Are we a death-denying culture or a death-obsessed one. Wesley Smith argues the latter in “Remembrance of Death” Can Overcome “Death Obsession”
Death obsession is corroding our society’s belief in the intrinsic value and inherent dignity of human life. Evidence of this cultural septicity is everywhere: in the rise of hedonistic escapism, in the violence of our popular entertainment, in the media’s embrace of assisted suicide as the next great progressive cause.
Death obsession has also produced the transhumanist movement. ...[the]materialistic quasi-religion that seeks to conquer death by harnessing technology, helping believers to attain immortality, say, by uploading their minds into computers.
Death obsession is a wail of despair that strives to overcome the enveloping darkness by imposing human control over death.....[S]ooner or later, death will become a civil servant. He will operate in the open, during business hours, with a budget and a boss. His work will be humanized and bureaucratized. Death will be licensed, regulated and empowered by law to solve a public policy problem—the unacceptability to certain people of certain types of dying. This marks a major shift in the meaning of death, from ineffable human destiny to legislated human right.
But death’s guaranteed visit need not lead to the desolation of obsession. There are far more positive ways of coming to terms with the grim reaper.
Death should be a constant dimension and quality of any Christian's life, not just something that befalls him at the last moment. Awareness of death gives to life immediacy and depth, and makes life so intense that its totality is summed up in the present moment. As Christ claimed the victory over death by death, so a Christian defeats death and the fear of death with all of its tragic consequences through a mindfulness of death during his life.
My friend, author and preeminent American Orthodox apologist Frederica Matthewes-Green, considers the remembrance of death as one of the most helpful disciplines in living a healthy Christian life. She told me, “If you spend your life seeking entertainment and food, trying to keep your mind occupied and amused, you find yourself weary and depressed. Life can come to seem meaningless.” There is a better way than these desperate efforts to delay, deflect, and control our mortal fate. It is to accept it, to ponder and embrace it, and witness a paradoxical result: “Keeping in the back of your mind an awareness of the fact that you will die one day leads to a life lived deliberately, with forethought and gratitude, a life that is worthy and complete.”
As a cancer doctor, I see death—and see how the loss of a loved one is a part of each person’s life forever.
There are few among us who have not experienced the loss of a friend or loved one. Often it comes without warning, in an accident or, as we’ve seen all too often recently, an act of terrorism. The experience of loss after a lingering illness like cancer, though more expected, is just as deeply felt. As time passes, we often hear how important it is to gain closure—a way of tidying up to help us move on with our own lives.
The reality is that closure is a myth. My personal and professional experience with those who have lost friends and family, including children, has taught me that going on with life is not the same as gaining closure. The wound of loss is a part of each person’s life forever. We continue to think about those dear to us, though perhaps not every day or with the same intensity. Recollection is sometimes provoked by a date on the calendar or, less predictably, by a sight, sound, aroma, melody or place that evokes the missing person.
These personal moments, seemingly forever paused in time, can cause us to feel alone, especially during sentiment-filled holidays. The danger of the idea of closure is that it heightens this aloneness, by giving us a false expectation that these experiences should and will at some point end. They won’t.
No matter how much time has passed, memories remain. To deny them is to deny precious moments of love, fellowship, gratitude and inspiration. Grieving changes the experience of loss, but does not eliminate it, and is not intended to do so. To close the memory does not sustain the healing or help in proceeding with life. Such echoes from the past are voices in the present and are sometimes warmly felt.
Angel of Grief by William Wetmore Story
James Smithson, the illegitimate son of the 1st Duke of Northumberland, died without children so his nephew became his sole heir but he died without children as well. So begins the extraordinary story, The Creation of the Smithsonian which is hilarious and must be read in its entirety. Here's one excerpt:
....the curator of the Smithsonian in 1973 impulsively decided to exhume Smithson AGAIN. On the basis of ghost stories.
Workmen took out the casket, which they discovered was made of metal and soldered shut. The curator told them to use their flashlights to bust the casket open. In doing so, they managed to catch the silk lining inside the casket on fire.....
So, we have Smithson’s monument all mangled to shit, his casket broken open, his 150-year old skeleton exposed to all and sundry, and now everything is ON FIRE.
Then, “He didn’t want them to ruin the silk by using an extinguisher so he told them to fill their mouths with water and come back to spray it down. So they did it.”
The silk is already ruined. It’s on fire. And if you, A CURATOR, were so concerned with preservation, why did you have random workmen bust open a sealed relic with improper tools, without any authorization to do so?
