How Writers Changed How We Think About Death
Curtains. Belly up. Passing away. Pushing up daisies. It’s the one subject everyone will face but no one wants to talk about. So much so that we have a thousand ways to say it without ever saying the word: death. But what is it about ‘freeing one’s horse’ that intimidates us into glib euphemisms or worse, silence? Death is natural. Everyone and everything dies. Every person you’ve known, met, seen on TV or walked past in the street will die or has already. Besides birth, it might be the one thing all humans have in common. We have massive religious organizations whose primary function is to formalize our response to death because let’s be honest, without death, there would likely be no religion at all. Yet most people avoid the subject with everything they have.
Writers have no such luxury. Maybe that’s why so many of us go off the deep end. Our industry is the human condition, pain is a tool of the trade. Writers and religion have talked so much about death, we’ve let everyone else off the hook completely. Who needs soul deep contemplation when you’ve got quotes from the Bible and W.H. Auden? Talk about taking one for the team. You’re welcome. We know how religion has shaped our thoughts about death but how has art impacted our views on our final journey?
Independent of dogma and codified behavior, literature is free to explore the raw, human cost of ultimate loss and the tranquility that comes with making peace with our own mortality. Sylvia Plath wasn’t screwing around when she wrote:
“Herr God, Herr Lucifer
Out of the ash
I rise with my red hair
And I eat men like air.”
You can feel her biting defiance, made all the more poignant by the fact that she took her own life at only 30 years of age, an act her then year old son would repeat 46 years later. Despite her warnings to God and Lucifer, Ms. Plath ‘s exploration of death couldn’t keep her from giving into it. Dylan Thomas, who would die of pneumonia at only 39, exhorted us to “Rage, rage against the dying of the light” and while his words on the surface seem as defiant as Plath’s, beneath the verse I can always hear the unwritten refrain “it is futile, it is futile”.
Religion tells us that nothing is futile. There is no end. Death is merely a transition, “nothing at all, it does not count” as Henry Scott-Holland would have us believe. Everything we do is measured against a great eternal scorecard by which our ultimate and permanent destination is determined. Comforting to many, the unspoken part of the celestial deal is that this life is merely a prerequisite, unimportant in itself. Botch it up with too much pleasure and not enough penance and you’re in for an everlasting world of hurt. Literature, poetry, and prose allow us to dig deeper, to really examine what death means to us. After all, we only have someone’s word for it that death is not the end of our personal existence. But what if it is?
What if we don’t pass on to some greater reward, earned by a life of good works and self-denial? Or to infinite punishment for a finite amount of sin? Is a temporary life more precious or less for its impermanence? I’m not trying to answer The Big Questions here. I don’t have a handle on Truth with a capital T (and for my money neither does anyone else) but what’s important to me is how writers have given us permission to break away from the spoon-fed doctrines about death that keep us safe from the raw reality of it until it doesn’t. They have often done this at great cost to themselves, working the muscle of human emotion to the point of despair, giving voice to our greatest fears that we dare not name. Writers set us free from having to say that the ones we lose have gone on to a better place, a sentence that everyone uses and from which no one derives comfort. What better place could there be than in the arms of those who love you so much that your absence rips a hole out of the center of their world?
Don’t get me wrong, the spiritual view of life and death can be a beautiful, uplifting one. We need that as much as we need the bleak and the doleful. Not all works are Anna Karenina. Fredrik Bachman’s A Man Called Ove takes a much lighter look at grieving and surviving loss. What writers have done for us is to release us from the stigma and the strictures of talking about death. Why can’t we speak ill of the dead if they were ill-natured in life? Why can’t we cry, scream, shout our despair to the skies, wail at the unfairness of having been left behind? Maybe we don’t want to hold a Celebration of Life for the ones who departed and took our hearts with them. Maybe we want to curl up in a ball and blow away in the wind. Maybe we want to curse God.
Religion, government, society want to tell us how to feel. Art tells us it’s ok to feel whatever it is we’re feeling. We don’t have to explain ourselves to anyone, but thanks to the written word and the writers who wield them if we want to, we can try. We can try.