It’s the first day of autumn, a picture-perfect fall day, and I’m sitting here on my porch contemplating this essay on death. Perhaps it seems a bit macabre on such a lovely day, but it shouldn’t be. All the better to reflect on death in some of life’s finest moments than at its worst.
But you might protest: we are barraged by death at every turn. Give us a break! Besides, humanism is a life-affirming worldview! Violence, war, terror, murder, fatal accidents and natural disasters are part of every media outlet’s headlines every day. Even for those who avoid or neglect the daily news, all manner of entertainment employs death to drive plots and garner market-share.
Precisely. Death is everywhere, but we have turned it into a “spectator sport” –or merely a spectacle—rather than engaging with death as a very real part of our lives. Naturally autumn-time is an especially apt season to ponder mortality—as the fall landscape bears witness to the dying year. However, to truly engage death, we need to go beyond philosophical musings and biological facts and get comfortable supporting those who are actually dying and grieving while preparing for our own deaths.
We who are humanists, who accept the high probability of this one life alone, should be especially in tune with death and how to prepare for it. While we see death all around us, generally in our society we no longer provide very personal or attentive care to loved ones who are dying. We let others do it—and we too often are just spectators. Not only have we medicalized dying, we have sanitized death. We let strangers put our loved ones to rest.
How is it that we distance ourselves from the dying and abandon our dead so quickly? Well, we are very busy; we have jobs and commitments; the tasks are often onerous and distasteful; and having left our religious communities behind, we have few personal acquaintances who are experienced in providing physical, psychological and emotional support at the end of life. But have we any less need of such care?
Then, when it comes to our own deaths, we all hope to have a “good death” —to slip away in one’s sleep or die tranquilly in one’s home surrounded by someone dear. And certainly “dying well” includes having control over one’s choices at the end of life. The non-profit organization, Compassion and Choices, works to protect and expand options at the end of life, but unless each of us personally undertakes the advance decision-making and planning required, our deaths will not reflect the values by which we attempt to live.
All this talk of death really comes back to what matters in life—for each of us. One burgeoning practice is the writing of legacy letters or “ethical wills” wherein people express their values and hopes, sorrows and mistakes, gratitude and wisdom with those who will cherish them after they are gone. Another is to have parties to celebrate and honor the life of a dying or aging loved one while they are still around to enjoy the festivities. And when death comes, like it or not, part of the grieving process is to gather together with family and friends to reminisce about the deceased. It’s called a memorial service. So why not plan ahead? Choose the poetry, readings, music and even food you want to be remembered by. Have the last word. It’s your life.
Death. There’s so much to think about, talk about and prepare for. I’ve been contemplating a humanist “death salon” for several years—even before it became trendy with the recent “Death Café” movement. Perhaps some gatherings are in order for whoever is ready to wrestle with death—as a regular monthly practice or an ad hoc basis as needed. I welcome your feedback. email@example.com