|The Idea: Governments and organized religion exploit our ignorance and fear of death, to everyone’s disadvantage. It’s time we faced down the exploiters and faced up to death’s simple truths.
Nowhere is our modern society’s squeamishness about telling the truth more bizarrely evident than in how we deal with death. In nature, and in gatherer-hunter human communities, death is witnessed briefly (a creature is killed and devoured by another, and usually within hours virtually nothing of its body remains) and accepted as part of the rhythm and pattern of life. Animals that reach old age generally choose to go off by themselves to die, perhaps to lessen the grief of their loved ones when that moment comes. Most animals live rich emotional lives, and undoubtedly experience grief over the death of a loved one, but except for animals with exceptional memories (like elephants) that grief would appear to be short-lived. There is no evolutionary (or any other) advantage to dwelling on grief, so fast healing is selected for.
Most gatherer-hunter cultures do not lay a guilt trip on their members at the moment of death, acknowledging that for every creature, both the body and the spirit are recycled in some way when we die. Death is acknowledged as part of the cycle, and is not cause for undue mourning or moralizing. Death, and the recently dead, are treated with great respect, and survivors honour the dead not by endless grieving but by living a full life.
Our culture takes a much more cowardly and perverse approach to teaching us about death. On the one hand, our ‘entertainment media’ bombard us with thousands, even millions of images of death, almost all of them ‘bad guys’ who deserved to die. This is a depraved way of numbing us to the importance and sacred nature of life and the arbitrariness of death, and overlaying it with a fake morality. When we witness thousands of fake deaths, almost all ‘deserved’, how are we expected to react when we see one in real life, generally undeserved? We are simply incapable of handling it, or processing it. Our ‘trained’ reaction is that it’s unfair, wrong, that only the bad die, so this must be some kind of terrible mistake. Instead of acceptance, then, we respond with anger, we want vengeance, someone to blame.
Modern organized religions cruelly exploit death to extend their power over their brainwashed members. If you lived a bad life, as assessed by some ‘higher judge’, you are condemned to an eternity of pain and anguish. If you fail to get last rites you cannot be admitted to heaven. When someone bad dies, it is divine will, and everyone else who misbehaves or doesn’t abide by the one true religion had better watch out. When someone good dies, it is because they were too good for mere mortal humans, so they were called to a divine purpose in heaven — No chance for a ‘put-down’ of those left behind is ever missed. And worst of all, we are told that all those who died are eternally watching us, passing judgement on everything we do. Death is not treated as an intrinsic part of the wondrous cycle of life, it is judgement day. And religious services encourage us to wallow in grief: The body is prettied up and displayed to a crowd who are encouraged to get as worked up as possible in their grief while some priest explains the ‘meaning’ of death. Then people are asked to come up and tell stories about the deceased until they break down. Finally, the body must be buried intact, wasting valuable land for pomp and ritual and depriving waiting patients and science of organs and cadavers that could save other lives. This, according to organized religion, is how we ‘respect’ the dead. Don’t let these leeches get their hands on my body.
And if we dare try to end a life when medical science can possibly extend it, even if that life is full of constant anguish and suffering, even when life has effectively ended (as in the brain-dead), organized religion and organized government rush in and prohibit us from doing so.
We may see millions of fake deaths on film, but our culture doesn’t want us to see any real death. Governments and the media are complicit in not allowing us to see the deadly consequences of our wars and acts of violence: No pictures of dead and dismembered Iraqi children lying in the rubble of aerial raids can be shown to the home audience. Even pictures of flag-draped coffins containing our own dead troops are forbidden. Those who have the temerity to die outside of the hospital or the nursing home are rushed to the morgue before anyone can see them.
The combination of this obsession, moralizing, denial, ignorance and exploitation of death only serves to increase the fear and trauma we feel when we actually encounter it. But if we just spent a short time thinking critically about it, talking to one another about it, and learning from nature, we could liberate ourselves from death’s exploiters and reduce its fear and trauma to us, and show a lot more genuine respect for the dead in the process. If we did that, except for those hopelessly under the control of organized religion, we would probably do the following:
Photo from The Memory Hole