Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Dead Right

I took a course called "Death in America" a few years ago. At the end of the class, the professor asked, "Do you believe present day America is a death denying culture?"

I believe that we are a death denying culture. We're not stupid. Americans know that every single person born on this earth does eventually die.

But knowledge of a thing, I submit, is not a substitute for acceptance.

The most obvious proof of this for me is the cemetery that I pass on my way to the mall.

An expansive and pristine green field dotted with fake bouquets of colorful flowers, it's typical of the American cemetery built within the past fifty years. Embedded in the ground in the form of flat stones, grave markers are visible only to those who actively seek reminders of those buried there. The architects of this cemetery showed great consideration for those who don't wish to be reminded of death. Your eyes will pass right over this cemetery as you go about your day, therefore ensuring that you'll definitely not think about the the bodies of the mothers, fathers, friends and children lying in that field.

Juxtapose this fairly recent construction with the century old cemetery that is in the middle of my brother's neighborhood in a parish outside of New Orleans. Massive structures of concrete and marble slab over four or five feet tall casually invade the everyday space of the living. People live next door to the cemetery, across the street from it, and even walk their dogs there. Unlike its Central Floridian sister, this New Orleanian cemetery jovially greets its living neighbors and unwary passersby, "Hey baby, (people in New Orleans say "baby," a lot) there's plenty of room in here for you, too. Laissez les bontemps roule!"

The reason for our stubborn denial of death is far more than just a simple fear of dying. Death reminds us that this life is impermanent, which means that everyone in our lives, as we know them today, is impermanent, too.

See, that last sentence is typical of a death denying culture with its use of "permanent" and "impermanent." A person who truly accepts and even embraces death as a concrete reality can say "One day, I will die, my parents will die, my spouse will die, and my children will die." Few people, including myself, can really say that without feeling totally depressed. Denying death certainly affords us the benefit of avoiding the painful fact that everyone we love and cherish will die.

But, I wonder, what are we missing in this trade off?

And, furthermore, what might we gain in trying to incorporate the true acceptance of death in our daily life?

We stand to gain quite a bit, I think. I'm not going to bore you with a discussion of the standard "Rah, Rah, live this day like it's your last" cheer. You're way too smart for that.

As I understand it, denying death allows us to continue deny what's important.

Hustling like a crazy person to win the love and acceptance of other human beings only feels important when we convince ourselves that the approval and love that we may get in return for the hustling is going to last forever.

Getting angry over the latest perceived insult to our egos only feels important when we convince ourselves that if the insult is not rectified, it will stand as an everlasting affront to who we are.

Competing with others over who has the best house, the nicest car and the most toys only feels right when we convince ourselves that some prize will be won in the end.

When we face death head on instead of denying it, though, we face the utter frivolity of these pursuits.

We realize that the only real truth is that everyone gets the same end in this life. Some will face death surrounded by loved ones and others will face it alone. For some, it will happen fast, and for others, it will happen slowly. In the end, regardless of the circumstances, everyone's heart will stop, everyone's breath will fade, and everyone's brain will die.

Death is not a punishment, it's a reality. And I personally feel that the further we remove ourselves from the realities of life, the worse off we are.

This seems nihilistic, but, really, it's most liberating. Accepting death can help us construct a legacy in which we truly believe. Death can serve as a microscope that allows us to dissect our beliefs and deeds in a way that no other experience can adequately parallel.

Accepting death doesn't mean that I can't grieve for the people in my life that have died either.

In fact, it gives me permission to do so in a more subtle and prolonged way, without the self imposed stigma of feeling like I have to "get over it." Because, you can't get over death. It's always going to be there, and ignoring it doesn't make it go away.

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Blogger B.E. Earl said...

I love a good cemetery.

I rented a house in Key West a few years back for a month. The broker warned that it was right across the street from the Key West Cemetery (which is awesome). I had visitors just about every day all month long, but on the two days I was alone in the house I took long walks in the cemetery and read all the wonderful, old and sometimes hilarious tombstones.

Nothing wrong with a great cemetery.

Tuesday, 07 October, 2008  
Blogger Avitable said...

This is why I need to be notoriously immortal on the Internet.

Tuesday, 07 October, 2008  
Blogger RW said...

They have to bury people above ground in New Orleans because of the water table. So there goes your whole premise. Next!

(just kidding!)

Tuesday, 07 October, 2008  
Blogger Faiqa said...

b.e. earl You know it was really bizarre to read your post this morning on zombies after I had written this post. (Which explains why I got so English teachery on your blog).

Avi, you just want to be like Angel, admit. it.

