Learning About Dying

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:

  1. Prepare a living will for ourselves and encourage our loved ones to have one as well, to ensure that no extraordinary or grotesque measures can be taken by doctors or politicians or religious freaks to keep us alive against our will.
  2. Complete an organ and full-body donor form so that on our death our bodies are able to be used to make others’ lives better, and not become part of the human body landfill sites called cemeteries.
  3. Work to expand right-to-die and right to assisted suicide legislation.
  4. Talk with friends and family (especially children) about the simple truth of death and the folly of allowing it to be handled by exploiters and fear-mongers. Strongly discourage loved-ones from holding large, circus-like funeral and memorial events, and encourage instead simple, short, private and individually-selected acts of remembrance.
  5. Refuse to patronize films and television programs and video games that trivialize and moralize death and violence (in action films, it’s usually the evil-doers that die, painfully; in horror films it’s usually the sexually promiscuous).
  6. Patronize media that refuse to censor (or self-censor) information and images of death. War is only possible when the citizens who accede to it cannot see its ghastly consequences. This isn’t sensationalism, it’s telling the truth.
  7. Use our new and fearless knowledge of death to inspire us to live our lives to the fullest, instead of allowing our ignorance of it to be exploited to repress us.

Photo from The Memory Hole

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10 Responses to Learning About Dying

  1. filchyboy says:

    The “culture of life” is a horrible & misleading marketing campaign. Makes me want to puke evey time I see or hear it mentioned. My daughter and I were discussing the abject hypocrisy of it all just last night. Great post Dave!

  2. Gideon says:

    Stranger that that, the bible is very clear about dead and leaves no room at all for an immortal soul or other fantasies. It tends to have a very healthy down to earth look on dead: It suck.Compare for example this passage from Ecclesiastes 9:4-10.”… a live dog is better off than a dead lion. For the living are conscious that they will die; but as for the dead, they are conscious of nothing at all, neither do they anymore have wages, because the remembrance of them has been forgotten. Also, their love and their hate and their jealousy have already perished, and they have no portion anymore to time indefinite in anything that has to be done under the sun.””Go, eat your food with rejoicing and drink your wine with a good heart, because already the [true] God has found pleasure in your works. On every occasion let your garments prove to be white, and let oil not be lacking upon your head. See life with the wife whom you love all the days of your vain life that He has given you under the sun, all the days of your vanity, for that is your portion in life and in your hard work with which you are working hard under the sun. All that your hand finds to do, do with your very power, for there is no work nor devising nor knowledge nor wisdom in She´ol, the place to which you are going.”That most christian religions tend to embrace a fantasy world of immortal souls, that they choose to live in denial of the truth which even their own holy books are so clear about, is truly beyond my comprehension.

  3. medaille says:

    Ecclesiastes 9:1-4 1 So I reflected on all this and concluded that the righteous and the wise and what they do are in God’s hands, but no man knows whether love or hate awaits him. 2 All share a common destiny

  4. medaille says:

    I’m not a huge organized religion person, but I interpret this not to mean that there isn’t a place for your soul after life, but that you cannot influence where you go after you die and that you cannot change the fact that since you are part man you are also part evil. He’s saying that since your actions are influenced by the partly evil part of you (man) and the God that acts through you. Try to do good, but know that you cannot get overconfident since you are part evil, and also know that you should feel good while you are here, since you cannot escape the judgement and you cannot know whether you are judged good or evil. Know that in order to be judged good, you must place your actions entirely in gods hands and not at the whims of man.Thats how I interpret it, I don’t think I am reading any more into it than you are though or that I am missing where it stated there was no afterlife, just a different interpretation I guess. It might be influenced from outside the passage since I’m influenced everywhere I am.

  5. Dave Pollard says:

    Christopher: AmenGideon/Medaille: Thanks — Interesting issue. I confess I’m a believer in neither afterlife nor ‘good & evil’, so I’ll stay out of this debate. It is true that the reason a lot of people won’t sign organ donor cards is because of fears driven by religious superstition.

  6. Zach says:

    You are passing judgement on organized religion, so why are you concerned them telling you you are being judged? Its not about respect for the dead, its about respect for the grief of their loved ones. You’re absolutely right, what people really need is a grisely dose of reality brought straight to their TV sets! That’ll teach ’em! (Teach them fear most likely.) I hope your family is well.

  7. Herbinator says:

    Death is an important part of life that we should all learn to respect. Without death there would be no life … we’d all be rocks.

  8. Cyndy says:

    The following is a poem Craig wrote when a religious family mamber tried to instill the guilt and tried to get him to accept her god before he died: Beyond Imagination(A Poem for a Proselytizer)“Imagine there’s no heaven.It’s easy if you try.No hell below us.Above us only sky.”I came into this world naked of body.I will leave this world naked of mind.I have no philosophy.All labels, ‘ologies and ‘isms will be left behind.I kneel before the Cosmos as She is,She is my Mother.I do not fear Death.But like Jesus in GethsemaneI know anxiety regarding that which I must pass through.If you don’t, then I am sorry that you have so little imagination.Or are you just brave?What did I do while in my body?I listened to music beyond imagination.I experienced ancient drugs beyond imagination.I read fantastic literature beyond imagination.I enjoyed sensual pleasure beyond imagination.I saw beauty beyond imagination.I knew love beyond imagination.

  9. I’d go so far as to say that the grief of loved ones shouldn’t necessarily be ‘respected’ in the disposal of remains; it certainly pales in comparison to the chance for a living human to receive a new liver or lungs, or even for science – which benefits all mankind – to advance. Once the body ceases to be alive, it’s just a piece of meat. Who owns it? The state, or the estate?Also, let’s not forget that grief is a very strong emotion that overcomes rationality. People who are greiving are, sometimes, not in a position to make a choice that will even help themselves (often, in fact, just the opposite). So, I’m not sure that what comforts the family and friends should be what prevails; was hanging onto the husk of their dead daughter actually helping the Schaivos? Doubtful. It was comforting to them, certainly. But not good for them.

  10. David Jones says:

    Religion exploits death for profit as it does the invented notion of “sin.”

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