YES, we’re scared. We’re on the edge, unable to think properly. Our focus flutters and floats around flea-like from one update to the next. We follow the news, because we feel we should but soon we wish we hadn’t, because it’s sad.
The thought of dying alone with a respiratory sickness is so horrifying to hide under our masks. We are separated from one another but we can’t keep our distance from the fear of death. This led me to question, how can I accept my own mortality, so that I can live my life to the fullest during this terrifying situation?
Then I found a novella The Death of Evan Ilyich (1886), by Leo Tolstoy which helped me not only to understand the author’s philosophy towards death but also the psychology behind it. As a result, I could gather some emotional courage to embrace my fear of death during this COVID-19 pandemic situation.
Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910), a Russian writer, is regarded as one of the greatest authors of all time. He is best known for his novels like War and Peace (1869) and Anna Karenina (1877). But due to his unusual firsthand experiences of death and dying, he also wrote extensively about the inevitability of death for our understanding of life itself. Some of his most memorable meditations on this theme are found in his novella The Death of Ivan Ilyich. In the novella through the story of a dying Russian judge, Tolstoy successfully narrates the different episodes of ‘dying’ some eighty years before its discovery by Swiss-American psychiatrist Elizabeth Kubler Ross. In her book On Death and Dying (1969) Kubler Ross outlined five stages that a dying individual goes through.
The Death of Ivan Ilyich, as its title suggests, depicts the death of an ordinary middle-aged Russian judge, but it is also about a man who overcame it. Like everyone in his social circle, Ivan Ilyich lives a superficial life and dedicates his life to climbing the social ladder and seeking the bliss which he believes is found at the top. Initially he was contented with his life but gradually he becomes unhappy as his marriage deteriorates so he starts ignoring his family life and focuses on becoming a magistrate.
One day he falls awkwardly upon hanging curtains for his new home and becomes ill. Doctors offer all kinds of diagnoses and medicines but he cannot recover and within some weeks, Ivan Ilyich could see that he is a bedridden dying man. In his death bed Ivan’s main source of comfort becomes his servant Gerasim. He is the only person in the house who does not fear death, and the only one other than his own son who seems to show compassion for him.
As Ivan’s interaction with Gerasim becomes deeper, Ivan begins to question the how can he accept death without being unhappy? Gerasim guides Ivan in his last days, and allowed him to realise the difference between a superficial and an authentic life and how to accept death with ease. He says, ‘We shall all of us die, so why should I grudge a little trouble?’ Apart from the philosophical thought, Tolstoy also shows the psychological stages of a dying person.
According to Ross, denial is the initial emotional response to the knowledge of death. In this stage people often say, ‘No, not me. It can’t be!’ From chapter five we find Ivan Ilych gets the idea that he is going to die but he could not get used to the idea and immediately denies it. In chapter six he says, ‘It can’t be me having to die. That would be too horrible.’ After a while, he entered the stage of anger, blaming god for imposing this kind of misery and pain to him, and expecting an answer, ‘Why hast Thou done all this? Why hast Thou brought me here? Why, why dost Thou torment me so terribly?’
Then he started talking to god asking for the meaning of his life. During this ‘bargaining’ period he started to look back and after much argumentation with himself he realises that he may not have done anything meaningful during his whole life. Consequently he enters into the ‘black hole’ of depression. He learns that it is impossible to turn back and fight against the forces, now he can only wait for the moment.
Finally, the door of acceptance was opening in his scared mind, with his understanding of the inevitability of death. Ivan Ilyich during this stage realises that he has not lived his life in the best way and he was dead long before he was called to die. He was materialistically driven and blinded most of his life by shallow pleasures. He eventually finds solace from the selfless love and kindness from his family and servants and embraces death. ‘Death is finished,’ he said to himself. ‘It is no more!’
Therefore, The Death of Ivan Ilych is Tolstoy’s parable representing the mystery that living well is the best way to die well. Tolstoy tells us that we don’t fear death, we fear life because we feel that we don’t live our destined time on earth as we were supposed to. It also echoes with the Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius who told us that ‘it is not death that a man should fear, but he should fear never beginning to live’.
During this pandemic when we’re feeling the anxieties of infection and death, this story gives us the message of our capacities to respond to the fear of death in ways we never knew we could. It reminds us that, fear isn’t real. It is like wearing the uncomfortable personal protective suit around our mind and feeling we’re being protected.
In doing so, we have allowed this fear into our house, our head, and our heart. It’s circulating like the ghostly virus — looking for prey in every thought and every action. But we must remember that human is not defined by fear. We are a hope and a faith-driven species that seeks to live life to the fullest and not die.
