Digital Dharma

The Middle Path, One Day At A Time

Naming the Grim Reaper


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.

Author: Bill

Stumbling down the Middle Path, one day at a time.

3 thoughts on “Naming the Grim Reaper

  1. ….and I AM one of the fundamentalist who takes comfort in the fact that I didn’t just happen as a result of some gooey mess happening to come together, in the right time and place to begin an incredulous journey or evolution. Even if I did, the “gooey mess” had to come from somewhere, thus, “In the beginning, God… (Genesis 1:1)” , which is why most of “us” (fundamentalist) don’t fear “IT,” “the Reaper”, or “Catching the Bus,” rather rejoicing in what we feel certain is -pardon the wordplay!- a totally Divine, Heavenly experience to come!!! sis

  2. Another viewpoint… My family will “catch the bus…” – always said in a cheery voice!

    “Euphemisms are not, as many young people think, useless verbiage for that which can and should be said bluntly; they are like secret agents on a delicate mission, they must airily pass by a stinking mess with barely so much as a nod of the head.”

    Euphemisms are unpleasant truths wearing diplomatic cologne.”
    (Quentin Crisp, Manners from Heaven)

    love, sis

  3. Good stuff.

    I like to think I’m pretty philosophical about death, either my own or others. Like you stated so succinctly, there’s really nothing to be afraid of. (Unless the fundamentalist are right, and I’m betting they’re not.)

    The dying is the hard part, unless we’re fortunate enough to go relatively quickly. I just hope that when my time comes I don’t find I’ve been fooling myself and actually am terrified. Even then it’ll be a relatively brief bad experience in relation to all the years I’ve already gotten to live.


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