And now, to cap things off, a whole group of people are just spitting on James Smithson. Congratulations. This might be the worst thing I’ve ever written about on this blog.
The message accompanying the photos on Bowie’s website. “Why is this man so happy? Is it because it‘s his 69th birthday or that he has released his 28th studio album today and it’s a corker? Who knows, but we’re sure you’ll want to join us in congratulating him on both. Many happy returns of the day to David Bowie and Blackstar.”
Harry Thrush died on Christmas Eve, just two days after turning 92, and the church was packed to the rafters for his funeral held at St Mary's Church in Leeds today. ....
Veterans and serving personnel from across the Navy, Army and Air Force were there to show solidarity for the World War Two hero......Many of the servicemen who paid their respects to the WW2 veteran wore their regimental berets and displayed their medals proudly on their breast pockets.
Mr Thrush, a grandfather-of-five, spent his final years paying tribute to other veterans and servicemen.
His eldest son David, 65, said: 'When the soldiers started coming back he read what was going on in the newspapers and would find out where their funerals were being held and hop on the bus and the train and turn up at the funeral.
'If we popped round to visit him we would find a note on the table saying he had gone to a funeral and the announcement circled in the paper so we knew where he was. 'He went because he had that compassion and he used to speak to the family at the end to give them comfort.'
Giving the eulogy in honor of her father, his daughter, Janet Smith, said: 'He and my mum, Carrie, were happily married for 57 years and now they are reunited 'He was lucky to have such a long life. He was a teller of bad jokes. He used to make us cringe sometimes but could make strangers fall in love with him almost instantly. 'He was a fisherman that always had the one that got away. He would play the spoons at Christmas parties and would tap dance on the kitchen lino. 'He went to many soldiers' funerals and always said he was going to represent the soldiers that didn't make it back and he wanted to pay his respects.. 'I remember more than once that he got a lift from a stranger who took pity on him after he had got lost on his travels.
'I'm so happy me and my dad made it to the VE celebrations in Westminster last May. 'When we arrived in Westminster he was in his element with the crowds and the well wishers. 'But the best part for him was the parade along the Mall. My dad was treated as a hero that day. I am glad he could experience it while he was still alive.'
The second hymn selected by the family was the highly appropriate 'Onward Christian Soldiers' which was belted out by the congregation.The ceremony ended with 'The Last Post' and the Ode of Remembrance, taken from Laurence Binyon's poem 'For the Fallen'.
In his inaugural lecture at Cambridge University in 1911, A.E. Houseman called for 'Due Veneration Towards the Dead'
“I spoke just now of servility towards the living; and I think it significant that this is so often found in company with lack of due veneration towards the dead. My counsel is to invert this attitude, and to think more of the dead than the living.”
By fetishizing the contemporary we erect the walls of a ghetto around the present, shutting out vital supplies from the past and turning it into a shriveled, parochial place. Look around: Ours is a small, darkening age. We coast on our inheritance...
“The dead have at any rate endured a test to which the living have not yet been subjected. If a man, fifty or a hundred years after his death, is still remembered and accounted a great man, there is a presumption in his favor which no living man can claim; and experience has taught me that it is no mere presumption. It is the dead and not the living who have most advanced our learning and science; and though their knowledge may have been superseded, there is no supersession of reason and intelligence.”
The poem "Japanese Maple" by Clive James was first published in The New Yorker and is included in his latest book, Sentenced to Life
Your death, near now, is of an easy sort.
So slow a fading out brings no real pain.
Breath growing short
Is just uncomfortable. You feel the drain
Of energy, but thought and sight remain:
Enhanced, in fact. When did you ever see
So much sweet beauty as when fine rain falls
On that small tree
And saturates your brick back garden walls,
So many Amber Rooms and mirror halls?
Ever more lavish as the dusk descends
This glistening illuminates the air.
It never ends.
Whenever the rain comes it will be there,
Beyond my time, but now I take my share.
My daughter’s choice, the maple tree is new.
Come autumn and its leaves will turn to flame.
What I must do Is live to see that.
That will end the game
For me, though life continues all the same:
Filling the double doors to bathe my eyes,
A final flood of colors will live on
As my mind dies,
Burned by my vision of a world that shone
So brightly at the last, and then was gone.
The Australian broadcaster and critic, who has been receiving treatment for terminal leukaemia for more than five years, writes of blushing at the realisation he had “written myself into a corner” by announcing last September that he would die very shortly, when in fact his health has rallied thanks to an experimental drug treatment.