Complete Article ↪HERE↩!
— two days after she caught coronavirus, she did
Nursing professor says everyone should have the chance to say a deathbed goodbye
By Sarah Rieger
Jennifer Patrick was terrified of dying alone.
The 65-year-old was diagnosed with pulmonary fibrosis nearly two years ago. She relied on progressively higher and higher concentrations of oxygen and a few months ago was moved to a Calgary nursing home.
Since the diagnosis, Britt Patrick said her mom just kept repeating her fear — “I don’t want to die alone.”
But two days after she contracted COVID-19 that’s exactly what happened.
On April 19, the 65-year-old from Airdrie, Alta., was having a panic attack, gasping for air. She hadn’t seen a friend or family member in days.
It was her husband’s birthday. They’d spent the last 41 years together but hadn’t seen each other since the Calgary home, Extendicare Hillcrest, was locked down to visitors. Her daughter and grandchildren were two provinces away.
Her nurse, who was sitting by her bedside, left the room to get morphine to ease her panicked gasps for air. When the nurse returned, Jennifer Patrick was gone.
“It was very, very surreal,” Britt Patrick said.
“I feel like maybe my dad should have been allowed in with proper protection just to say goodbye.”
No chance to say goodbye
Patrick said her mom’s COVID-19 diagnosis didn’t come as a shock. The Winnipeg resident knew Calgary was experiencing high numbers of COVID-19 cases, and said she had an ominous feeling, knowing her mom already had a serious respiratory illness.
But the speed of her mom’s death, without a chance to say goodbye, left her reeling.
She doesn’t even remember what they talked about during their last phone call — the oxygen deprivation had increasingly made talking on the phone difficult for her mom.
“That’s frustrating and that’s hard,” she said.
“I know I ended up missing a phone call with her. I had been trying to get a hold of her for quite a while and I finally got a phone call back. I was just getting out the door and I didn’t have time to answer it and I wish I’d taken that two minutes to take that conversation.”
She also doesn’t know what to tell her three children.
“They’re struggling with it, they’re asking, ‘When can we go out there? Are we going to the funeral?’ They’re asking very obvious questions for children that I can’t answer and that’s frustrating, to not be able to let them know when we can visit Grampy, when we can do these things,” she said.
Dying alone all too common during pandemic
While Patrick may feel alone in her grief, tens of thousands of families globally are facing the same harsh reality — forced to say goodbye through a video call or being deprived of even that small connection, due to precautions in place or personal safety decisions made to avoid spreading the infectious disease.
University of Alberta nursing professor Donna Wilson studies end-of-life care, bereavement and what it means to have a good death.
She said while initially many of us were taken by surprise by the pandemic, now that it has been the reality for months, it’s time to find better ways to let people say goodbye.
“There has to be a way around this,” Wilson said.
If a family member thinks it wasn’t a good death … they may have seriously complicated grief.
– Donna Wilson, University of Alberta nursing professor
Wilson said the deathbed goodbye — where loved ones gather around a dying person’s bedside to make amends, and express sentiments that may have previously gone unsaid — is a centuries-old custom for a reason.
“People don’t want to be alone, they want to be surrounded by their family members, the people that really mean something to them… it’s really important because people have the opportunity to say something to the dying person that maybe they never said before.”
She said international research has shown that a good death, which is somewhat expected, largely free from suffering, and in accordance with a patient or their family’s wishes, is vital to the grieving process for those left behind.
“If the family member thinks it wasn’t a good death … they grieve harder and longer and they may never get over the death, they may have seriously complicated grief,” she said.
The families of people who died after getting COVID-19 are sharing the stories of their loved ones to encourage others to do what they can to prevent further spread of the coronavirus. 2:05
That’s the situation Britt Patrick finds herself in.
“You have people who are passing away afraid and alone, why can’t we at least set something up to allow people to say goodbye safely?” she said.
Michael Bittante, the regional director for Extendicare, said while Jennifer Patrick’s family was contacted and informed of her condition, end-of-life visits are not always feasible.
“We continue to provide end-of-life visitation with families when possible, using personal protective equipment and infection control measures. Unfortunately, this is not always possible for a number of reasons, including the progression of a resident’s illness,” he said.
CBC News reached out to Extendicare to clarify the timeline as to when residents are allowed end-of-life visitors, and the company reiterated that it is following provincial directives.
Donna Wilson said it’s important for the government or health officials to step in, as they did to limit visitors to nursing homes, to ensure end-of-life visits happen.
“We’re looking at a lot of people that are going to be really severely damaged if they’re blocked from the deathbed,” she said.
