Death, Be Not Proud:

Literary Lessons on Death and Dying

Rituals like funerals, now less common, used to help us deal with death.

By Jeff Minick

For over three decades, Reverend F. Washington Jarvis served as headmaster of Boston’s Roxbury Latin School, the oldest school in continuous existence in North America. During this time, Jarvis delivered a series of addresses to the student body, the best of which were collected in “With Love and Prayers: A Headmaster Speaks to the Next Generation.” For a number of years, I taught “With Love and Prayers” to high schoolers and found that both parents and students valued the book for its wisdom, wit, and moral lessons.

In his chapter “The Spiritual Dimension,” Jarvis relates this anecdote to the young men in his charge:

The celebrated headmaster of Eton College, Cyril Alington, was once approached by an aggressive mother. He did not suffer fools gladly.
“Are you preparing Henry for a political career?” she asked Alington.
“No,” he said.
“Well, for a professional career?
“No,” he replied.
“For a business career, then?”
“No,” he repeated.
“Well, in a word, Dr. Alington, what are you here at Eton preparing Henry for?”
“In a word, madam? Death.”

As Jarvis then points out, the principal mission of Roxbury Latin is to prepare its students for life. “And,” he goes on, “the starting point of that preparation is the reality that life is short and ends in death.”

These few lines bring much to consider. Do we aim at getting our young people into “good” schools while neglecting to instill in them the classical virtues? Do we recognize that “life is short and ends in death”? If so, what outlook on the world should such a truth inculcate?

Before seeking answers to these questions, we must recognize that our ancestors were more familiar with death than we moderns. They lived among the sick and dying in ways we do not, and were forced to deal with circumstances that today are the domain of our health professionals. Victorian poetry, for example, is a thicket of verse about death and dying.

We are more distant from the dying. Low infant mortality rates have thankfully removed many of us from witnessing those tragedies, and though a majority of Americans want to die at home, only 20 percent do so.

Lacking this intimacy with the death of earlier generations, we may, if we wish greater familiarity, turn to literature, Victorian or otherwise. Stories and poems can give us intimate portraits of the hope and the despair, the joy and the sorrow, the courage and fear of the dying and those who surround them.

Let’s look at four novels in which the characters exit this earth in dramatically different ways. Each of them offers a lesson on death.

‘The Death of Ivan Ilyich’

Portrait of Leo Tolstoy, 1887, by Ilya Repin. Oil on canvas. Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow.

In “The Death of Ivan Ilyich,” Leo Tolstoy’s novella and perhaps the greatest of all fictional meditations on the debt we owe to nature, Ivan Ilyich lies on his deathbed wondering whether he has lived a good life.

As doubts fill him, and as death creeps ever closer, he suddenly realizes that “though his life had not been what it should have been, this could still be rectified.” In his last hours, he is flooded with sorrow and pity for the son and wife he has neglected, and though they cannot understand him when he begs their forgiveness, he dies “knowing that He whose understanding mattered would understand.”

Ivan Ilyich goes to his grave in peace, knowing the truth of Katharine Tynan’s lines from “The Great Mercy”: “Betwixt the saddle and the ground/was mercy sought and mercy found.”

Here Tolstoy reminds us that even on our deathbed, we may yet clear our conscience and set right those things that we have done or failed to do.

‘Kristin Lavransdatter’

Sigrid Undset as a girl. The Noble Prize-winning novelist wrote a trilogy called “Kristen Lavransdatter.”

In Sigrid Undset’s trilogy of medieval Norway, “Kristin Lavransdatter,” we discover the importance of ritual in death. The Christian injunction “To bury the dead” means more than tumbling a corpse into a grave, covering it over with earth, and moving on. During the long death of Kristin’s father, Lavrans, the neighbors visit, the priest performs the last rites, a vigil is held after Lavrans breathes his last, and later there is a feast to celebrate his memory.

From Kristin and her kin, we moderns might learn once again how to “bury the dead.” More and more, I hear of people and know a few of them who when a loved one dies, conduct no ritual of passage, no funeral, no memorial service. An obituary may appear in the paper, or not, but otherwise the survivors put the deceased into the grave or columbarium without ceremony.

With this practice, we fail to realize that we have cheated ourselves of the comfort of a formal farewell and have tarnished our humanity in the bargain.