That prediction came in a poem called Japanese Maple, published in September 2014, in which James suggested that when the leaves of a tree in his garden turned brown, it would “end the game” of his own life. In fact, he writes in his column, “Winter arrived, there has been a whole other summer, and now the maple is just starting to do its flaming thing all over again, with me shyly watching.”
A new chemotherapy medication prescribed to the writer earlier this year is “holding back the lurgy”, he writes, “leaving me stuck with the embarrassment of still being alive”.
Clive James: ‘I’ve got a lot done since my death’
Two years after reports suggesting his imminent death, Clive James still has plenty of life left in him. Ahead of a new collection of poetry next month, the polymath and former Observer TV critic discusses the poems written to his wife, his place in history and ‘dying by inches’
When Clive James, who is 75 and in poor health, says “the end is nigh, but not that nigh”, he’s defying gravity, as usual. It’s something he’s got rather good at lately.
About two years ago, prematurely, the world’s media gave James the last rites: with valedictory interviews, hushed bulletins, sombre satellite appearances, and Australian TV anchors flying to his doorstep. “My obituaries were so fabulous,” he twinkles in an opening gambit, “I felt more or less obliged to walk the plank.” .....
That was a dark season for a writer who instinctively prefers to shine. When we met in 2013, he was living in a kind of internal exile, from family, from wellbeing, and even from his beloved mother country. Darkest of all, he was putting the finishing touches to a translation of The Divine Comedy while suffering a fate that Dante might plausibly have inflicted on a recent admission to one of hell’s training circles: leukaemia, emphysema, and a mixed bag of carcinomas.
With a new book of poems in the offing,[Sentenced to Life} the conversation defaulted to his afterlife, a subject he treats with characteristically sardonic merriment. “I’ve got a lot done since my death,” he says.......As well as publishing his verse translation of The Divine Comedy and a collection of essays, Poetry Notebook: 2006-2014 (Picador), with another volume in the works, he has made so many “farewell appearances” (first in London and then at the Cambridge Union) that his friend, PJ O’Rourke, has advised him to “soft-pedal this death’s door stuff because people will get impatient”.
Breaking cover in the closing poem of this collection, he admits himself to be “dying by inches”. This, more than the ironic bravura of his latest platform appearances, seems to represent the real Clive James, a writer whose commanding voice contains a constant variety of colour and tone. Regretting his frailty, he has become, he says, “the echo of the man you knew”. Momentarily sombre, he agrees that death, as much as love, is the true lyric inspiration. “I think I’m writing better now than I ever did. That’s where lyricism comes from. The love lyric is always full of approaching sadness.”
From his poem Event Horizon
What is it worth, then, this insane last phase
When everything about you goes downhill?
This much: you get to see the cosmos blaze
And feel its grandeur, even against your will,
As it reminds you, just by being there,
That it is here we live, or else nowhere.
That a heart-felt condolence letter became a young woman's only concrete connection to the father she never knew underscores the importance of writing condolence letters.
Jane Genova, Letters - When They Brought Unique Comfort In Loss
There was a time when we routinely wrote letters. Long, detailed ones. Therefore, when the husband of a young friend died in his mid 30s, I sat down and wrote a letter to their baby daughter. It was the couple's first child. It would turn out to be their only child.
My instructions were that she open the letter when she became an adult. In it, I explained what a force of good her father had been in the community of Stamford, Connecticut. He had the ability to make each of us feel whole. That was hard in a upscale town where we stood in the shadow of the 1%.
Tonight that child, now 26 years old, called me from California. She had spent a lot of time tracking me down. I had relocated to Tucson, Arizona in 2014. She explained how many times she had read the letter. Aside from what her mother told her, that was her only concrete connection with the man who had been her father.
She wept. That put the burden of the conversation back on me. I gave more details about her father's life and death.
For instance, she hadn't known how many men her father had helped become sober in a recovery program. I ticked off the names. As far as I knew, those who were alive were still sober.
I described his Kennedy-like mop of hair. His hair entered the room first.
No, she hadn't known: The church where his funeral mass had been held was packed. At it, Heidi played the guitar and sang. That was even though she herself had recently suffered the loss of a stillborn child. Then, I went on to anecdotes about her mother. Mostly funny ones. Her mother was still alive.
It was palpable during the phone call: I had been able over the years and this very evening to comfort a human being in pain.
Unfortunately, I haven't written that kind of letter in years. Now, I will resume the ritual. Over and over again, this young woman thanked me for giving a piece of her father back to her in four hand-written pages.