Death with Dignity #
None of us is going to get out of this life alive.
Writers have written about death since the Epic of Gilgamesh, who strives for immortality. He learns that,
“The gods gave themselves eternal life; they gave us inescapable death. Such is the destiny of mortal men.”
Sophocles echoes this tenet in Oedipus at Colonus, 607:
“Only the gods have ageless and deathless life”.
Aeschylus has Cassandra fortell that if she enters Agammenon’s house, Clytemnestra will kill her, but she accepts this by musing:
“I’ve had a good life, now I just want a good death.”
And common fact it is — about 160,000 Australians die in the course of each year —though every death is a particular death and no single death can be quite like another. From a certain distance, it looks as if we must all enter this darkness or this blinding light by the same gate when we die, and from that point of view our common destination is undeniable.
Seneca the Younger wrote of this duty in the first century of the Christian era.
Would it be too heartless to say that in the presence of so much death and illness we might now be capable of being driven into a new and eerie awareness of what it is like to be alive?
I can envy the vivid, raw consciousness of the man Alexievich quoted, the man who “desperately wanted not to die”, while feeling something desperately hopeless for him too. Perhaps a part of this being alive to dying is being able to hold and carry more than one feeling at once, and especially the contradictory feelings.
Kant argued, that:
dignity is “an absolute inner value,” possessed only by morality, and by humanity to the extent that it is morally capable. Each human owes it to every other human to consider him or her “not merely as a means to ends…but as an end in itself,” a fellow human who “possesses an inalienable dignity.”
Kafka’s famous parable, “Before the Law, each of us stands at a particular gate made for us, a gate no other person can go through.”
Making a similar point, “Death is a black camel that kneels at every person’s gate”, goes a Turkish proverb.
“Oh yeah, they say life goes on
Long after the thrill of living is gone.” John Mellencamp
Ranjana Srivastava looks at the complex conversations that are had during the final days of life. She writes that instead of prolonging life, a dying patient’s final wish is an antidote for our times:
“Everyone must die and we have all lost someone we love. But on the other hand, it is not unbelievable that in a glossy world that craves instant gratification, there is no pressing need to contemplate mortality, and the question of how to conduct ourselves at the end of life becomes so foreign as to be confronting.”
Tony Abbott says governments need to ask tough questions about the cost of keeping elderly Covid-19 patients alive during the pandemic. In a speech to a UK thinktank, the former prime minister railed against Covid-19 “health dictatorships” saying not enough politicians were “thinking like health economists” about the “levels of deaths we might need to live with”.
He criticised harsh lockdowns and said young people were at risk of becoming reliant on government benefits during the pandemic.
The staff at a nursing home informed the family of a lady in her nineties that her death from covid was imminent. They hadn’t told the lady.
When the family told their mother, her reply was;
“Oh, darling, really? How marvelous!
Her delight made it so much easier for all concerned.
Australia has no equivalents of the American monuments to political liberty: The Statue of Liberty, the Washington Monument, the Jefferson Memorial, the Lincoln Memorial.
Marilyn Lake claims what this nation does have is war memorials. Our landscape has been transformed by war memorials, small and large, local and national, statues of diggers in the hundreds, obelisks, cairns and cenotaphs. The cult of Anzac has been naturalised in Australia, but, to a newcomer, the monumental honouring of war dead might look excessive.
The Heritage Council said that at November 2017 there were some 30,626 monuments across all themes and periods in Australia – 520-plus in Melbourne, a city whose commemorative landscape mostly represents colonial “civic leadership and patriotic and heroic achievement”. (Paul Daley)
Busts and statues of James Cook also abound – even the French, however recently, several statues in honor of Cook have been defaced in protest.
“Take care that a falling statue does not strike you dead!” (Nietzsche)
Original inhabitants are demanding a bit of truth in memorialising our foundations.
Literature and legacies #
With the death of Gilgamesh’s best friend, Enkidu, everything changes. Gilgamesh sends up a great, torn-from-the-gut lament: a panegyric - a public speech in praise of someone; also known as an Elegy or Ode.
He calls for his craftsmen—“Forgemaster! [Lapidary!] Coppersmith! Goldsmith!”—and orders Enkidu’s funerary monument:
“Your eyebrows shall be of lapis lazuli, your chest of gold.”
For six days, Gilgamesh cannot bear to leave his watch over the body. Finally, a maggot falls out of one of Enkidu’s nostrils. (That appalling detail is recorded again and again. The poets knew its power.) Seeing it—and understanding, accordingly, that his friend has truly been turned into matter, into dead meat—Gilgamesh is assailed by a new grief: he, too, must die. This frightens him to his very core, and it becomes the subject of the remainder of the poem. Can he find a way to avoid death?
Juvenal in his Rewards of Fame and Eloquence,writes:
“So much more intense is the thirst for fame than for virtue….