‘A Tale of Two Cities’

In “A Tale of Two Cities,” Charles Dickens puts Sydney Carton, a barrister, an alcoholic, and a cynic, onto the platform of a guillotine after Carton nobly takes the place of another man sentenced to die by execution. Carton’s thoughts before the fall of the blade bring him solace: “It is a far, far better thing I do than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.”

From Carton, we receive a lesson in courage when faced with death.

‘Little Women’

Louisa May Alcott, the author of “Little Women,” wrote one of the most heartrending death scenes in all of English literature. In the story, based on her own life, she describes the death of her dear sister Beth.

Of course, as Louisa May Alcott notes in “Little Women,” “Seldom except in books do the dying utter memorable words, see visions, or depart with beatified countenances …”

In describing the passing of young Beth March, whose “end comes as naturally and simply as sleep,” Alcott shows her readers that, like Sydney Carton, those who die possess the power to bequeath gifts to the living. Before she slips into the shadows, Beth reads some lines written by her beloved sister Jo. And she realizes that her illness and impending death have caused Jo, her caretaker, to grow and mature, and to take from her lessons in bravery and her “cheerful, uncomplaining spirit in its prison-house of pain.”

Like in these novels, the loved ones with whom I have sat while they closed their eyes and faded away have given me instruction. Perhaps the best of these teachers was my mother, who died from cancer 30 years ago. In her final lesson—perhaps her greatest lesson—she taught me and my brothers and sisters by way of example how to die with grace and courage.

If I find myself in my mother’s circumstances, with time to bid goodbye to those I love, and if I possess even half of her strength, I will die a fortunate man.

Complete Article HERE!

Working Too Hard For A Good Death

Has Competitive Dying Become A Thing?

By Howard Gleckman

We Americans love to compete. We bet in March Madness office pools on who will win the annual college basketball championship. We pay a pretty penny for the best manicured lawn in the neighborhood or the biggest flat screen in the condo.  Some of us will pay bribes to get our kids into the best colleges.

And, now it seems, there is a growing need to compete over who will have the best death. You know, the one where we are at home, pain-free but alert, surrounded by our loving families, singing our favorite songs, fully at ease with our last moments of mortal life.

For many of us, the reality will be quite different. Despite everyone’s best efforts, we may die in a hospital. The kids may not make it in time from their homes in LA or Chicago. The medications that relieve our pain may also slow our thinking. And we may not have resolved all those family issues that lingered inexplicably for decades.

More guilt

What’s troubling about this drive for a good death (or, perhaps in our competitive world, the best death) is that many of us never will achieve it—often for reasons out of our control. And that may leave our surviving loved ones with an even bigger sense of guilt than they already have. And paradoxically, those who cared the most may end up feeling the most guilty and depressed.

Failing at some ideal of death may even make dying more difficult. Dr. Andreas Laupacis, a palliative care physician and professor of medicine at the University of Toronto, shared this concern in a wise 2018 essay about the idea of good death: “I worry that the term makes people who die with pain or psychological distress think that it is partially their fault…. They haven’t tried hard enough or aren’t tough enough.”

He even suggests it may add to the psychological burden of their doctors: “I worry that health care practitioners who have provided their best possible care will feel inadequate.”

A good life

Just as troubling: An excessive focus on the last hours of life shifts attention from the months or even years before that. Many older adults will die after living a long time with chronic conditions. It would be nice, as we focus on a good death, if we also think about a good life, especially during the time when it may include some level of disability.

The idea of competitive dying may be counterproductive in part because there is no true good death. Or rather, there are millions of them. For decades, clinicians have tried, and largely failed, to establish some agreed-upon norms. And researchers have no real idea how many people do in fact die a good death, by whatever measure.

Physicians and surviving family members, it turns out, often have different ideas of a good death than those who are doing the dying. For example, family members are much more likely than patients to say that maintaining dignity is important at the end of life.

But this uncertainty isn’t slowing us down. Google “good death” and you’ll get 1.97 million hits. Search Amazon, and you’ll find dozens of books. Bloggers blog on their own impending deaths or that of their relatives. A 2016 literature review turned about three dozen peer reviewed articles on what constitutes “successful dying.”

Better to watch a sunset

One Amazon reviewer wrote that she had read 60 books on a good death to prepare for her own passing. I don’t know if she was living with a terminal disease or just thinking way ahead. But I can’t help but wonder if her time would have been better spent watching a sunset, going to a concert, or having dinner with friends instead of being so focused on how to do death right.