Wilson suggested strategies like bringing in retired nurses to facilitate visits and assist visitors with donning protective equipment, or arranging for visits to be held in private rooms near the entrances of buildings or even in ambulances, that can be cleaned after each visit.
“If you can get a nurse in and out of a hospital safely … you can bring a relative in and out safely.”
Some end-of-life policies were applied too strictly
Dr. Deena Hinshaw, Alberta’s chief medical officer of health, said Wednesday that she knows the protective measures in place at long-term care facilities are causing many residents to feel increasingly isolated and said some end-of-life visitation policies were being applied more strictly than intended.
“There have been some interpretations where some believed the intention of the order was [to only allow visits] in the last few hours of life … it’s very difficult to arrange for visits in that very narrow window,” she said.
“We expect that individuals who are dying must have the opportunity to have their loved ones at their side.”
She said up to two visitors can be allowed to see those estimated to be two weeks away from death, as long as they maintain two metres of physical distance.
While that update doesn’t change anything for Britt Patrick, she’s learned one thing in her grief she wants to share.
“Just take every chance to connect with your loved ones.”
There were 503 cases of COVID-19 in nursing homes across Alberta as of Wednesday.
In the two weeks since an outbreak was declared at Jennifer Patrick’s nursing home, eight residents have died, and 19 residents and 10 staff members have contracted COVID-19.
Complete Article ↪HERE↩!
by Daniel Burke
Steve Kaminski was whisked into an ambulance near his home on New York’s Upper East Side last week.
He never saw his family again.
Kaminski died days later of covid-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. Because of fears of contagion, no visitors, including his family, were allowed to see him at Mt. Sinai Hospital before he died.
“It seemed so surreal,” said Diane Siegel, Kaminski’s daughter in law. “How could someone pass so quickly and with no family present?”
Mitzi Moulds, Kaminski’s companion of 30 years, was quarantined herself, having also contracted the coronavirus. She worried Kaminski would wake up and think she’d abandoned him.
“Truthfully, I think he died alone,” said Bert Kaminski’s, one of Steve’s sons. “Even if a doctor was there.”
As the coronavirus stalks victims around the world, one of its scariest aspects is how it seems to feed on our deepest fears and prey on our primal instincts, like the impulse to be close to people we love when they are suffering and near death.
In a painful irony, the very thing we need in moments of fear and anxiety could also kill us.
Many hospitals and nursing homes have closed their doors and placed covid-19 patients in isolation wards to prevent the disease from spreading. One doctor called it “the medical version of solitary confinement.”
Priests are administering last rites over the telephone while families sit helplessly at home.
The isolation extends beyond coronavirus patients. Amy Tucci, president of the Hospice Foundation of America, estimates that 40% of hospice patients are in hospitals or nursing homes, many of which have placed strict restrictions on visitors. Their families, too, are worried about loved ones dying without them.
“We crave closure,” said Maryland psychologist Dr. Kristin Bianchi, “so it’s only natural we would want to be there in our loved one’s final moments. We want to bear witness to that process and say our last goodbyes.”
‘Lonely deaths’ can haunt us
Something about dying alone seems to haunt us. To some it may suggest the deceased’s life lacked love and worth, and that in the end they were forgotten.
The Japanese have a word for this: “kodokushi,” meaning “lonely death.” In recent days, as funerals have been cancelled or postponed because of the virus, it can seem as if coronavirus victims simply vanished, like people in “The Leftovers.”
But some medical experts challenge the idea that scores of people are dying unaccompanied in hospitals right now. In many instances, they said, hospital staff are standing vigil by patients’ bedsides during their last moments.
It’s not ideal, they say, but they’re not quite the lonely deaths we may imagine.
As a lung specialist and member of the Optimum Care Committee at Massachusetts General Hospital, Dr. Emily Rubin is on the frontlines of the pandemic.
The hospital, where 41 employees recently tested positive for coronavirus, does not admit visitors except for limited circumstances, like births — and, in some cases, for patients near death.
But Rubin said the situation is evolving rapidly as the virus spreads. In some cases, the hospital may connect families and covid-19 victims electronically instead of in person. Other times, nurses and other hospital staff will step in to stand vigil.
“Even if the disease is too mighty, the ethic of not abandoning people is so strong,” Rubin said. “We feel like being present with people at the end of life is a huge part of what we do.
“People in a hospital are not dying alone.”
Still, shepherding patients through the last stages of life can take an emotional and physical toll on doctors, nurses and other hospital staff, Rubin acknowledged.
Dr. Daniela Lamas, a critical care doctor at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, wrote about that toll in a recent New York Times op-ed.
