I’ll admit, when I first floated the idea of writing about our views of death, my instinctive reaction was to recoil with horror. “No one wants to read about that,” the little voice inside me hissed. “It’s grotesque and morbid and…” By this time I had stopped listening, because I knew I had to write about it.
I’ve come to understand that when the small, fearful and critical voice inside me begins screaming, then I must do the opposite of whatever it advises. When it comes to subjects for the essays that I inflict upon an innocent and unsuspecting public, trepidation is a sign that I’m on to something meaningful. The important thing is that the subject be handled with intelligence and of course, care.
I shall leave that determination to you, my dear and long-suffering readers.
The first and most obvious point to make is that there are nearly as many different views of death as there are people to have them. From the end of everything to just another stage on a longer journey and everything in between, the cessation of the experience we call life is one of the most fascinating, and for many terrifying, experiences we can have as living beings.
While we in the western world may think that ideas such as reincarnation, or “awakening” after death are strange, stranger still is the way we both revile and simultaneously venerate death. While the views of death by other cultures are immensely interesting, it’s our weird and dichotomous views on death that I plan to explore in this particular explication.
The very concept of death terrifies us, and yet it permeates our culture – in our films, television shows and books, even in our everyday language.
Mention your own inevitable death in conversation for example, and invariably someone will shudder and want to change the subject, labelling the conversation as “morbid” or “creepy.” The odd thing, is that this same person will come in from the cold and say things like, “Man I was freezing to death out there!” or “I’m going to kill Bob for making me walk home!” They will then proceed to watch – over a nice hot cup of hot chocolate – a violent action film, or an episode of The Walking Dead.
Now at this point dear reader you might be inclined to argue, “But those are fictional examples. Real death is an entirely different thing.” And on that point you would be correct. True death – death in the real world – is an entirely different thing. And yet… our language and media are replete with references and allusions to the cessation of life, killing and destruction. Fictitious or not, is it not just as horrifying to see someone murdered in a film as it would be to watch a televised execution? How would you know the difference without the credit roll, or the sponsor ads in between? And, considering the ever-increasing infiltration of big business into our news media, how even then?
Perhaps it’s the “inappropriate” nature of the subject that makes it such fodder for fiction, particularly film. As a horror fan myself (gothic horror more so than the slasher type I hasten to add) I do feel as if there is a certain taboo aspect to such films, and that seems to makes them all the more entertaining. Of course, there must be limits. There are social interdictions (and thankfully laws) against fiction involving subjects I’m not even comfortable naming, and neither I, nor anyone else of sound mind, would consider viewing such horrendous material. The modern horror film seems to possess a “safe” level of taboo – just naughty enough to be entertaining, but not enough to be depraved.
Despite all that, we are still terrified and embarrassed to even think about the one universal event that – the Dorian Grays among us excepted – in emblazoned on our collective itineraries.
I mentioned earlier that real death was very different from that in the fictional world. If you have ever been to a funeral, and many of you have, you will have seen this first hand. A person lying in state is quite different from a person who is simply sleeping. I’m not just talking about the lack of breathing or even the rapid eye movement common in deep sleep. There is something else there, or rather, something missing that cannot be measured or even described, only sensed on an instinctive, even primeval level. It’s that instinctive sense that tends to trigger the fear response in people. I’ve felt it several times myself, though often it was hidden amongst feelings of grief and loss.
My own belief is that the topic of death isn’t so much a fear of the end of our own lives – how could one even imagine that – it is instead a fear of the grief, pain and loss such an event would have on those we love. As human-shaped carbon-based biipeds, we are social creatures, and even when buttressed by beliefs of an afterlife, of the continuation of life on another plane of existence, there is always the hollow feeling of loss associated with death. No one I think, would wish those feelings on those they love.
And throughout it all, our media chugs along, fuelled by our strange obsession with death. It’s as if we use fiction to point and laugh at death, as if, by imagining the most imaginative and grisly methods people could die, we somehow lessen the horror of the real thing. Certainly death is the ultimate negative outcome in every action film. “People could die!” the hero roars with righteous fury and fierce determination, ready to seemingly take on the universe itself to save just one precious life. In this fictional world, the obsession seems to be focused on life, rather than death.
In the end, while we should not fear an intelligent and thoughtful discussion of death, our focus, yes even our obsession, should be on life. After all, death will take care of itself in time.