RW, I actually knew that and ignored that minor detail in order to make my point that older cities have a more open relationship with death. THANKS for pointing to the man behind the curtain. :)

Tuesday, 07 October, 2008  
Blogger sybil law said...

Oh I agree with this completely. Not to sound too dorky, but I really do try to live in the moment, and avoid the trappings that so many take as ordinary and necessary (money, cars, houses, etc.).
It's also why I laugh at severe health nuts out jogging on freezing days. You're gonna die, too, no matter what you do, idiot!
I'm so nice. :)

Tuesday, 07 October, 2008  
Blogger Miss Britt said...

I don't think it's entirely a good thing to embrace death either. To see everything as frivolous.

I think that extreme perspective can be just as limiting as running from the inevitable.

Tuesday, 07 October, 2008  
Blogger Faiqa said...

Did I come off as implying that everything is frivolous? Because that's def. not what I meant! And I don't think that embracing the reality of death necessarily leads to that. I meant that death adds a needed perspective in that it helps us determine precisely which of our own pursuits are frivolous within the context of our values, or rather what we *want* our values to be.

Tuesday, 07 October, 2008  
Blogger Lisa said...

I'm someone who IS dying and I cannot "embrace" my death at age 41 nor can I accept that I am going to leave two young children behind.

I thing these things are easy to talk about when you are not actually facing them. Believe me, EVERYTHING changes once you are facing your own death and planning your own funeral.

Wednesday, 08 October, 2008  
Blogger Crys said...

i appreciate Lisa's take on this. i cannot even begin to imagine what her perspective lends to the issue of life and death.

i've always thought a lot about death, actually. i can admit to being afraid of DYING, that is -- the LAST GASP -- but i don't think i am afraid of death per se. i believe life goes on. i mean, i *know* it does. there is another place beyond this one and we all end up there.

it's just the way we go. and it's the loss of our loved ones such as you've mentioned -- too painful to contemplate. yet if we keep our eye on what transcends this life (that being death, or a kind of real spirituality), the sting can lessen. i mean, i think. i do not know.

i do not want to know.

because i, like everyone else, am in denial.

great piece.

Wednesday, 08 October, 2008  
Blogger Faiqa said...

lisa: You're so right. I thought a lot about individuals who are in your situation as I wrote this, knowing that they (you) embody the cold splash of water that challenge the untested idealism that runs rampant through the post.

The post was prompted by the death (lung cancer) of the father of my dearest friend of over twenty years and the murder of another friend's cousin both occurring this past week. These are not substitutes for planning my own funeral on even the most remote level.

I know that my friend's dad fought his cancer very hard because he wanted to be around his children longer and be in this world longer. I respect that, a lot, would do the same and don't categorize that as a denial of death. And when I say embrace or accept, I def.didn't mean, "Get over it, you're going to die." I only meant that understanding death as an inevitable reality (as opposed to some mystical and far off experience) can change the way one lives their lives.

Getting a diagnosis and making the decision to try to fight it out (or not) is, to me, acceptance of that death. One knows what is coming and is dealing with it, whether through tears, anger or positive thinking. And, fighting off death does not equate to, INMHO, denying it. As an afterthought, perhaps I shouldn't have used the word "embrace" at all.

I can't begin to surmise how you have changed since you were presented with the information of your illness (I assume that you are ill?). Did it cause you to change the way you approach life, and what is important to you, and what is worthy of the time you have left? I'm not implying that it should have had that effect, either. I know you've been vocal on your blog on this subject, and I'm going to look for the answers there.

Regardless, I thank you *so* much for your honesty and giving me the opportunity to reexamine my opinion and position on this subject. Which I will after reading your comment. Really, thanks. ::hug::

crys: It *is* painful to think about death in terms of dying. Agreed that the afterlife can certainly lessen the sting of that as well as help one reevaluate their lives. (You know , singing angels versus fiery pit of hell, OR complete and eternal bliss versus coming back as the back seat on a greyhound bus can really make someone want to be better person. We're simple creatures, really.) :)

Wednesday, 08 October, 2008  
Anonymous Zia said...

I hear you. I've seen alot of people die in the past few years and I don't think I have a full understanding of what death really means. I don't think I was meant to.
For me, life is most importantly meant to be a fight for what you believe is the right thing to do (no matter how small, large, or mundane the task). You fight against yourself, against the TV against society, against almost everything so that when you finally are on your deathbed, you can die comfortably knowing that you left the world a little better than when you came in. Sucks to be George Bush.

Thursday, 09 October, 2008  

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