“The devastating image of the lonely deaths of coronavirus patients in Italy hangs over us all,” Lamas wrote. “Talking with one of the nurse practitioners in our hospital’s new Covid-19 I.C.U. one recent night, I asked what worried her most. ‘Patients dying alone,’ she replied quickly.”
But some hospice chaplains question notions of “lonely deaths,” saying that in their experience, some people want to approach the end by themselves.
“I don’t think dying alone has to always be a bad thing,” said the Rev. C. Brandon Brewer, a hospice chaplain in Maryland. “What we’ve done is make it into something that it doesn’t have to be.”
It takes away our end-of-life rituals
When we think about dying alone, we’re really talking about two separate things, psychologists say: The fear that people we love will die alone, and the fear that we ourselves will stare down death solo.
“It creates in almost everyone a sense of terror,” said Bianchi, of the Center for Anxiety & Behavioral Change in Rockville, Maryland. “We want to be be able to cushion the experience from what we believe will be a painful and difficult experience. We also want to be there because we imagine ourselves in that scenario.”
Often, it’s the people left behind who suffer more than the deceased, said Kerry Egan, a former hospice chaplain who has turned to writing essays and books. We want to be there to comfort and help the dying, she said, as if we could somehow alleviate their suffering.
“People feel a sense of guilt. What could I have done better? How could I have stopped this?” she said. “Part of that is just part of the normal grief process.”
This relentless pandemic, which brings deaths shockingly quickly, heightens the anxiety. Many people can’t get to their loved one’s bedsides to whisper last goodbyes or reconcile old grudges.
Secular and religious end-of-life rituals, too, have been stripped away. Hospice care, for example.
“Hospice is all about being able to provide an environment where people can review their life and say their goodbyes and their sorries and hold hands and kiss one another and then — poof! — all of that is just gone overnight,” said Tucci, of the Hospice Foundation. “It’s a nightmare.”
At the same time, many funeral homes have cut way back on memorials, burials and other rituals used to commemorate departed friends and family.
“Even when there are people around to support us during times of mourning, it can be an extremely isolating experience,” said Bianchi. “Take that, and then put someone into forced isolation, like we are now, and it can be absolutely agonizing.”
Dying alone is different from dying lonely
It happens too often to be a coincidence, hospice chaplains say.
Family members will maintain a constant vigil, spending hours, even days, by their loved one’s deathbed. And then, when they leave for a few moments to make a sandwich or take a shower, their beloved dies.
“There’s no coincidence in my mind,” said Brewer, the hospice chaplain in Maryland. “This is an intentional process.”
Egan agreed. “Ask anyone who has worked in hospice and they will have dozens of stories like this. “I think a lot of people want to die alone.”
In other words, there’s a difference between dying alone and dying lonely.
“Dying alone is not necessarily dying without love. It is simply in some cases the absence of another person in the room,” said Brewer. “And if that’s what someone wants, that’s OK. It doesn’t mean they were forsaken.”
In a certain sense, Egan added, we all die alone, even if we are surrounded by people we love. Often, as we die, our bodies are breaking down and our minds are elsewhere. The conscious experience of death is, by nature, solitary.
And the movie image of someone imparting profound last words upon his deathbed, encircled by his faithful family? That’s a comforting fiction, hospice chaplains said.
“That is not how it happens,” Egan said. “Many people are not responsive at the end. Their bodies are busy doing something else.”
This family said their final goodbyes by phone
Before Steve Kaminski died, a nurse practioner at Mt. Sinai set up a group call so he could hear his family’s voices one last time.
His face brightened, the nurse told family members, as each offered their tearful goodbyes or said, hoping against hope, that they’d see him when he left the hospital.
On a ventilator, Kaminski himself could say nothing.
When he died days later, it was a sudden and stunning ending to 86 years of vibrant life, said Bert Kaminski, Steve’s son.
But Bert Kaminski said he took some solace from a dinner he shared recently with his father and his father’s longtime partner. They went to a Vietnamese restaurant, drained a bottle of Merlot and then feasted on ice cream. His father was his usual bon vivant self, Bert remembers.
“People shouldn’t take it for granted that there is time to connect with them later, particularly older family members,” Kaminski said.
“This thing can come very suddenly. No visitors. No final words.”
Complete Article ↪HERE↩!
