Christopher Lasch was many things, most prominently an intellectual curmudgeon. Twenty years ago, reading The True and Only Heaven was a bracing splash of cold water in the face. My father used to tell me, "You don't know every goddamn thing." Lasch said the same thing in several hundred pages of dense, historical prose.
I got thinking about Lasch this morning after reading this article. One of the late historian's main points early on in this work is the way progress, and its social and cultural forms, have separated us from nature to the point that, rather than see death as an integral part of life, we fear it so much we either prolong it artificially, or shunt the dying away as far as possible, very often with the excuse of protecting children from exposure to it. Lasch notes that, as late is mid-Victorian Britain, families would gather around a death bed, wishing the parting relative one final goodbye, often praying and singing hymns as the final moments ticked away.
The one flaw in this article, to my mind, is framing the discussion of death as something that occurs "naturally" only to the elderly. Death comes when it comes. As a pastor's spouse, I've been to the funerals of infants, of children and youth, of people my own age, and centenarians. One thing I've come to understand is that death, while not precisely a welcome guest at the table, nor one whose approach is always greeted with open arms, is still always there. Whether by accident - a slip down a flight of stairs, or stepping off a curb too soon - design - one's life is ended by one's own hand or that of another - or nature - from foreign invaders to our bodies betraying us through cancer to our bodies failing us; I've seen all these at every age from a few months to 102 years old.
I find it fascinating that there are so many people in the world who are terrified of death. Spiders I can understand. Even though I'm not particularly frightened of snakes, I get that, too; but death? That's like being afraid of breathing or having a bowel movement. Those are things that everyone does, too, and no one sits around and has deep discussions over the inherent meaning of defecation. Death, for some odd reason, is the one event in our lives people either refuse to discuss, or pretend has some deep significance.
You want to know what I think happens when we die?
Our bodies cease to operate.
That's it. Oh, and flies and beetles and bacteria suddenly have a place to eat. Nothing wrong with that, either. Part of me would, rather than be cremated, allow myself to feed to hordes of creatures who would use it to sustain themselves and their progeny. It isn't like, at that point, I'm using any of it.
We waste far too much time, far too many resources, and far too much emotional energy carrying on over something that is inevitable. As a seminary professor of mine said once, the death rate is the same it's always been - 100%. The least we can do is accept this, and let doctors and nurses help those they can help, while embracing our loved ones so they don't have to go down that long dark corridor alone.