Some interesting takes on death and dying by Clem Samson
Thanatophobia or fear of death, is quickly becoming the newest psychological hangup for hordes of anxiety-ridden people.
And “dead” has become a verbal no-no, not to be spoken in polite society.
But we have only ourselves to blame for the increasing number of people who are scared to death of death.
The term, dead is considered offensive, tactless, too blunt and too emotionally raw for polite conversation.
In social circles, people will now do handsprings to avoid saying the word dead, opting for softer, less literal alternatives.
People don’t die – they pass away, pass on or simply “pass.”
You don’t say someone is dead, but refer to them as deceased or expired or passed on.
Not long ago, you could buy burial insurance, but not anymore.
Now it’s called a “final expenses” policy.
Even the word “funeral” is becoming faux pas, sometimes replaced with the ambiguous, nondescript label of a “celebration of life” or a “homegoing.”
The substitute pseudonyms are evasive terms which intentionally mask the reality.
Poor old Yorick!!
Hamlet, that first modern human being, was quite capable of conceptualising Yorick’s death.
He knew him well, after all.
But his own death??
Hamlet seemed a little wishy washy about it.
“To sleep, perchance to dream.”
Good luck with that, Hamlet.
I mean, Yorick isn’t dreaming, is he??!?
How the hell are you going to dream after you’re just a skull?!?
Neurologists recently did an experiment that showed the human being is programmed to ignore the fact of its own death.
The brain seems to regard death as something that happens to people less fortunate than ourselves — poor slobs!!!
But when it comes to our own demise, we are unable to internalise it.
The experiment involved showing subjects photo portraits and associating the pictures with words.
When words like “death” and “coffin” were associated with other people’s pictures, even close friends or relatives, the brain of the subject had absolutely no trouble registering the image.
But when a picture of themselves showed up on the screen, and death-related words like “funeral” or “grave” were associated with it, the subjects were unable to register the image.
The brain does not accept that death is related to the self.
The reason for this mechanism, scientists speculate, is that knowledge of the futility and meaninglessness of life goes against biology itself, which is basically a system to promote life at all costs.
According to evolutionary biologists, a chicken is an egg’s way of making another egg.
They don’t really tell the elementary school children this when they start introducing science to their little chicken/egg brains.
It would be too upsetting.
“Wait a minute, I’m just a kind of flesh machine that one egg uses to make another?”
Well, I don’t know it’s terrible. It is what it is.
I guess there are two ways of looking at it.
According to scientists, an organism — like a human being — has the main goal of passing on as much of its genetic code as it can to the next generation.
Or, you can look at it like this: the genetic code constructs an organism — like a human being — in order to duplicate itself and survive to another generation.
Shortly after human beings evolved brains big enough to realize the horrible truth about their own mortality, Nature very kindly provided them with a salve – alcohol.
Before they were aware of their own mortality, human beings didn’t need to drink.
Afterwards, they needed to drink a whole heckuva lot.
Booze made them feel better about being mortal.
The discovery of fermentation of grain was one of the most important events in human history.
When Did We Realize That We Were All Going To Die And That It Was Going To Royally Suck?
Almost half a million years ago human beings had some awareness of death, but they seem to have been unable to make the connection between someone else’s death and their own mortality.
They didn’t make a fuss about the burial of dead bodies.
They more or less just shoved them in the back of a cave without much fanfare.
Archeologists have found these “arranged” corpses in several locations.
But around 50,000 years ago something happened – the funeral was invented.
Elaborate rituals developed around death, and Religion was born.
These rituals and beliefs served as a salve for the sting of the death of a loved one, and probably made people feel a bit better about their own Doom.
For example, a pair of Upper Paleolithic graves in Russia contained full skeletons of two boys and a middle-aged man buried with spears, figurines and an additional femur bone that was filled with red pigment.
The bodies were adorned with over 13,000 ivory beads carved from mammoth tusks..
Death was really starting to bother people.
And sure, putting 13,000 ivory beads on a dead body sort of helps you through the grieving process.
