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.