Tuesday, 26 January 2010

mortality awareness: the upside

It seems to me that our society (i.e. Westernised industrial cultures) suffer from widespread emotional illiteracy and intellectual autism about the way we face the end of a human life. I began writing this blog because I needed to explore and develop my own ideas on this sort of topic; if anyone reads this stuff, then I hope it may be interesting, possibly even useful. It's certainly useful to me, and you've got to start somewhere, haven't you?.

We have, in the UK and in many other industrial Westernised societies, many people without any very active religious belief, who don't believe in an afterlife beyond a vague hope, and who have to deal with the fact of their own mortality. Or they don't deal with it at all. I think that if more of us had a workable relationship with the fact of our mortality, we might develop a more socially useful approach to end-of-life questions such as euthanasia and suicide. We also might enjoy life more. So the obvious paradox is: I enjoy life here and now more, by thinking quite hard, if only occasionally, about death. Not death in general - my own mortality, my life-and-death-as-one thing.

It's taken me a long time to realise that you get more out of life by having an understanding of your own mortality in your awareness; it's not gloomy, depressing or morbid, it's healthy and life-enhancing. I don't need to sit looking at a skull on my desk all day long - "memento mori" - I just needed to work my way towards accepting the absolute fact of my own mortality.

That's not to say it isn't scary at times, both with regard to how I'm going to die (perfectly well at present, thanks for asking..)and with regard to the totalitarian and absolute nature of death - I mean, the Reaper isn't a liberal, is he? He doesn't negotiate. He does not say "When you're ready," or "OK, another fortnight then, so you can say sorry to those 20 people on your list," or "well I take your point but it all depends what you mean by 'dying,' you see.." No, he's the boss: "In my office. Now."

So that makes one somewhat thoughtful and respectful. And yet reaching a better understanding has enhanced my sense of living in the present.

This journeytowards mortalityawareness probably suits people as they get a little older; we don't want kids and young people to wander round the land murmering "Alas, poor Yorick, I knew him, Horatio." At least, not more frequently than at Yorick's funeral, anyway.

Coming soon in this very blog: bodies. What do do with and about them, at funerals? I bet you can hardly wait.

Er...I mean dead bodies, of course, not the appetising Brad Pitt/Kiera Knightley kind.


  1. It's certainly true that you get more out of life if you've got your head around what's coming. An awareness of death lends urgency and piquancy to being alive. But I don't know that I can acquiesce with good grace. Decrepitude is a waste of a good person. Death is an all-conquering bastard to whom I shall never pay obeisance, get me as he/she will. I think that young people do, actually, need to start getting their heads around it as early as possible. You never know when someone's going to die - death has the manners of a suicide bomber. We can't cope if we haven't rehearsed.

    Thought provoking post!

  2. I used to know one Mahatma Gurucharnanand. He was such a lovely bloke! I can't remember him without a beaming smile. Well, someone asked him why he always looked so happy, and I think often of his reply:

    "Beacause I always remember two things - my breath, and my death."