What does it mean to have a good death? Leah Green meets with Aly Dickinson, an end-of-life doula. Aly helps clients to plan what they want to happen at the end of their lives, and she accompanies them as they transition from life to death. She helps Leah draw up a death plan, and takes her to a death cafe, where strangers discuss dying over tea and cake
If I were to rank all of my fears, death — my own, and that of the people I love — would definitely be at the top of my list. It’s a pretty universal source of anxiety, whether we voice it or not. We cling to this fear, even if it won’t change the reality that all of us will die, eventually. The death positivity movement, however — which aims to shift this perception by encouraging a larger dialogue about death — is steadily growing.
Our anxiety surrounding death stems from how we tend to distance ourselves from the topic, explains Katherine Kortes-Miller, an assistant professor at Lakehead University and author of Talking About Death Won’t Kill You: The Essential Guide to End-of-Life Conversations. For many, “the only death and dying we see is on movies, where it’s heightened and traumatic, and not the death most of us are going to experience.”
The goal of death positivity is to “take death out of the closet,” Kortes-Miller says, so we no longer see it as a Big Scary Thing, but as an integral part of life. The nonprofit organization Death Cafe, for instance, has hosted thousands of loosely-structured events where people meet to “eat cake, drink tea, and discuss death,” according to its website.
Another group, Death Over Dinner, has a website that helps people plan dinners where they can discuss end-of-life issues, suggesting reading, audio, and video materials. Kortes-Miller co-organizes an event called Die-alogues, which hosts speakers and small-group discussions on topics like bucket lists, the use of social media to acknowledge death and dying, and animal companion death.
Popularized in a tweet by Caitlin Doughty, author of Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematory, death positivity is inspired by sex positivity, especially in its emphasis on choice. It advocates supporting people regardless of how they choose to die, whether it involves a green burial or aggressive medical treatments, explains Jillian Tullis, an associate professor at the University of San Diego whose research focuses on communicating about death in end-of-life settings. Creating space for the ways marginalized communities navigate death is another important part of death positivity — for instance, considering how much harder conversations about end-of life care might be for Black and Brown people, who have historically received worse healthcare than their white counterparts, Tullis says.
Millennials, ironically, seem especially interested in death positivity. (Doughty, for instance, is in her 30s.) Kortes-Miller notes that many young people have shared stories with her about family members who didn’t know how to deal with an aspect of a grandparent’s death, because no one talked about it. “They want to do more than the generation before,” she tells Mic. Tullis adds that many of her students have begun grappling with their mortality in the face of the climate crisis.
Death positivity sees normalizing death as crucial to wellness. Besides reducing anxiety around death, “it influences how we choose to live,” Tullis says. “When you have death and mortality as a guiding light, so to speak, it can help you understand what types of things are really important”— whether family, good food, or grand adventures — so we can prioritize them.
It can also help us prioritize who we spend our time with and how we spend it, and tease apart what’s really worth stressing over. Indeed, fully recognizing that life is finite can be freeing, Tullis says. She adds that talking about death also helps us make sense of it when it does touch our lives — and can better equip us to help others in our community make sense of it when it touches theirs, Kortes-Miller says.
By normalizing death, we can also begin learning more about what it’s like and talking to our loved ones about what we expect from them in the process, and vice-versa, Kortes-Miller says. This way, once we reach that point and can’t speak for ourselves, our loved ones can make important decisions — such as whether to pursue aggressive treatment or how to dispose of our bodies — based on what we actually want, not what they think we want, and we can do the same for them. “Nobody likes to think about dying and being sick,” Kortes-Miller says. But discussing these topics, however painful and difficult, can in fact be “a gift to the people we love.”
If you think death positivity could help you live your best life, here’s how to start embracing some of its tenets:
Take time to reflect
Figuring out your dying wishes may seem scary and depressing, but asking yourself the two questions Kortes-Miller suggests could help you ease into it: 1) What would you be willing to sacrifice in terms of quality of life for quantity of life? and 2) What are your non-negotiables — the important things about how you live now that you wouldn’t be willing to give up? Delicious food? Your memory? Your independence?
Start having conversations with the people closest to you
While self-reflection is important, the main goal of death positivity is to normalize death by having conversations about it, Kortes-Miller says. She suggests swapping stories about death with a good friend or partner. You could start by talking about the first time you learned about death and the message it conveyed to you. How do you want to use, and even disrupt, that message?
If that feels uncomfortable, starting with someone else’s story might be easier. A TV episode or a case you hear about on the news, like that of Brittany Maynard, who chose to end her life in 2014 after being diagnosed with terminal brain cancer, could act as a springboard, Tullis says.
Add some death-positive books to your reading list. Kortes-Miller suggests Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End and Katherine Mannix’s With the End in Mind: Dying, Death, and Wisdom in an Age of Denial.
