I work at a condo complex where there are a lot of old people — even older than me! We have a number of folks under home hospice care and, not too surprisingly, one occasionally “shuffles off this mortal coil.” (I always wondered just what the heck — or Hecate — that meant, but you get the idea.)
Which is the point of this mini-essay: people’s fear of the word death. I am constantly being notified that so-and-so “passed,” or “expired,” and similar euphemisms. I don’t know if that comes from some superstition about invoking the attention of the Grim Reaper (another euphemism) or from some more basic fear of calling the ultimate spade a spade. We either make jokes about it, as I’m sort of doing here, or we tippy-toe around the idea as if saying dead will somehow make it more true, or something.
This isn’t, however, a joking matter. Whether or not you believe, as religious people do, that death is part of a continuum — merely a point beyond which we cannot see — or, as we agnostics do, that it’s probably the ultimate end of our personality as we understand it, it is still far too important an issue to gloss over. When people die, they’re dead. Gone. Deceased. (Insert here, if you will, the Monty Python “Dead Parrot” classic.) Whatever our belief systems, we must come to terms with their death, grieve, and get on with our lives. Pasting pretty masks on the bony visage gains us nothing, and keeps us dreaming.
Even more importantly, we must come to terms with the inevitability of our own death, deal with those issues, and get on with our lives.
Death is a part of life. There are two ways to look at it. Either there is life after death, in which case there is nothing to fear, or there is not — in which case there is still nothing to fear because we don’t know which answer is correct anyway.
Lee Martinez, in his amusing book “The Nameless Witch,” retells an old story.
Death arrives to collect the newborn baby George. George’s nurse pleads with Death that he has made a mistake. Death looks at his list and, sure enough, it seems he has the date wrong — it’s 100 years early. The baby is destined for a long life. Death apologizes, and leaves.
George grows up with the answer to the question that no man should know: the exact date of his own death. Instead of making the most of his hundred years, he mopes around and worries constantly about his mortality. He lives an unhappy, fruitless life.
On George’s 100th birthday, Death arrives promptly, and immediately apologizes for having made George wait. George is nonplussed, because it is 100 years to the day.
Death explains that, no, he had been correct to start with, and he should have taken George on the day he was born.
One presumes that the moral of the story has not passed you by, Dear Reader.
Think about it.