This trend is by no means all bad. We are thinking—and talking—about a topic that for too long has been taboo in the US. But like those parents who were bribing college officials to get their children into the best schools, we may be going overboard. And we may be setting unrealistic, and counterproductive, expectations for ourselves and our families.

We absolutely should be proactive when it comes to preparing advanced directives, choosing health care proxies, and talking to one another about death. Especially talking. But we also need to recognize that, sometimes, circumstances mean that many of us will die alone, or in some pain, or with unresolved family issues. All we can do is our best. And nobody should be keeping score.

Complete Article HERE!

Obituaries are the only redemptive news anymore

By Philip Kennicott

Toni Morrison is dead. So are D.A. Pennebaker and Aretha Franklin, and Philip Roth, Stephen Hawking, Ursula K. Le Guin, Milos Forman and too many others to name, even when limited to artists and writers who have perished in the past few years alone. By some accounts, two people die every second, thousands every hour, tens of millions every year. But at this moment in American life, the death of our best people has become a collective lifeline and refuge for our anxieties. It sometimes seems that the obituary is the only news that makes us feel whole.

Morrison was our essential conscience, a writer of narrative brilliance and moral clarity. The magnitude of her loss, at this moment in our descent into barbarism, is incalculable. But to spend time today with her work, with memories of her life and the testimony of those who knew her, is infinitely more rewarding than reading about all the other terrible things that have happened in the past few days. The deaths of artists and other creators make us reflective, and we live at a moment when looking back is much easier than looking forward.

We also crave the reassurance that we are not, as a species, entirely spent. Morrison died only days after two mass shootings, which are not only a regular fixture of American life, but also a recurring reminder of our political paralysis and the corruption of our democracy. We are in the midst of a trade war, markets have plunged, Greenland is hemorrhaging ice and our president tweets racism to inflame a hungry audience of white nationalists who dream of a world without people like Morrison in it.

Death and remembrance, at least, come with the customs and norms that have been shredded in most of the rest of public life. If nothing else, death still inspires a pause in ordinary life and, in the case of artists, a respectful consideration of their habitually ignored accomplishments. The reflective look back on a life and a body of work such as Morrison’s is ultimately celebratory, a chance to think the best of another person and, by extension, ourselves. Artists, performers, scientists, writers and other creators rarely “make news” in the same way politicians do, even though their influence on our culture is greater, deeper and more meaningful. The obituary is a belated observation and acknowledgment that people like Morrison, in fact, made news every day through their work. They formed the deeper part of the minds that our pollsters seek to measure and quantify in the frenzied haste of the news cycle. They are the atmosphere of American culture, while all else is merely weather.

Obituaries are a paradox of sorts, a distraction toward meaningfulness, a diversion to what really matters. The response to the rest of the news is often an impulse to escapism, a turning away. But while Morrison shares space with the usual firehouse of bad news, her passing offers at least one impulse to go deeper, to read more, dig in, think more critically and disconnect from the ephemera. Obituaries like the ones that have been written about her in the past day are even better than the usual “good” news, which is often little more than a reminder that somewhere, somehow, someone has done an unnecessary kindness; obituaries are redemptive on a grander scale.

We seem capable of only two modes of existence: panic and sadness, the former fast-paced and full of collateral damage to the world around us, the latter at least sometimes constructive and reflective. America has experienced periods of intense reflection around death in the past, as when the last remaining veterans of the Revolutionary War were dying in the middle of the 19th century, leaving people to wonder whether there were any steady voices and clear heads to steer us away from, or through, the accumulation of civil strife and political violence. The deaths of those who fought in World War II offered an occasion to think about the fraying of the old 20th-century social contract, the dissolution of the bond between the generations enshrined in key social-welfare programs, and the extinction of American optimism — that we might live in a society without poverty, without unnecessary suffering, with genuine opportunity and social mobility.

But the death of an artist is different from the loss of political leaders, no matter how wise or benevolent, or the larger passing of a generation, which has continued since the beginning of time. Morrison’s work remains with us, intractable, urgent and uncompromising, and it is no less effective today than it was on Monday. It is curious to listen to people on television debating the effectiveness of this policy or that plan, often arguing themselves into the absurdity that because nothing has yet worked, therefore nothing new should be attempted.

