My generation doesn’t deal well with death. For us death is supposed to be a beginning. It is an initiator of action, the thing that happens at the start of the episode to get the plot rolling, so that the renegade cop and his wise-cracking sidekick have something to do all day besides sexually harass the female officers or arrest passers-by for being black.
One wonders if other generations had it better. My mother has told me of childhood friends confined to iron lungs by polio. Some recovered, some did not. Higher rates of childhood death necessarily meant that one learned to accept life’s end, or at least develop coping mechanisms to soften its blow when it came.
Other cultures too seem to fair better. In Southeast Asia bodies are sometimes embalmed and kept in the house. The dead remain a part of the family. They are given food and looked after, and the attention they receive slowly recedes over time until everyone is ready to let go, and surrender them to the grave.
In the Middle East others do it differently. Mourning periods are solid, discrete, compulsory, and above all they are finite. During mourning one is permitted to fall apart (as all things do). One can wail and rage. But once the time runs out you, like your lost beloved before you, must stop. And that end is really the end.
There are so many different ways to cope with death in this jumbled (brief) world of ours that I can’t help but wonder if somewhere there isn’t perhaps a better approach to it than the one my generation employs.
We lie, to ourselves and to each other. We pretend that time doesn’t pass, that we are not aging, that we will never die. We are infested by the agelessness of billboard facades and react with horror and surprise, genuine surprise, when a photo surfaces that shows a favoured celebrity unshielded by Photoshop.
Eckhart Tolle has mused that in many cultures they try to make their peace with death, because they live alongside it, as we all do. But in our culture if one even wishes to see a dead body one runs the risk of being arrested, so strong is our desire, our need, to maintain the desperate illusion that death is nothing more than an abstract concept. That it is no more impactful than any other plot device.
So I wonder if other people, in other places, handle their loss more gracefully. But part of me knows that the idea is nonsense. ‘Different’ is not ‘better’. Have a long mourning or a short one, remain separate from death or be surrounded by it. It doesn’t make any difference, not really, not when it matters. Death is empty. It is an end, not a beginning. We can garland it with ceremony and tell a different lie about it for every country in the world but none of them will change a thing.
A friend of mine is dead.
And there is no time, and no place, in which the pitiless finality of this truth would not have brought me to my knees.
Love your friends, my friends, for too soon they shall be gone, and so shall we.
Death is empty. Life is not.