Thoughts about Death

As I move through the last quadrant of my life, I am forced to think about death. It’s not so far away any more.

I’ve long since finished my will and final instructions. I’m in the midst of downsizing from a huge house to a modest townhouse (to save my children from having to go through all the travail of getting my house ready for sale after my death). In the process, I’ve thrown away or given away all manner of possessions that I no longer need, everything from furniture to clothing to books. I will have finished the preparations long before moving day arrives.

I’m sobered by recognizing that at two points on my life, I faced death head-on—first during my years in Vietnam when I regularly went into combat, later when I volunteered to work with AIDS patients, even though I knew I might contract the disease. At both times, I knew full well that I might die. I accepted that.

Now I’m faced with death for a third time. I’m determined to accept the challenge bravely.

All that has got me to thinking about how we, as a society, contemplate death. I conclude that we don’t. We treat death like we treat bodily functions—we pretend they don’t exist. Discussion of the way we relieve ourselves or propagate is vulgar. Mentioning any of their aspects is in poor taste.

And so it is with death. In newspapers I read and programs I listen to, death is never discussed. We avoid the word. We speak vaguely about how someone has “passed.” It is as though we Americans have banned death. We refuse to admit its place in our lives. It is downright improper of me even to mention it.

In other cultures I’ve lived in, both bodily functions and the end of life are normal topics of discussion. In Vietnam, for example, people talked about them casually, as facts of life. The same was true among the French. Nor was death dreaded. It was considered a natural part of daily living. What a contrast to us Americans.

As far as I can tell, only the Americans and the British are skittish about these subjects.

More tomorrow.

3 thoughts on “Thoughts about Death”

  1. Maybe it was growing up on the farm, but we understood the cycle of life at a very young age. But I think more importantly is that death was a family experience. Children were taken to the wake and funeral. The body of the dead relative was often “shown” in their home. We saw all of this and understood. Now children are often shielded from death. I like your comparisons to bodily functions. They are part of the daily and life long functions. BTW good luck with downsizing. The hardest part for me is books. I grew in a home with very few books and they, almost all of them, represent the long journey I’ve been on since learning to read. Reading was an early challenge for me and therefore the books are especially meaningful for me. Happy holidays to you and yours.

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  2. Thanks, Dallas. In my childhood, death was hidden from me. My earliest years were on a farm, but from age six onward, I was living in Oakland, California, across the bay from San Francisco. Ours was a glamorous cosmopolitan life, which it turned out, we couldn’t afford: my father ended up in prison when I was twelve for embezzling $40,000 from his clients to support our lifestyle. Even then, living in the slums and at times not having enough to eat, I never heard of anybody dying, never attended a funeral or wake. Only when Vietnam came along did I see death up close. It changed the way I live my life.

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    1. We never had much surplus but Mom ran the farm and Dad worked as a welder and tinker so we stayed about even. Raised much of our own food. At one time trading dressed chickens (at the age of six helped dress them) for groceries. But we made it. Near the end (aged 95) he told how he felt about failures along the way, but we all made it.

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