You might not feel so bad about your loved one so much if you imagine that he’s interacting with figurines and treasures that you place in his grave.
But as life goes on, you are going to have anxiety about this happening to yourself.
And you are going to be scared.
Rituals and myths cropped up around these funeral rites.
The people who buried the dear relatives developed heart-warming theories about how the dead were still with us, et cetera.
This developed over time into what we know as Religion.
If Religion and funeral rituals had done their job properly, booze might not have been necessary.
Clearly, Religion had failed.
That’s Where Booze Came To The Rescue
It was the job of beer and wine to soothe the Savage Beast.
Because when humans got drunk, they forgot about their problems.
Especially the “Big” Problem – Death.
So began the two strains of human thought.
One says, eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we die.
The other says be good, go to church, walk the line and try to pretend that we’re never going to die, or even if we do die, it won’t be so bad because maybe, just maybe, we’ll be redeemed somehow in the AfterLife.
I know which strain I want.
The reverse of Pascal’s Wager.
What’s the point of wasting your life betting on the wrong horse and depriving yourself of a life super-saturated with pleasure?
It would be nice to believe that we will be able to reunite with our loved ones in an AfterLife full of sunshine, daisies and buttercups, with endless loops of Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus in the background.
It’s comforting to feel the presence of a beloved person after they have transitioned to the Other Side.
I get the need for mediums and seances – the need to contact the dead.
The custom of leaving flowers at gravestones, that’s very poignant, don’t get me wrong.
The messages of “Happy Birthday in Heaven” to Aunt Lily are extremely touching – for the persons sending them.
But let’s be clear about one thing – no person in a coffin has ever smelled a flower or blown birthday candles or seen their beloved relatives grieving at their graveside
But I miss Grandma!!!
She doesn’t miss you.
Life is for the living – so live.
Is this tough love or something??
This is Science.
There is absolutely no proof of a being from the Hereafter communicating with a living person – none.
“But there’s a first time for everything!?!!”
But let me ask you a question – have you won the Lotto Max $70 million-dollar jackpot lately?
Didn’t think so.
The odds of you contacting a dead person are way longer than the odds of you winning Lotto Max.
In fact, the odds of you communicating with the dead are a zillion-zillion to none.
There’s no chance of it.
But what about the movie Ghost!??!!
I know, it was a very sexy scene.
The ghost of Patrick Swayze comes up behind Demi Moore while she’s at the pottery wheel.
I’ve got news for you – that wasn’t a ghost.
That was a figment of Demi’s imagination.
Maybe there were some chemicals in the pottery shit she used.
Maybe she was drunk or on drugs or suffering from psychotic depression or actually schizophrenic.
Schizophrenics hear voices.
I don’t think you should be trying to hear the voices of people who are not here anymore.
You might end up on the Psychiatry ward, or worse, in a Hollywood movie.
Hollywood is to blame.
I mean, it’s really quite stunning, the number of times Hollywood movies have tried to convince audiences that dead people are communicating with living characters.
The results were really shocking.
More than one zillion Hollywood movies have tried to pull off this chicanery.
One zillion, at my latest count – and I don’t think I caught them all!
(Man, are my eyes tired after watching all those movies!)
Why do they do it?
“Deepest Condolences On Your Death.”
“Wait, what?!!??……I’m already dead?!!???”
“I’m sorry to be the bearer of this unfortunate news.”
“You passed away a long time ago.”
That is, in the perspective of a person who is somehow living outside the Block Universe of All Time and Space, the moment of your death already arrived, somewhere in the midst of that gigantic block of Space-Time.
I find that all so very comforting.
General and Special Relativity, according to Einstein, show that Time is an illusion, a Fourth Dimension.
The Passage of Time, from Past to the Present to the Future is not real – it is a human construct to help us differentiate between Now and our perception of the Past.
All we are ever aware of is our brain state right Now.
The only reason we feel like we have a Past is that our brains contain memories.
The concept of Time is simply an illusion made up of human memories.
Everything that Has Ever Been and Ever Will Be is happening right Now.