Attend a death positive event, or host your own
Check out a Death Cafe or other event in your area that encourages conversations about death. And just because it’s death-focused doesn’t necessarily mean the vibe will be all doom and gloom. Death Cafes, for instance, “often have cake and interesting people,” Tullis says, and Kortes-Millers notes that Die-algoues events are often abuzz with conversation and laughter.
You could also host your own death party. Some of Tullis’s friends get together to play Morbid Curiosity, a board game that features trivia and conversation cards about, well, death. One card, for instance, asks players, “If you could come back as a ghost, who would you haunt? What are the rules to haunting?” “You don’t’ have to go out and plan your funeral if you’re not there yet, but you can do little things that are fun and a little bit enjoyable,” Tullis says. In the end, death may really be only as scary as we make it out to be.
Complete Article ↪HERE↩!
No thanks, I’d rather learn not to fear death.
Herodotus, in the 5th century B.C., recorded an account of a race of people in northern Africa who, according to local lore, never seemed to age. Their secret, he wrote, was a fountain of youth in which they would bathe, emerging with “their flesh all glossy and sleek.” Legend has it that two millennia later, Spanish explorers searched for a similar restorative fountain off the coast of Florida.
We are still searching for the fountain of youth today. Instead of a fountain, however, it is a medical breakthrough, and instead of youth, we seek “transhumanism,” the secret to solving the problem of death by transcending ordinary physical and mental limitations. Many people believe this is possible. Observing a doubling of the average life span over the past century or so through science, people ask why another doubling is not possible. And if it is, whether there might be some “escape velocity” that could definitively end the aging of our cells while we also cure deadly diseases
Lest you think this concept is limited to snake-oil salesmen and science-fiction writers, the idea that aging is not inevitable is now in the mainstream of modern medical research at major institutions around the world. The journal Nature dubbed research from the University of California at Los Angeles a “hint that the body’s ‘biological age’ can be reversed.” According to reporting by Scientific American on research at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies: “Aging Is Reversible — at Least in Human Cells and Live Mice.”
The promise to end old age is exciting and mind-boggling, of course. But it raises a question: Why would we want to defeat old age and its lethal result? After all, as writer Susan Ertz wryly observed in her 1943 novel “Anger in the Sky,” “Millions long for immortality who don’t know what to do with themselves on a rainy Sunday afternoon.
Your boring Sundays notwithstanding, perhaps you think it’s obvious that getting old and dying are bad. “The idea of death, the fear of it, haunts the human animal like nothing else,” anthropologist Ernest Becker wrote in his 1973 book, “The Denial of Death.” Why else would we willingly put up with a medical system that seemingly will spend any sum to keep us alive for a few extra days or weeks?
It is strange that the most ordinary fact of life — its ending — would provoke such terror. Some chalk it up to what Cambridge University philosopher Stephen Cave calls the “mortality paradox” in his excellent 2012 book, “Immortality: The Quest to Live Forever and How It Drives Civilization.” While death is inevitable, it also seems impossible insofar as we cannot conceive of not existing. This creates an unresolvable, unbearable cognitive dissonance. Some have tried to resolve it with logic, such as the ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus’ observation that “death, the most terrifying of ills, is nothing to us, since so long as we exist, death is not with us; but when death comes, then we do not exist.”
Transhumanism responds, “Whatever, let’s just avoid that whole second scenario.”
Another argument for transhumanism is less philosophical and more humanitarian. We think avoidable deaths are a tragedy, don’t we? Well, if most of the 27 million annual worldwide deaths of people age 70 and over could be somehow avoided, wouldn’t that put them in the category of “tragedy”? Shouldn’t we fight like crazy to avoid them?
While the transhumanism movement is making progress, it isn’t without its skeptics. Some don’t think it will ever work the way we want it to, because it asks science to turn back a natural process of aging that has an uncountable number of manifestations. Critics of anti-aging research envision any number of dystopian futures, in which we defeat many of the causes of death before very old age, leaving only the most ghastly and intractable — but not directly lethal — maladies.
Imagine making it possible to cure or treat most communicable diseases and many conditions and cancers that were once a death sentence, but leaving the worst sort of dementias to ravage our brains and torment our loved ones. Wait, we don’t just have to imagine that, do we? As Cave puts it, we are “not so much living longer as dying slower.” Will transhumanism inadvertently bring us more of this?
No one can say conclusively where the transhumanist movement will go, or whether it will ultimately change the conception of living and dying in the coming decades. One way or another, however, I think we could productively use a parallel movement to transhumanism: one that seeks to transcend our limited understanding and acceptance of death, and the fact that without the reality of life’s absence, we cannot understand life in the first place. We might call this movement “transmortalism.”