Meanwhile, the work of artists outlives them, operating on minds too young to be cynical. Politicians die and, if they’re lucky, are memorialized for having fixed something in the broken world they inherited. Artists die, and we flock to what they left behind, reanimating it, refreshing its meaning and reincorporating it into the body politic.

If you want to change the world, authentically and for the better, would you live your life like a politician, or a businessman, or a pharmaceutical executive or Donald Trump? Or would you live it like Toni Morrison?

When your time is up, I hope you drop like the dead donkey

The sooner we realise we are all going to die the better – it gives us time to get used to the idea

‘It took the death of a neighbour down the road when I was in my 20s to make me realise that one day I myself would die.’

by Padraig O’Morain

The first time I experienced death as real was when I watched a donkey being put down at the crossroads beside the farm I grew up in.

I was probably about seven or eight at the time. The donkey had been around for a few days and nobody knew where she had come from.

Somebody got in touch with somebody and a man came out from Naas to deal with the situation. He must have come to our house first because I remember following him up to the crossroads.

He stopped in front of the donkey and quietly took the humane killer, as it is called, out of a bag. This instrument is like a gun that drives a spike into the brain. He patted the donkey’s head, put the humane killer against her forehead, and killed her.

I’ve always remembered that the donkey was dead when she hit the ground.

I don’t know what happened next. I suppose the man went off, that I inspected the donkey, that the kennels of the Kildare Hunt took her away to feed hounds. That was how we got rid of dead cattle and other large animals.

Spread a tablecloth by the graveside, bring a picnic basket with the cucumber sandwiches, the homemade apple tart, the wine and the lemonade and enjoy

I was no stranger to animals dying, and every year we killed turkeys for the Christmas market. I was able to approach these deaths in a pragmatic manner.

What had really struck me about the donkey was that she died as she fell. I had never realised how quickly life could disappear.

Shortly after the death of the donkey, I found two white candles wrapped up inside a drawer in a sideboard in our gloomy sitting room.

I immediately assumed the candles were for use when either of my parents died.

In all probability, the candles had been put aside for a power cut but, as I say, the room was gloomy. Also, the sideboard has come from a priest’s house in Allenwood where, some years previously, a maidservant was possessed by the Devil. She had had to be exorcised to stop her breaking plates and furniture and terrifying the priest. We called the sideboard “the Devil’s sideboard” and we imagined Satan was inside.

Gloomiest possible conclusion

So it’s understandable I came to the gloomiest possible conclusion.

But that realisation – and I still recall the chill of it – was about the death of other people. It took the death of a neighbour down the road when I was in my 20s to make me realise that one day I myself would die.

This realisation comes to everybody sooner or later and I think sooner is better than later. It gives you time to get used to the idea. It becomes like a shadow, sometimes behind you and sometimes in front of you but you get used to it. I suspect if it comes too late in life it can hit hard, shattering your protective illusion that death happens to the rest of humanity but not to you.

I was led to these thoughts by Laura Kennedy’s recent article in The Irish Times in which she advised that the inevitability of death should motivate us to get on (within reason) with what we want to do.

I agree with her and I would add two points. First, it’s okay to be afraid of dying because to be unafraid of dying is not natural.

Second, if you want to get more out of life, remember that you don’t have to go skydiving, mountain-climbing or jet-skiing unless you want to. For some, going to the movies once a week would make a really big difference to their quality of life. For others, to make a difference, they might have to sail around the world. One type of person is not better than another type of person.

So spread a tablecloth by the graveside, bring a picnic basket with the cucumber sandwiches, the homemade apple tart, the wine and the lemonade and enjoy. And when the time comes I wish you as quick a step out of this world as the donkey had.

Complete Article HERE!

End of Life Mitzvahs

by Rabbi Ron Isaacs

In recent months, I read a very powerful piece in The New York Times that detailed the last day in the life of President George H. W. Bush. It described how in the last week of the president’s life he had stopped eating and was mostly sleeping.

His longtime friend and colleague, James Baker visited him frequently in his last days, and was there when he passed away. Baker described how, at the end, he held Bush’s hand and rubbed his feet.

The former president died in his home, surrounded by several friends, family members, doctors and a minister. As the end neared, his son George W. Bush, also a former president, who was at his own home in Dallas, Texas, was put on speaker phone to say goodbye.

He told his father that he had been a “wonderful dad” and that he loved him. “I love you too,” Bush told his son. And those were his final words.

