Thursday, November 3, 2011


The end is nearer than you think. Unless we achieve the singularity soon, it's likely that anyone and everyone around you will be dead in a hundred years. (The average human lifespan may be increasing, but the maximum life-span isn't). Why don't we feel this reality more? Why aren't we more motivated by it?

Death is not what it used to be. More than half of Europe's population may have been wiped out by the Black Death around 1350; plague memorials remind the living today. Lynching, a form of real-life torture porn that was watched by men, women, and children with blithe amusement, claimed between 100 and 200 lives a year during the 1890s in the United States, and continued into recent decades. The first half of the 20th century saw wars that killed millions of people; today, by contrast, America blanches when fewer than 5,000 soldiers die in combat in Iraq (the slaughter of over 60 million people during World War II, including over 400,000 Americans, was during a time when both the U.S. and the world populations were 1/3 what they are today)

On a more pastoral note, in small towns like Spring Valley, Minnesota (a real life "Lake Wobegon" where my mom grew up) everybody knew everyone, and so every passing was discussed and deconstructed. Today, in a world where we don't know the people living two doors down, death usually drifts unnoticed through our communities.

The old used to die in their own homes. Today's seniors move to retirement condos like Goodwin House, an upscale apartment complex I recently visited in Northern Virginia. It's a self-contained community with a fitness center, a library, and conversation parlors. But Goodwin House also represents the recession of the awareness of death for the rest of us; the sons and daughters of its residents are now most likely to learn about the end of a parent's life via a telephone call or an email. I imagine that soon it will be a "Last Tweet" that notifies us of the passing of a parent, auto-sent when a bracelet worn by the departed fails to detect a pulse. One could customize the Last Tweet months in advance, when of sounder mind and body, allowing one to publicly bid farewell with a cheery, "I'm outta here!" designed to elicit a smile and inspire us, the living, with positivism about how said parent faced the end ("She was so inspiring!").

There was a time when people who died during a bitter winter were laid in sheds for burial after the spring thaw. Today, we have the technology to put bodies into the ground in any weather, rushing them that much more rapidly out of sight and mind.

The casket is open if the mortician can do something; it's closed if he or she cannot, and so whenever we see a closed casket we momentarily shiver and wonder in what horrible physical state the deceased must have been. A man who dies peacefully in his sleep gets an open casket; a woman whose body was ravaged by cancer gets a closed one. The decision to open or close the casket is essentially based on whether or not the deceased makes effective propaganda for the peacefulness of death.

In the 1800s, the dead were sometimes photographed dressed and sitting up in arranged settings—sometimes with other family members.

The pioneers who traveled the Oregon Trail knew that their quest for a better life might instead result in an early death. A makeshift gravesite alongside the trail served as a chilly warning to the next family who passed by.

We have never been more sheltered from death than we are today. We don't think we're immortal, but neither do we seem to absorb the ultimate and inescapable reality, that motivational memento mori that used to fascinate writers and philosophers who noted, as Samuel Johnson did, that "Life is not long, and too much of it must not pass in idle deliberation how it shall be spent"; or, as Laurence Sterne wrote in The Life and Adventures of Tristram Shandy, Gentlemen, "Time wastes too fast: every letter I trace tells me with what rapidity Life follows my pen; the days and hours of it, more precious, my dear Jenny! than the rubies about thy neck, are flying over our heads like light clouds of a windy day, never to return..." Where has the urgency gone?

Cancer, which seems to be prominently featured in a New York Times article every day, has become death's leading bogeyman in the American imagination. It is popularly treated as a bully and a thing to be defeated, which fits our fighting spirit. Facebook friends post cut-and-pasted status updates imploring us to "write a letter to cancer," and thousands participate in breast cancer awareness marches. Diseases that seem more preventable get less sympathy in America. While breast cancer marches are commonplace, lung cancer marches are non-existent, though lung cancer kills four times as many people in the United States. In all of this we see an avoidance of the understanding of our imminent mortality; we try and "beat" cancer, but we talk as if in doing so we will certainly live forever. The fact is, as a disembodied voice explains to us on Pink Floyd's "Great Gig in the Sky," "We all have to go sometime."

"Our country calls not for the life of ease, but for the life of strenuous endeavor," said Theodore Roosevelt. "The twentieth century looms before us big with the fate of many nations. If we stand idly by, if we seek merely swollen, slothful ease, and ignoble peace, if we shrink from the hard contests which men must win at hazard of their lives and at the risk of all that they hold dear, then the bolder and stronger peoples will pass us by and will win for themselves the domination of the world."

America seems to have become a land of "swollen, slothful ease," averse to any hazarding of life. The world faced by the pioneers on the Oregon Trail has been replaced by our race to be the first on Facebook to post a status update announcing acquisition of the latest iPhone. The idea of literally risking life in order to advance (whether via the silliness of a duel or a cause more noble) has become quaint. Death, which, amidst the world's growing population operates within increasingly closer proximity, recedes further from our minds. With that recession, we have lost much of our motivation. We no longer imagine, as our ancestors once did, that terrible skeleton charging towards us on an emasculated steed, scythe raised in the air, the Great Equalizer. Memento mori.

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