Both individually and as a society, we citizens of 21st century developed civilisations are really, really bad at death.
We’re not that much better at ageing. Our popular media reflects our worship of youth and youthfulness, or, to be more precise, our worship of the appearance of youth and youthfulness – we certainly haven’t shown much evidence of actually valuing the youth themselves over these past 18 months. With varying effort and with varying success, we prop up the billion dollar personal grooming industries in our unswerving attempts to disguise those tell-tale signs of ageing, men and women alike. Some of us merely dye our greying hair and buy increasingly expensive anti-ageing face creams, some inject toxins into our faces, some submit to the surgeon’s knife. It’s certainly no crime to want to make the best of ourselves, but we cannot deny that we have a deep and internalised cultural bias against ageing.
And when ageing is somehow shameful, then death becomes utter failure. And that’s awkward, because the only certainty in life that I writing this and you reading this can count on is that both of us are going to die.
When we are unavoidably confronted with the stark reality of death, we employ a plethora of euphemisms to avoid actually naming it : he passed, passed on, passed away; we lost her; he lost his battle; she departed. Even during those grim official press conferences at the start of this whole affair, government representatives detailing the daily Covid death count were seemingly unable to express the factual information of the number who had died without prefacing the word with the adverb ‘sadly’: twelve people have sadly died. I don’t know why that phrase irritated me so much but it did.
Yes, death is terrifying and unequivocal, the permanent annihilation of earthly self, the end of this particular manifestation of consciousness that exists from one breath to the next. Few of us would choose to die before our time were up, and in the absence of a war or equally extreme circumstances calling for personal sacrifice, few of us do.
And yet, death is the single thing that gives our lives meaning.
I mean it. If there were immortals, we should not envy them but pity them – a future remorselessly stretching out to infinity, where time, being limitless, has no value. Whatever they might choose to do with their waking hours, whoever they might love or hate, whatever achievements they might attain, whatever acts of valour or infamy they might commit, everything would soon just fade into frivolous and insignificant ripples in the vast endless sea of their eternity. (Derren Brown writes compellingly about this in the second part of his book ‘Happy – why more or less everything is absolutely fine’, and no, I didn’t know he was such a thought-provoking author either.)
Whereas we lucky humans that die, our lives have meaning – if we choose it. Irrespective of whether we hold spiritual beliefs or not, we know that our time alive and conscious is finite. This knowledge gives significance to the choices that we make – how, doing what, where and with whom we choose to spend our unknown number of years on this planet is given meaning and dignity because of the limit that death imposes. The deepest, most authentic experiences and emotions; the works we create and destroy; the twin blazes of grief and joy; the impact that our lives have on our fellow humans, other creatures and our world, for good or for ill; all these have value only because our time is limited. The inescapable reality that we don’t have forever is what makes our choices matter.
History tells us that returning Roman generals, wheeled through the streets of Rome in triumph, had a slave accompanying them in their chariot whose job it was to whisper ‘Memento mori’ (remember, you will die).
And even though we all know this at an abstract level – obviously – few of us live our lives with the acceptance of our own death uppermost in our minds, but maybe we should. Covid – or to be more accurate, our response to Covid – has swept like an avalanche through our values, carrying all before it, and as we dig ourselves out of the debris and regain our equilibrium we need to look hard at where our single minded focus on the vain attempt to avoid death has led us.
In trying to halt death, we have stopped living.
This panicked, frenzied scramble to prevent deaths at all costs demeans us all. Under the aim of preventing death we have kept elderly care home residents in virtual prisons. Sometimes they died alone, believing they had been forsaken by those they love. We have closed churches and places of worship, banned singing and dancing, closed theatres and concert halls and opera houses. We even – if you were single during most of the restrictions – banned sex. We ordered people to stay in their homes, and stacked the full weight of the law behind the instruction. We have cancelled education, travel, sports and play. We have made most pubs and restaurants financially unviable, we have averted our eyes from the rising tide of redundancies, homelessness and family breakups. We have separated families – many grandparents have not seen their grandchildren for over a year. We have postponed hospital treatments and routine care and abandoned our young to their own devices. We have created the perfect conditions in which addiction, abuse and despair could flourish, and they have.
I don’t want to live like that. I don’t want to die like that.
I do not consent.
I intend to live before I die, and no grubby politician or slimy, many-tentacled corporation is going to stop me.
Cake and Liberty. See you in London on Saturday.