Bush’s doctor described how everyone present knelt around the president and placed their hands on him and prayed for him. It was a very graceful and gentle death, accompanied by loved ones who gathered in the intimacy of his home in Houston.

For almost four years now, I have been privileged to visit nursing homes, assisted living facilities and private homes to sing and play music for people in hospice under the title of my role as “Chords of Comfort.” I also make visits as a hospice chaplain.

On some days, my patients are alert and able to converse with me. On others, they lie in bed unable to speak and sometimes sleep.

On such occasions, I sit by their bedside and just keep them company. Sometimes a family member or two is present when I visit.

Several years ago when I arrived to visit a certain patient, I was surprised to find members of her family singing and playing guitar while the patient, who could not speak, moved her head rhythmically back and forth.

One of her youngest grandchildren had flown all the way from San Francisco, Calif. to New Jersey just to sing for her great grandmother. It was obvious that the singing and playing brought great comfort and pleasure to her.

When the family asked me to join in with my guitar, it became clear to me that we all were feeling spiritually uplifted by the beautiful music that we created together.

There is a rabbi who directs a Jewish-end-of-life care/hospice volunteer program. As part of his training program, the rabbi asks the volunteers to reflect on a moment when they were in need of someone to be present for them.

One man related the story of his bicycle accident when a stranger sat silently with him on the curb until the ambulance arrived. Another volunteer described how her grandmother sat knitting in the corner of the hospital’s delivery room throughout her three-day-long labor.

What both of these stories have in common is the power of someone simply being present for another person.

Chaplaincy – spiritual care – is all about accompanying another person while being fully present. It is all about trying to ensure that there will be times during the day when a patient is not left alone and has someone by their side.

Even when someone’s life is transitioning, healing of spirit is possible until the very last breath. It is especially at these times when our very presence can raise their spirits, which not only benefits them, but also us.

Being present and ensuring that no one is left alone is an incredible act of kindness and a supreme act of holiness. In the Jewish faith, it is considered a “mitzvah,” a religious obligation. 

I hope that you will consider ways that you can help reduce isolation for those who are alone and provide them with “accompaniment.” Let us continue to find ways to be fully present for members of our own family and for those in the wider community who will benefit from our companionship and just “being there for them.”

Perhaps you may wish to consider committing to one specific act of accompaniment each month that will lift the heart and brighten the spirit of someone else – and probably do the same for us.

Complete Article HERE!

Welcome to the Departure Lounge.

Destination: death

Ricky Gervais with Penelope Wilton in the Netflix series After Life.

By

Images of sandy beaches, sun-kissed swimming pools and azure blue skies gleam from the window and walls of what appears to be a new travel agent opening in a London shopping centre. But browsers may be surprised by the destination, for it is a journey every one of us will one day take: death.

Look more closely at the posters and it becomes clear that the words are all about “passing away” (half of British adults prefer to avoid the word “death”, apparently). The Departure Lounge, in Lewisham, south London, is the brainchild of the Academy of Medical Sciences, whose mission is to promote biomedical and health research. Death, it turns out, is one of the most under-researched areas in healthcare, accounting for less than half of 1% of money spent.

The idea of the Departure Lounge, explains the academy’s president Professor Sir Robert Lechler, is to enable visitors to ask any questions they might have about the dying process, and also to collect ideas and experiences that could inform future research. “The best time to have conversations about death probably isn’t when you’re confronting it, but well before,” he said. Which is why a shopping centre was deemed an appropriate location – the hope is that the Departure Lounge will attract people who might not be regular visitors to science museums.

Death has been a zeitgeist subject for some years now – witness the Death Café phenomenon, the growth of conferences and books on dying and TV series like the recent Ricky Gervais Netflix comedy After Life. But, says Lechler, the conversation is becoming more urgent. Put simply, there’s more of it about. “Between now and 2040 we’ll see an increase of 25% in the number of deaths per year,” he said. And it’s more than numbers: the run-up to dying is different. “We’re living longer, and the context of death is changing. Longer life means we accumulate more long-term conditions, and people tend to be frail for longer,” he said. “The risk is that people are going to die badly, as opposed to dying well.”

Dr Katherine Sleeman, a palliative care consultant at the Cicely Saunders Institute at King’s College London and a member of the advisory group behind the Departure Lounge, says patients often want to talk about death. “People call it the last taboo, but that’s not my experience. Healthcare professionals can be fearful about raising the subject, but I find patients are often relieved when it’s mentioned. They know they’re dying, and they want to talk about it.”

