I was thinking about this the last few days and I realized we – we modern people – have a very odd relationship with death.
Look, I’m in no way complaining about this, okay? I want you to understand that upfront. For my final exam in American culture, back in Portugal, I had to read this very stupid book who deduced all sorts of crazy stuff about Americans from the fact our dead are usually embalmed. Frankly, I think the author should have his head examined. (He also went on about our putting people in old age homes, forgetting that our elderly live MUCH longer than normal, which means at the end they need a lot more specialized care. He also seemed not to get the sheer immensity of our territory which means family can be flung all over the continent. Organizing a rostrum to visit grandma and make sure she takes her meds is a tad-bit more difficult than in a village or even a moderately sized town.)
However it makes us weird about death. And it distorts our view of everything.
Accidents most of all. What, you think it’s a coincidence that the more remote the possibility of death, the more we pile on safety mechanisms in cars? The more we make our kids wear helmets and eye protection for perfectly harmless activities? (I think the end run of this is that we pad all the trees, like the royal family of Spain when their kids had hemophilia.)
And it goes further. Any death has become unthinkable. We react with shock to any death that doesn’t take place after protracted illness. We start cowering back from eating meat because “the poor animals” and we shy back from any war and try to have it humane and with ROEs that make it impossible to do what war should do: inflict terror and pain on the enemy until they surrender. (I think this goes hand in hand with no longer knowing how to END a war. We don’t say “We’re going to end it by winning.” Or “It ends when the other guy is rubble.” No, we say “We need an exit strategy.”)
If you think of death as the dark tints of life, we’ve become washed out, and in many ways incomprehensible to cultures in which death is still very common.
I know, I know, culture this, culture that – but in the end I wonder how much of our decay and our seeming wish for suicide, from having too few kids to not being ruthless enough to those who hurt us, comes from the fact that death has come to seem unnatural and strange.
Again, I’m not complaining. I’m no more fond of death than anyone else, and no more resolute in the face of it. I know I might be called upon to die for what I believe in, and that’s fine – it’s much, much harder to accept dying because someone’s clutch slipped, or because I caught some weird virus no one could figure out. And I can’t imagine dying even at 100 without feeling that I’m leaving a lot of stuff undone. Still, I can come to terms with my own death – the death of those I love is something else. I’ve already told Dan he must die after me or I’ll never talk to him again. The thought of losing the kids is unimaginably horrific. Heck, I’m all broken up about the idea of losing a cat within the year, and I’ve lost cats before.
BUT while I wouldn’t want a return to things quasi-ante, and while the solutions I could pose – as a science fiction author – range from the repugnant to the horrible and are all “I don’t want this” (Though some might make interesting stories.) I do wonder what part of our decay, or the decay of our willingness to fight and win, is because death is alien and a surprise to us.
We have become like the elves who spawn rarely and live unnaturally long “blessed” lives. Maybe there is some ancestral memory there. Maybe there is a cycle where you become too comfortable, too little used to death, and then the ruthless cultures come in and destroy you, because they walk with death everyday.
Sarah Hoyt, “Death in the Surprise Position – A Blast From The past from Dec. 2012”, According to Hoyt, 2015-11-06.