they're having multiple big-name obituaries jockeying for lead-story position.

They say these things come in threes, but this year that rule seems to have been expanded exponentially. It's enough to leave you wondering if Heaven will have to open a new wing.

Of course, all the dead have their own circumstances that brought them to their fate. Some, like Fawcett and Swayze, succumbed to illness. Others, like Jackson and Mays, died suddenly and unexpectedly. Still others, like Cronkite, who were major historical figures of the mid 20th century, simply passed on as that era becomes ever more distant from here in the 21st.

While there is nothing mystical in the surprising regularity with which we are brought face-to-face with death these days, there is a real opportunity for those of us left behind.

We may never be famous, our deaths may or may not even end up in a newspaper, but it is certain that sooner or later, each of us will die.

While we all know that on an intellectual level, in our culture we spend our lives not just ignoring that fact but actually keeping it hidden and distant. We all want to die peacefully when we are old, but we usually give it no more thought than that.  But the sooner we face it as reality – and make peace with it – the better our lives will be.

But why, as a society, are we so afraid of death? Why, as author Eckhart Tolle has said, is death so hidden in our culture that it is illegal for most people to even see a dead body (outside a funeral home)?

To be sure, I'm not saying anyone should want to cut their lives short, or that we should rush our own deaths in any way. To the contrary, you may find that coming to true terms with your own mortality may actually make the days you spend on this earth that much sweeter.

I'm also not attempting to proselytize for any particular faith or form of spirituality – or even that you necessarily become a religious person if you are not. What I am saying is that we should all drop the stories of personal procrastination we all tell ourselves to avoid even thinking about our own demises.

Death may not come for 50 years – or it may come tomorrow (Michael Jackson and Billy Mays certainly were not expecting theirs either.) You just don't know.

Whenever it should come for you, come to a point within yourself where you are not terrified of it, or bitter about it. And remember that when your time comes – whenever that may be – you aren't the only one to die. Think of all those who went before you just this year.

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About Scott Nance

  • When it comes down to it, death is the whole ball of wax, isn’t it? Death is what brought us god and religion. It’s what brought about the need to believe in an afterlife. It is obviously a human conceit. Many can’t abide the notion that their earthly existence carries little, if any, importance or meaning beyond the brief time we draw breath. There’s just got to be more, right?

    While people often go to extremes to convince themselves that they will live eternally in some paradise or other, there is always at the back of their mind that irritatingly persistent seed of doubt. It is that seed which blossoms into fear.

    We just don’t want to give up the game, to throw in our hand as it were. Life is often hard, but it’s all we’ve got. All we can say with any certainty is that we are alive, that we exist. Anything beyond is just conjecture. People who endure lives that many of us would look upon as absolute hell on earth still often cling to it fiercely, desparately wanting another day, another hour, another breath. After all, something interesting might happen.

    I’m sixty-three. I’m overweight. I take medicine for high blood pressure. I have bad knees. Every day becomes more and more of a crap shoot. Every day there seems to be something else – a brief, stabbing pain, a twinge here, a little hitch there. It’s like the foundation walls are slowly and inexorably crumbling, leaving me daily to wonder which bit of loose gravel, which fissure will be the one to bring it all down.

    I know it may sound that I am obsessive about this, but I don’t think that is the case. I’m getting older, and I write, so it’s something that comes up a lot – here at BC and elsewhere – so I am in some ways obliged to think about it.

    That may be a good thing in the long run. I am certainly not looking forward to death. I want to hold onto this life as long as possible. I don’t want to miss anything. I’m jealous of those who will carry on after I do the mortal coil shuffle. But by writing about death, it serves as a way of sorting things out.

    I don’t look forward to or fear any afterlife. I am firmly entrenched in the belief that when you’re dead, you’re dead. Death is nothing. Nothing good. Nothing bad. Just nothing.


  • Scott, your article is interesting, important, and addresses the real elephant in the room of human mortality. Baritone, your remarks are spot on.

    I’m one of those people who starts the day reading the newspaper obituaries (you know, like the old joke: if I don’t see my name, I get up and start the coffee). Besides all of the better-known celebrity deaths that Scott mentioned, the past few months have been chock-a-block with the deaths of many other major figures in the arts, sciences, business, politics and social change.

    Death is all around us all the time, and not only do we individually not want to face or discuss it, collectively we regard death as a defeat, failure, tragedy (no matter how old or ill the departed was); something we should fight by any means possible. As a culture, we have little or no wisdom about death, and certainly no view of it as a natural and perfectly okay part of life. We have no concept of a good death – which is to say, oneself or another having a “good” death as opposed to a bad one; good being peaceful, as pain-free as possible, in a familiar and comfortable place with one or more loved ones by one’s side.

    Death is always on my mind a lot, because all of my family is dead (which has changed my life), but it’s been particularly on my mind for the past couple of years, because I’m a primary member of a small eldercare team which, for the last couple of years, has been caring for a now-95-year-old-woman who has been a friend of ours for decades and who would have been subjected to who knows what kind of solitary, uncontrollable, institutional misery if we hadn’t banded together to help her end her life in her own home, where she wants to be.

    She’s now in the process of finally, truly dying and different members of the group are having very different reactions to this obvious truth. Some of them can’t accept it, others want to try to prevent/prolong it, others (myself among them) just want to be loving escorts to the end or the next dimension – whatever it turns out to be.

    Being involved in this kind of service has done many things for me: it’s pushed all my fear buttons (not about death so much as what will become of me, also alone, when I reach some level of non-functional dependency); it’s made me more conscious of my own aging and mortality and given me the desire to procrastinate less, accomplish more, and in general, put up with a lot less shit a lot more often. And it’s enlarged my sense of purpose and humanity, because I’m proud that I’ve been consistent and committed to this increasingly-unpleasant, yet oddly gratifying service.

    It’s also taught me the difference between “like” and “love”; I don’t particularly like the person my friend has become in her dotage, but I still love her; I can’t always recognize the person she used to be in the person she is now; but I know that person is still in there, and she’s frightened, angry, confused, and very grateful that she’s not been abandoned.

    In short ( ;)…), these past few months of many public deaths and these past couple of years of tangible, conscious assistance to another, has taught me more about death, and life, than I understood before — and I’m the better for it.

  • John Lake

    We come to realize that the golden years are probably not all that golden.
    But if we have something to care about, it may not be that bad.