Of course, a huge amount of work to understand death has gone on over the millennia and starts with the straightforward observation that confronting the reality of death is the best way to strip it of its terror. An example is maranasati, the Buddhist practice of meditating on the prospect of one’s own corpse in various states of decomposition. “This body, too,” the monks recite, “such is its nature, such is its future, such its unavoidable fate.”
Frightening? Far from it. Such exposure provokes what psychologists call “desensitization,” in which repeated contact makes something previously frightening or foreign seem quite ordinary. Think of the fear of death like a simple phobia. If you are afraid of heights, the solution might be, little by little, to look over the edge. As the 16th-century French essayist Michel de Montaigne wrote of death, “Let us disarm him of his novelty and strangeness, let us converse and be familiar with him, and have nothing so frequent in our thoughts as death.”
Perhaps while we wait for the promises of transhumanism, we should hedge our bets with a bit of transmortalism, which has the side benefit of costing us no money. Who knows? Maybe the solution to the problem of death comes not by pushing it further away but, ironically, by bringing it much closer.
Complete Article ↪HERE↩!
How Horror Movies Prepare Us to Talk About Death
“Most things will be okay eventually, but not everything will be. Sometimes you’ll put up a good fight and lose. Sometimes you’ll hold on really hard and realize there is no choice but to let go. Acceptance is a small, quiet room.”
“That it will never come again makes life so sweet.”–Emily Dickinson
There are a lot of uncertainties in life, but the only constant and known fact is that we all die. Despite this collective, inevitable experience that will eventually happen to everyone on the planet, we tend to avoid this fact altogether. It’s a painful topic, death. A fickle, unfair shadow that situates itself deep in the recesses of our minds; and when brought to the forefront, it usually initiates debilitating emotions and forces actions that the majority of us are not prepared to deal with. Our affairs are not in order; our options for burials are limited and at the mercy of a funeral director; and we are forced to make finite decisions while experiencing agonizing grief. Despite our culture’s adoration for Halloween and horror films, death is still a subject that many prefer to view as an abstract concept. It’s cathartic and safe to embrace the grim reaper within a holiday or cinematic context, but when it comes to our own mortality we recoil at the thought.
Over the past few years, thoughts about burial practices, death preparation, and the acceptance of the horror genre have been progressively evolving. 2018 was the first time that more Americans decided to choose cremation over more expensive burials. Alternative death options are becoming more widely accepted and advanced to not only alleviate the pain for loved ones, but to help reduce damage to the planet while nourishing the growth of new life through one’s passing. Additionally, the horror genre is thriving. Jordan Peele’s Get Out won an Oscar for best original screenplay in 2018; there are continuous remakes of classic genre films like IT and Pet Sematary; and numerous children’s films that lean into the spooky fascination with death such as Goosebumps and most recently Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark are all becoming more mainstream.
In his book Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, author Alvin Schwartz wrote “don’t you ever laugh as the hearse goes by, for you may be the next to die”, a line that is part of “The Hearse Song”. His trilogy of terror aimed at children was filled with creepy folklore tales and grim illustrations courtesy of artist Stephen Gammell. Straight-forward and blunt, Schwartz was revolutionary in his approach to conveying curiosities revolving around death for those at a young age. Through lore that spanned cultures across the world, he was able to shine light on a dark subject that many parents censor their children from entirely. However, this type of censorship ultimately does not help children. Just like Disney fairytales of a happy ending where the good guy always wins and true love is everlasting, it isn’t reality.
And yet, our society as a whole refuses to address the inevitable truths of life, death, heartbreak, and loss which inadequately and falsely prepare us for the day that we meet these experiences. In the film adaptation of Schwartz’s classic books, there’s a familiar storyline that accompanies haunted locations—the misinterpretation of the past and inflamed legacy of an individual who has passed away. Scary Stories features a character by the name of Sarah Bellows depicted as a sinister spirit who wreaks havoc on a group of friends once her book of self-written stories is stolen. In the end, young protagonist Stella addresses Sarah’s ghost and tells her that she will write her story the way it really was and let everyone know what really happened to her. This is a prime example of reclaiming one’s death (and life) in a manner they choose – a concept that is becoming more commonplace in the funeral industry and is a staple within the Death Positive Movement.