Also much misunderstood, she says, is that palliative care, far from spelling the end, can mean much better outcomes. “Research shows that when provided early, palliative care is associated with fewer hospital admissions, better pain relief and lower financial costs to the NHS,” she said. “I always say that my aim isn’t to help you live longer, it’s to help you live better.”

On hand will be guides including Yvonne Oakes, a former palliative care nurse who now works as a “soul midwife” or end-of-life doula, supporting patients and their families. In her experience, many people have had negative experiences of death with relatives, and assume that when their time comes isolation, pain and discomfort will be inevitable. That, she says, simply isn’t true. “There is definitely such a thing as a good death. It comes mostly, I believe, from accepting death rather than struggling against it.” And The Departure Lounge, she hopes, will enable people to start to think about acceptance of death, “in a non-threatening, and unforced, way.”

Research into dying, says Sleeman, really matters and can make a real difference. “Many people, and that includes doctors and academics, say: what’s the point of research if it’s not going to prolong life? But that isn’t the point. Quality is crucial: research is quite clear that most people would choose quality of life over length of life.”

The Departure Lounge is supported by the Health Foundation and Wellcome Trust; more information at departure-lounge.org

Top tips for a good death

Remember this is your death: it’s OK to think about what you really want and don’t want, and be clear about it.

Don’t be afraid to ask for help, and to accept help if it’s offered and you want it. You don’t have to struggle on alone.

Make amends for past hurts and disappointments. Some people write letters – you don’t have to post them.

Consider making a death plan, which is the life-end equivalent of a birth plan. Where would you like to die? Who do you want with you – and who do you not want there? Would you like music to be playing? Do you want to avoid attempts to resuscitate you?

Be aware that death involves loss, so there is inevitably going to be emotional pain, both for you and for those you love. But that doesn’t mean you can’t look for the joys in life, even as your health deteriorates. Life can have meaning and enjoyment right up to the end.

Yvonne Oakes

Complete Article HERE!

A 16th-Century Manual on How to Die, and What it Teaches Us About Life

Michel de Montaigne urged Western culture to think and talk more about death, but Western culture still hasn’t listened

By Rachel Ashcroft

In his three-volume collection of Essays (1580), the French thinker Michel de Montaigne (1533–1592) famously declared that the best way to prepare for death was to think about it constantly. “Let us have nothing so much in minde as death. At the stumbling of a horse, at the fall of a stone, at the least prick with a pinne, let us presently ruminate and say with our selves, what if it were death it selfe?” Montaigne advised that we must contemplate death at every turn and in doing so, we make ourselves ready for it in the most productive way possible. On a more personal note, I managed to achieve this by spending four years writing a Ph.D. thesis on Montaigne’s work, a task which forced me to contemplate death every single day.

Arguably every Ph.D. dissertation carries with it a certain amount of doom and gloom at some point or other, especially during the last few months of writing up. But studying time in Montaigne’s work meant being constantly steeped in his musings and recollections on how ancient philosophers viewed suicide, or the history of funeral practices in Western Europe. By the time I had finished, I was sure Montaigne was wrong, and that in fact I should never think about death again. The stress and anxiety surrounding my submission date meant that the words of a 16th century nobleman concerning the nature of death were low on my list of priorities. And yet on reflection, thanks to Montaigne and his open and honest approach to mortality, thinking about death has actually taught me a lot about how to live.

Thanks to Montaigne and his open and honest approach to mortality, thinking about death has actually taught me a lot about how to live.

Despite what many of us may think in today’s society, talking about death on a regular basis doesn’t have to be scary or morbid. In fact, it can actually make us feel a much deeper connection to the natural world that simultaneously puts the little things into perspective. After all, mortality is a key feature of pretty much everything that exists in Nature, human beings included. The sun, stars, plants and animals — nothing lasts forever, and Montaigne constantly argues in his writing that this is most evident in the mutable physical processes that occur around us: “The world runnes all on wheeles. All things therein moove without intermission.” Winter storms and snows give way to summer sun, flowers wilt and perish. Even the Sun will disappear one day. As humans we fit perfectly into this cycle; we regularly define our lives in terms of birth, aging and death. Montaigne describes his own aging body using seasonal imagery: “I have seene the leaves, the blossomes, and the fruit; and now see the drooping and withering of it [his body].” However, in the natural world, death always gives way to new life. Leaves fall from trees and die before the arrival of new shoots that burst forth in the spring. When human beings die, their bodies decompose and mingle with the Earth, or sail along the breeze as specks of dust, ready to become part of something else.

