If you are reading this, you will die… Resistance is futile.
No, these are not the mad ramblings of a James Bond villain, Nostradamus, Idi Amin or the reaper himself – but instead merely the musings of a realist. After all life, some say, is a sexually transmitted, terminal disease.
Aside from the odd cryogenic experiment which might (wrongly) claim to have caught life before death in an icy stasis, and the rare case of reincarnation or resurrection for our less secular audience, not one of our multi-billion predecessors who roamed this planet have escaped the grip of death. So the chances of you doing so are slimmer than a skeleton. (Please excuse my lifeless metaphors).
Without delving too deeply into existentialism or religious beliefs – the meaning of life, ergo death and our views of what might happen afterwards, in various permutations, have probably been some of the most widely discussed topic of all time. Yet somehow we have managed to avoid discussing the grizzly mechanics of death itself too often. Talking about dying is not the greatest of dinner conversations. Western society tends, videos and computer games aside, to ignore discussions of death in all its all-encompassing glory.
Which is a shame.
“Glory? A shame?” I hear you say. “But it is not something I really want to think about.”
Certainly the image of bits of ourselves puffing from the top of a crematorium’s chimney or being devoured by insects below ground is not overly cheery. The memory of a departed loved one can be too much to bear. Death is, perhaps, the most omnipresent of elephants in our collective rooms. The idea that you will no longer exist, in all your article-reading, children-raising, self-improving, food-loving, holiday-indulging, sustainability-championing glory, is just not very palatable.
The reason it is a shame we do not discuss or muse on death more often is because our impermanence can be very rewarding, if we choose to look more closely at it.
Thinking about death does not have to be morbid. What can we learn from increased time spent with, or musing on death?
Some believe that death is in fact a great reminder to live. Mark Twain said that: “The fear of death follows from the fear of life. A man who lives fully is prepared to die at any time”. Bertrand Russell stated that: “A happy man feels himself a citizen of the universe, enjoying freely the spectacle that it offers and the joys that it affords, untroubled by the thought of death because he feels himself not really separate from those who will come after him. It is in such profound instinctive union with the stream of life that the greatest joy is to be found.”
In his recent book Nothing To Be Afraid Of, Julian Barnes explores his own mortality, culminating in an honest and touching book that looks backward and forward with a fondness for life, of which death is an integral part. Wildly popular films like It’s a Wonderful Life and Groundhog Day remind us that there is often more to life than we are able to appreciate – until it is gone.
Death is not merely something that happens to us one day, but a continual part of life. Aging, which is constantly occurring, is the deterioration and even the dying of parts of our bodies. You are the oldest you have ever been. Death is here, now.
The current plaster that sits on the end of the big toe of my right foot, the result of a minor kite surfing accident, will soon no longer be needed. My toe, and all that it connects to (and, goalies beware, has connected with), will one day be no longer.
Each of us will leave a legacy, whether big or small. Yet we can take nothing with us when we die. The seemingly indelible writings of Shakespeare, figurings of Newton and melodies of Lennon and McCartney will certainly live on for some time (unless indeed 2012 does prove Nostradamus right) – but not for ever.
Our writings, our buildings, our gardens, our children and our children’s children will all form part of our legacy. But we should remember that we will not always be remembered. One day there will be no trace of you or I left, no matter how hard we work, how loud we sing, whether we freeze our bodies or how many diamond-encrusted, lead-lined boxes we leave buried.
“If I thought my answer were given
To anyone who would ever return to the world,
This flame would stand still without moving any further.
But since never from this abyss
Has anyone ever returned alive, if what I hear is true,
Without fear of infamy I answer you.”
Dante’s Inferno (XXVII, 61-66)