The average American funeral costs $8,000-$10,000, not including the burial and cemetery price tags. Many of the decisions around funeral preparation are made after a loved one dies. As a result, individuals are more easily taken advantage of and choose the most expensive and standard options not knowing for sure what their loved ones preferred to do with their remains, or if there are even alternatives. HBO’s new insightful and tender documentary Alternate Endings: Six New Ways To Die In America aims to introduce viewers to options that may be a better financial, emotional, and environmental fit for their death and the death of their loved ones. The documentary opens with scenes from the National Funeral Directors Association’s (NFDA) annual convention where hundreds gather to display and learn about the latest advancements or trends in the funeral industry. Companies offer the service of decorating personalized caskets, hologram eulogies, and even submerging one’s ashes in the dirt of their native homeland.
The six alternate endings mentioned in the documentary include: a memorial reef burial, living wake, green burial, space burial, “medical aid in dying” (MAID), and a celebration of life. The memorial reef, green, and space burials are all alternate options within the realm of a standard cremation or grave burial. Memorial Reef International builds artificial coral reefs to enhance coral generation, increase marine biomass, and provide eco-friendly alternatives that sustain life for hundreds of years. Another eco-friendly option is the green burial which skips the casket entirely as the body is wrapped in a shroud and placed directly into the earth. This method also bypasses the expensive cost of cement vaults in a standard cemetery which are just meant to keep the grounds even and easier for the landscapers to mow the grass.
As the effects of climate change grow increasingly dire, more and more people seek ways to give their bodies back to the earth to sustain new growth. Water cremation or aquamation is a form of green cremation which does not emit toxic chemicals nor does it contribute to greenhouse gases. Its carbon footprint is one-tenth of what fire-based cremations produce. In an article by National Geographic, it states “American funerals are responsible each year for the felling of 30 million board feet of casket wood (some of which comes from tropical hardwoods), 90,000 tons of steel, 1.6 million tons of concrete for burial vaults, and 800,000 gallons of embalming fluid. Even cremation is an environmental horror story, with the incineration process emitting many a noxious substance, including dioxin, hydrochloric acid, sulfur dioxide, and climate-changing carbon dioxide.”
The traditional ritualistic aspect of funerals is also evolving. A terminally ill couple in Alternate Endings chooses to have a living wake, a celebration where loved ones and friends are able to say goodbye in person. By embracing their mortality, they’re allowing those close to them to say their final words and experience the appreciation of their life that they may not have realized had they kept their death at a distance. It’s a way to say how much you love someone to their face before you no longer have the chance. Living wakes are performed while the person is still alive and celebrations of life occur after someone has passed. After losing their five-year-old son, two parents in the documentary decide to fulfill their child’s wishes by throwing a party in his honor complete with five bounce houses, painting stations, and an appearance from Batman himself. Even at five, their son realized how sad funerals can be and facing his own death, he specifically requested he not have one.
Now, if someone as young as five years old can embrace their mortality and make a decision about his passing, then why is it so hard for adults? There’s a stigma around death and it is easier to just ignore it as long as possible, but in the end, doing so can be detrimental. In fact, thinking about death can be a positive and productive practice. Mortician Caitlin Doughty understands this and set out to change the way we view death by creating the Death Positive Movement through her work with The Order of the Good Death. “The Order is about making death a part of your life. Staring down your death fears—whether it be your own death, the death of those you love, the pain of dying, the afterlife (or lack thereof), grief, corpses, bodily decomposition, or all of the above. Accepting that death itself is natural, but the death anxiety of modern culture is not.” This is achieved through various resources and advocacy. The name may sound like a cult, but I assure you it’s not.
In her book, Smoke Gets in Your Eyes, she describes her idea of a “good death” as being prepared to die, with affairs in order, the good and bad messages delivered, dying while the mind is sharp, and dying without large amounts of suffering and pain. It means accepting death as inevitable as opposed to fighting it when the time comes. Therefore, she has collaborated with an array of funeral industry professionals, academics, and artists to provide the best resources possible including information on end of life planning, green burial technology, as well as methods on how to alter our innate fear of death that has only been enhanced through recent (and unfortunately perpetual) devastating events in the news.
While the horror genre provides viewers the chance to vicariously experience our fear of death in a safe, dissociative capacity, there are now more resources and options than ever before to help us face the inevitable. Instead of solely harnessing terror and sadness, there are ways to find beauty and inspiration in death. As Kafka said, “The meaning of life is that it ends.” Welcoming our mortality allows us to cherish people more because we don’t know how much time we’ll have with them. It is the driving force behind learning, loving, creating, and achieving what we want out of life. While death can be its own scary story, at least there’s comfort in knowing that it is something we will all face one day and there is some control you can have over the process as well as one’s legacy. And when that fateful day comes, let it be the good death you’d want for yourself and those you love, with plenty of peace and the least amount of pain and regret as possible.
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