Thinking about death in this way really helped me to understand that our lives are only one small piece of a much bigger picture — and the bigger picture doesn’t care about how many Twitter followers a person has, or how much money they earn, or where they buy their clothes. It’s easier to put trivial things to one side when we think about how our death actually confirms a meaningful, physical connection to the world around us — we are natural beings who arguably exist for a certain length of time before returning back to the Earth in some form or another. If you’re a fan of The Sopranos, this attitude is perhaps best summed up by the old Ojibwe saying that Tony finds in his hospital room — “Sometimes I go about in pity for myself, and all the while a great wind carries me across the sky.” The end of our life doesn’t mean the end of Nature’s great cycle. As Montaigne remarks, we can find comfort in the fact that our death is merely one part of a much greater plan: “your death is but a peece of the worlds order, and but a parcell of the worlds life.” His tone is so self-assured in the expression of these ideas that his writing becomes living proof of our ability to master any fear we might have about death. Instead we can allow ourselves to return to Nature.

And yet, talking and writing about death constantly is an approach towards our own mortality that often seems completely alien to modern Western cultures. (Eastern cultures are way ahead and can be looked to as an example.) Nowadays it’s relatively rare to engage in an open conversation with friends or family about how we want to be buried, or what happens to the soul after we die. Often these discussions are relegated to funerals or college philosophy tutorials, or they simply don’t happen at all. But Montaigne states time and again that such avoidance is unhealthy and impractical; instead he declares “let us have nothing so much in minde as death” and regularly draws on ancient philosophy to back up his ideas on confronting death head-on. For example, he uses the Stoic philosophy of the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius (26 AD — 180 AD) to argue that we should relish spending our leisure time in contemplating the meaning of death. Like Montaigne, I believe it is possible to gain a huge degree of contentment from life through attempting to understand death. As well as feeling closer to Nature, death encourages a greater awareness and enjoyment of the present moment. In a strange way, acknowledging that death is certain actually allows us to adopt a more practical attitude towards the time that we do have on Earth. In her book Natural Causes: An Epidemic of Wellness, the Certainty of Dying, and Killing Ourselves to Live Longer, Barbara Ehrenreich encourages us to appreciate life “as a brief opportunity to observe and interact with the living, ever-surprising world around us.” Personally, I’ve found myself feeling extremely grateful during times that I have experienced intense happiness, as well as reaching an understanding during periods of sadness that — like everything else — this too shall pass.

By way of contrast, the death-defying attitude of Silicon Valley in recent years provides an interesting case study in 21st-century conversations about mortality. Rather than acknowledging death, a growing number of tech giants are now actively trying to eradicate it. Social commentators argue that modern society is sometimes guilty of believing in its own immutability, as though certain scientific and technological advances give human beings an absolute right to live on forever. Indeed, the cycle of Nature that I described at the beginning of this essay is currently being overturned in order to make way for advances in 3D organ printing, nanobots that can replicate immune systems and even blood injections that supposedly extend our lives. Peter Thiel, one of the co-founders of PayPal, has admitted that he is ‘against’ the idea of death and aims to fight it rather than accept it. The National Academy of Medicine is currently running a “Grand Challenge in Healthy Longevity” which will award $25,000,000 to anyone who can make a major scientific breakthrough in delaying the aging process. Many of the project’s investors want aging to be stopped completely. Meanwhile, Google’s highly secretive Immortality Project was launched in 2014 and aims to treat aging as a disease that can be cured.

There is a distinct air of confidence surrounding these endeavors; for many tech giants it is not a matter of if immortality can be achieved, it is simply a matter of when. Speaking to Tad Friend of The New Yorker, Arram Sabeti of the food tech start-up ZeroCrater once stated, “The proposition that we can live forever is obvious. It doesn’t violate the laws of physics, so we will achieve it.” The “we” in this context is questionable, since many of these projects are being supported by tech giants and celebrities who will undoubtedly be the only people able to afford an immortality cure if it ever becomes available in the future. These advances are being energetically pursued by people who head up large corporations with arguably little thought or respect for death itself, only the right to continue existing. This isn’t accepting death or preparing for it, this is trying to abolish it in the unhealthiest way possible — surrounded by secrecy, with little thought for the long-term effects on society. Such measures do nothing to cure fear of death, they only try to stop it at all costs, which is really just a form of denial.

