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.
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.
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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