Of a few, by their desire for fame and a title, a name that might
Cling to the stones that guard their ashes, those stones the barren
Fig tree’s malicious strength is capable of shattering, since
Even their very sepulchres are granted a limited span by fate.
Shelley too satirizes the vanity and impermanence of stone monuments:
`Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear –
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.'
Kenneth Slessor laments the fact that his friend Joe Lynch has no grave with a permanent “funeral-cakes of sweet and sculptured stone.” Yet he has been immortalised in Five Bells.
The fact that this poem lives on seventy years later illustrates what Auden said about Yeats; “the death of the poet was kept from his poems”.
People can be immortalised in verse. Literature can have more staying power than the grandest monuments made of durable stone.
Donneclaims We’ll build in sonnets pretty rooms”.
Robert Browning in The Bishop Orders his Tomb illustrates the infinite vanity of clergymen rivaling each other in building increasingly more grotesque mausoleums to satisfy their egos – aping the Pharaohs of Ancient Egypt.
John Donne defies death with his poem: Donne lived at a time when death was both prevalent and feared. The fact that he was born and raised as a Catholic but converted to Anligcan to survive, could have created an uneasy guilt.
Death be not Proud #
Death be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadfull, for, thou art not soe,
ALFRED, LORD TENNYSON seems to welcome death.
Break, break, break,* #
On thy cold gray stones, O Sea!
And I would that my tongue could utter
The thoughts that arise in me.
Break, break, break
At the foot of thy crags, O Sea!
But the tender grace of a day that is dead
Will never come back to me.
Crossing of the Bar #
And may there be no moaning of the bar,
When I put out to sea,
And may there be no sadness of farewell,
When I embark;
Phillip Larkin at 28 wrote:
“Only one ship is seeking us
Sailed unfamiliar, towing at her back
A huge birdless silence.
In her wake
No waters breed or break
Dylan Thomas urges us to go out in defiance:
Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Clive Jamesat the age of 70 was diagnosed with leukaemia and spent the next ten years contemplating his death. He jokes: “I have been on the verge of death so long; I am making a life of it.”
Justin Nobel Literary Hub
There is not much material out there about how different cultures once killed their elderly, a practice called senicide, but there is some. In rural Japan, upon reaching age 70, sons carried their mothers and fathers up a holy peak called Obasute-yama, or Granny-dump Mountain, and left them on top to die of exposure and starvation. The Bactrians, who inhabited present-day northern Afghanistan, threw the old and sick to specially trained dogs called undertakers. Streets were littered with human bones. In North Africa, Troglodyte elders no longer able to tend to their flocks asphyxiated themselves by fastening the tail of an ox around their necks. East of the Caspian Sea, the Derbiccae murdered males at age 70 and ate them. Women were merely strangled and buried. Among the Massagetae, who lived around the Aral Sea, relatives sacrificed old men and stewed them together with wild beasts, while the Iazyges of Sarmatia, who roamed lands north of the Black Sea, were slain by their children with swords.
Closer to home, on the rocky Diomede Islands in the storm-thrashed Bering Strait between Siberia and Alaska, the Iñupiat ritualistically murdered elders with knives, guns and nooses. Those who wanted to die would explain their wishes to a relative, who would try to dissuade them. If minds could not be changed, the killing went forth. The person to die turned their clothing inside out, and relatives carried them on a seat of caribou skin to the destroying place at the edge of the village. The one who did the killing was called the executioner, usually the victim’s eldest son. One story, reported in a 1955 Southwestern Journal of Anthropology article, tells of a 12-year-old boy who killed his father with a large hunting knife: “He indicated the vulnerable spot over his heart, where his son should stab him. The boy plunged the knife deep, but the stroke failed to take effect. The old father suggested with dignity and resignation, ‘Try it a little higher, my son.’ The second stab was effective.”
Inuit who died quickly were rewarded. He believed it had to do with the body’s desire to free its soul. A slow death held up a soul on its way to the afterlife, whereas a violent death let the soul leave the body swiftly and go straight to heaven. Laugrand thought Inuit senicide made sense within this context, and believed that the elderly were once left to die on ice floes. In fact, he imagined that for those who actually lived to be old, it was common practice.
“There was no scandal of death; that is a Western idea,” said Laugrand. “For an Inuit elder, there came a moment when he or she would think life was too much, and that it is better to fall from the sledge and freeze to death.”
Why millennials are the ‘death positive’ generation #
“Mortician Caitlin Doughty in 2011 founded the Order of the Good Death, an organization that promotes death positivity, when she was 27. Now she runs her own funeral home in Los Angeles. Hansa Bergwall was 35 when he created the app WeCroak, a digital-age memento mori that reminds its 30,000 monthly users that they are going to die five times a day — presumably to help them live in the moment. And Katrina Spade began developing the idea that would become Recompose, a company that plans to turn human remains into soil, when she was 30.”