And nobody has really come up with a convincing argument to counter Einstein’s intuition.
The Block Universe Theory of Time is where Time and Space are connected as Space-Time, the fabric of the Universe.
Think of the Block Universe, which is supported by Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, as a Four-Dimensional Space-Time structure where Time is like Space, in that every event that has ever happened or will happen has its own coordinates, or address, in Space-Time.
Time is tenseless, all points equally “Real,” so that Future and Past are no less real than the Present.
This would allow everything to be “Real” in the sense that the Past, and even the Future, are still there in Space-Time – as opposed to the view of the world as a three-dimensional space modulated by the Passage of Time.
Everything that will happen has already happened in this Block Universe, where, since as Einstein proved, Time and Space aren’t separate items, but part of the same fabric, Space-Time.
Your death has already happened in the Block Universe of Space-Time.
Physicists have a deterministic view of the Future – what’s going to happen is Predestined, in fact, has Already Happened, in a different point in the Block Universe of Space-Time.
We can’t change the Future.
After all, it has already occurred.
As the Great Tangerine Terror says, “It is what it is.”
That takes a little pressure off you, honestly.
The Block Universe provides an answer to Hamlet’s great question: “Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer/The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune/Or to take arms against a sea of troubles/And by opposing end them.”
There is definitely no point in taking arms and opposing a sea of troubles if the Future has already happened.
Picture that scary guy in the black shroud holding the scythe.
Don’t fear the Grim Reaper – he’s already come, came and gone.
He came to your house, he took you away….
A long time ago.
What’s done is done.
The term Eternalism has been used to describe this philosophical view of all Time existing at once, as opposed to Presentism, which is more like the classic view of the Present emerging from the Past into the Future.
Presentism is a theory in philosophy which says that the only events and objects which exist now, right now, really exist.
In contrast, Eternalism is the philosophical theory which says that all points in time, Past, Present and Future, are equally real.
In this sense, Socrates and tomorrow’s events exist right now in the Block Universe of Space-time, even if we cannot see them or interact with them.
Many philosophers and cosmologists and physicists have adopted Eternalism because Presentism is contradicted by Einstein’s Special and General Theory of Relativity, whereas Eternalism agrees with it.
We use Presentism instead of Eternalism in our everyday lives, the same way we use Newtonian Physics instead of Relativity Theory and Quantum Theory, because it is vastly easier to conceptualise and for everyday stuff, it works.
Even though it seems like common sense that there is a “Flow of Time,” this is just a subjective illusion.
The sense of this Flow of Time is extremely convincing, but it just reflects how our brains have evolved.
If we did not make distinctions between the Past, Present, and Future, it would hinder our ability to survive.
Looking to the Past for lessons and planning for the Future seem to be essential components of any survival strategy.
Our brains are simply not equipped to perceive the true nature of Time.
Presentism is fine, but to use a gambling analogy, it means that one day your luck will run out, as the Present goes on for 83 or so years……and then….Busted!!!
Eternalism, on the other hand, means you can keep turning over aces and rolling jackpots, forever and ever, and it will never be game over.
You will never go Bust.
Yes, you die over and over again in this Block Universe, but you also live over and over again.
For all Eternity.
Nearest thing to Heaven I can think of, actually.
All anxiety stems from a misapprehension of Time.
Anxiety about the Future is not possible in Eternalism.
How can we worry about what will happen if it’s already happened?
The problem with Presentism is that it places the human being exactly there on the cusp of dread and torment and fear about what might occur.
That’s no place to live.
It’s much happier here, in the Place Of No Fear.
You don’t have to actually believe that you are already dead.
Simply engaging in this dialectic is enough to short circuit all anxiety and apprehension about the Future and put you in a state of Nirvana.
So, start enjoying the rest of Eternity.
That’s a long time.
A really long time.
Have a good day!!
And have a Great Infinity!!!!
Essayist, humorist, satirist, funny-ist, poetist, fictionalist, fabulist, quizzist, journalist. Creative Writing Prof at Harvard College, Duluth, Minnesota.