What would the author of the Essais have made of these developments? Montaigne was famously suspicious of doctors during a time when modern medicine simply didn’t exist. He often complained that doctors were desecrating the natural duration of the human body and interfering with what he considered to be Nature’s work. Even in an age before painkillers or anesthesia, Montaigne (who famously suffered from excruciating kidney stones) was proud of his ability to withstand illnesses and diseases ‘naturally’: “We are subject to grow aged, to become weake and to fall sicke in spight of all medicine.” Therefore it’s very hard to describe the horror Montaigne would have felt upon being confronted with the idea of death-defying technological advancements such as nanobots and 3D organ printing. Not only are these inventions a human attempt to subvert death by artificial means, they also pose other problems too. For millennia, one of the most positive aspects of death originally proposed by Stoic philosophy (and later adopted by thinkers such as Montaigne) was the idea that death comes for everyone. In other words, it doesn’t care about social class — the rich human being dies just like the poor human being and thus reminds us that deep down we are all equals. Will that be true in the future as well or not? Cryogenic preservation is becoming more and more popular, but it currently costs as much as $200,000 to freeze the entire body. We have to imagine that a drug or injection to cure mortality will be ten times as costly. This means that immortality will most likely be for the few, not the many.

So what can we as human beings do to respond to death in a practical and healthy manner? Alongside the popular take-up of meditation and mindfulness (which psychologists have already noted can greatly improve our attitude towards death), a younger generation of advocates — most notably Caitlin Doughty — are heading up an increasingly popular “death-positive” movement. This trend encourages an enquiring approach towards death and funerary practices that draws on the type of calm, reasoned manner that Montaigne would have been proud of. Doughty’s website, The Order of the Good Death, states that the death-positive movement believes that “the culture of silence surrounding death should be broken through discussion, gathering art, innovation and scholarship.” This mission resounds with the philosophy of Seneca the Younger (4 BC — 65 AD), a thinker Montaigne turned to repeatedly when he wanted to understand fear of death. Seneca believed that approaching death through contemplation, mindfulness and discussion was one of the key virtues of wisdom; pursuing such an open and honest attitude towards death would eventually allow an individual to patiently wait for death, as one of nature’s operations. Therefore talking about death, studying philosophy, meditating, and even creating or appreciating art around this theme are all excellent ways to prepare for life’s end.

Talking about death, studying philosophy, meditating, and even creating or appreciating art around this theme are all excellent ways to prepare for life’s end.

We can also make sure to engage in practical preparations surrounding our funeral arrangements, wills and life insurance. Rather than becoming a depressing chore, instead we can appreciate that it brings peace of mind to family and friends, as well as ourselves. If we’re lucky enough to be dying in a bed somewhere, surrounded by loved ones, at least we can rest assured that these same people have been taken care of. In the Essays Montaigne praises the practical act of constructing your own grave — many of his friends prepared elaborate tombs, sometimes with their own death masks attached. Montaigne says that looking on a replica of your own dead face is an excellent way to prepare for the inevitable reality of the future and also shows you have taken the time to leave the world in an organized way. Incidentally, this is just one example which demonstrates that in the past, Europeans were far more attentive to the idea of preparing for death in a practical manner. Admittedly this may have something to do with the fact that death was far more visible in everyday life thanks to mass graves and public executions, not to mention the high rates of mortality, particularly amongst infants. Thankfully all of these things are in the past, but death still lingers in society, it’s just slightly more hidden away than it used to be. Whilst we can’t all afford a good death mask, it would be comforting to see a resurgence in openly discussing or enacting any kind of practical preparation for death, an attitude which has clearly been written out of European society in the last few hundred years.

In the Essays, death is natural. It forces us to realize our humble place in the great cycle of mutability that constitutes the workings of Nature. In the meantime, talking, writing and thinking about death can radically improve our quality of life by helping us to gain a greater enjoyment out of our time as one of the living, as well as helping those people we will eventually leave behind. I don’t want to start investing in cryogenics or constructing my own coffin just yet, but talking about death from time to time? That’s something we can all start doing right now.

Complete Article HERE!