Whistling past the graveyard

"Whistling past the graveyard" Continued...

Issue: "Summer Books 2002," July 7, 2002

Pagan cultures dealt with death in many different ways, some not as grotesque. Many, though, combined sex with funerals as if to declare that life at its most visceral went on. The Scandinavian merchant's code in life was to eat, drink, and be sexually merry, so why not continue in that way of life, by proxy, following death?

Paul Binski, Medieval Death

Fifteenth-century ars moriendi handbooks were as far removed as imaginable from the funeral proceedings described above. These Christianized "art of dying" instructions usually consisted of woodcuts showing the temptations that the book's central character, a dying man, needed to resist. The standard ars moriendi included illustrations of five temptations (unbelief, despair, impatience, pride, and avarice), five illustrations of the biblical inspirations that helped Christians withstand those temptations, and a final portrait showing "the good death."

Medieval Christians did not try to minimize the impact of death by minimizing thought about it. At a time when early death through disease was frequent, they argued that not just the old but everyone should prepare for death. Prospects for eternal life were bound up with a person's faith in his final days, and no one could be sure of which days those might be. Therefore, the goal (at least in theory) was to live each day not in pursuit of temporary pleasures but in line with what the individual would want to show God on judgment day.

Numerous books of quotations on nine ways to fight fear of death, 1800-2000

The pagan baseline: Ignore death. The Christian baseline: Be conscious of its imminence. Which way has our society headed? Wanting to get a quick sense of some post-Enlightenment views of death, I sorted famous quotations-words that are picked up not necessarily because of their wisdom, but because they crystallize the thoughts of many-into nine piles. Three of them suggest that we think about death as non-frightful adventure, sleep, or mystery. Three lay out methods of thinking about life: Minimize its joy, maximize its pleasure, or hope that others will memorialize us. Three represent psychological strategies for appearing to put death in its place: Sneer, joke, or exude bravado.

  • Death as adventure: Sir Oliver Lodge, a British scientist who dabbled in psychic phenomena a century ago, proclaimed that "Death is not a foe, but an inevitable adventure." James M. Barrie, the British playwright who wrote Peter Pan in 1904 and never wanted to grow up, has Peter in Act 3 proclaim, "To die will be an awfully big adventure." Charles Frohman, the American producer who staged Peter Pan in 1905, declared, "Why fear death? It is the most beautiful adventure in life." (Frohman died 10 years later when Germans sank the Lusitania.)
  • Death as "but sleep": German author Jean Paul Richter two centuries ago talked of how "Death gives us sleep, eternal youth, and immortality." Joaquin Miller, the "Frontier Poet" of the 19th century, wrote that "Death is dawn, the waking from a weary night of fevers unto truth and light." Humorist James Thurber waxed serious in 1939 as he asked, "But what is all this fear of and opposition to Oblivion? What is the matter with the soft Darkness, the Dreamless Sleep?"
  • Death as solving the mystery: American liberal minister Henry Ward Beecher's last words are said to have been: "Now comes the mystery." Noted actor James Earl Jones in the 1989 movie Field of Dreams smiles broadly as he reaches into the cornfield, a mysterious realm of baseball spirits, and then walks right in, absorbed into the afterlife. Television shows about near-death experiences are advertised as punching through the "wall of mystery" that separates us from afterlives.
  • Death as relief from a depressing life: Mark Twain, a bitter man as he approached old age, wrote in his private notebooks, "O Death where is thy sting? It has none. But life has." He wrote a pessimistic catechism: "Why is it that we rejoice at a birth and grieve at a funeral? Because we are not the person involved." French dramatist Jean Giraudoux, best known for his 1945 play Madwoman of Chaillot, put it elegantly: "Death holds no horrors. It is simply the ultimate horror of life."
  • Death as promoting a grab for the gusto: Popular philosopher George Santayana's clever, "There is no cure for birth and death but to enjoy the interval," is the idea that launched a thousand beer commercials. Henry de Montherlant, the French novelist and dramatist who wrote Mors et Vita in 1932, declared, "There is only one way to be prepared for death: to be sated. In the soul, in the heart, in the spirit, in the flesh. To the brim." Singer Jimmy Buffet turned that sentiment into, "I'd rather die while I'm living than live while I'm dead."
  • Death as no inhibitor of memory: In the 19th century Oliver Wendell Holmes said, "Our dead brothers still live for us." In the 20th French aviator and author Antoine Saint-Exupery wrote in The Wisdom of the Sands, "He who has gone, so we but cherish his memory, abides with us, more potent, nay, more present, than the living man." (But Woody Allen said, "I don't want to achieve immortality through my work. I want to achieve it through not dying,")
  • Death as an opportunity to attack religion: In the 1950s blue-collar philosopher Eric Hoffer mocked those who needed "some kind of make-believe in order to face death." Italian dramatist and poet Ugo Betti proclaimed, "Your dying breath barely tarnishes the air, and yet you imagine it as your spirit 'returning unto God who gave it.'" Harvard philosophy professor William Ernest Hocking suggested that heavenward looks were absurd: "Man is the only animal that contemplates death, and also the only animal that shows any sign of doubt of its finality."
  • Death as a subject for sardonic jokes: Dorothy Parker in 1928 wrote,
    It costs me never a stab nor squirm
    To tread by chance upon a worm.
    "Aha, my little dear," I say,
    "Your clan will pay me back one day."

    Five years later Jean Girardoux provided biting humor: "Death is the next step after the pension-it's perpetual retirement without pay." In the 1960s MAD magazine's character Alfred E. Neuman joined the parade of grisly humor-"Death is nature's way of telling you to slow down"-and television bumbler Maxwell Smart observed, "If you can survive death, you can probably survive anything." Longtime late-night television host Johnny Carson said, "For three days after death, hair and fingernails continue to grow but phone calls taper off." Woody Allen joked in 1976, "It's not that I'm afraid to die. I just don't want to be there when it happens."


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