Tuesday, 3 June 2014


“We owe respect to the living; to the dead we owe only truth.” -Voltaire

Death is inevitable; to try and evade it, is foolish, we all know that! Yet how many of us live our life as though we were immortal? We have forgotten that daily ritual our forebears engaged in: The reminder of one’s death by looking at the Latin inscription “Memento Mori” usually adorning a suitably morbid artefact, or the daily contemplation of a skull or other such symbol of mortality. We distance ourselves from even the idea of death and we live surrounded by a youth-oriented, “fun” culture where the present and ephemeral pleasures are glorified with dying marginalised in our lives. Such lives soon run out of energy and old age soon succeeds middle age, with withdrawal from the society that is so averse to maturity, decline and death.

There are many who live their life devoted to pursuits that are equally futile and they too ignore death. We once had an acquaintance who spent his whole life making money and spending precious little time enjoying it. When he was dying of lung cancer he spent his last days ringing his stockbroker in order to sell and buy shares so as to maximise his profits. The odd thing was that he was an old bachelor with no close family that survived him. He had no friends and he died intestate, so his considerable fortune went to the State. It was a very sad situation, as I recall it, and if his last thoughts were on money and how to make more of it (for what reason, I do not know) and to me it seemed the ultimate wasted action of a life wasted.

We live surrounded by death and yet we turn away from it. Our clinical, hygienic, hedonistic existence in the West shuns death and worships life. It is not wrong to celebrate life and live it to the maximum, but it is a biased existence if one ignores the ultimate end of it - just as it foolish to toss a coin and expect it to turn up heads all the time. If a death happens close to us we are loth to acknowledge it, it makes us uncomfortable, and close contact with it is avoided. Mechanisms in place in our society help us to distance ourselves from death.  Public expressions of grief and mourning are frowned upon and even funerals have become “Celebrations of the Life of…” Many such funerals become a sideshow of a rose-tinted biography, the eulogy replete with amusing anecdotes and expurgated versions of the truth that are illustrated with charming photographs. The dead person is discreetly out of view and the wake is a long-dead tradition that is itself nowadays almost never practised.

It is true, as Sophocles remarks: “If it were possible to heal sorrow by weeping and to raise the dead with tears, gold would be less prized than grief.” However to grieve the dead is something that we must do, the psychologists tell us. It very well to be very civilised and mourn one’s dead with a brave smile, remembering the good points of their life, but if one bottles up the feelings of loss and dams the rivers of sorrow, the pressure builds up and an irruption of that woe deep into the heart is inescapable and will have dire consequences. One may frown at the very public grief exhibited at the traditional Mediterranean funerals - the black dresses, the wails of woe and the unstoppable tears – it all may seem undignified and excessive to the Western eye, but this outpouring of grief is a catharsis, the cleansing of a soul sullied by the death of a loved one.

We expect people to live a long life this day and age. Infant mortality in the West has declined dramatically over the last century and modern medicine carries out its daily miracles of life extension and elimination of what in the past were killer diseases. We have forgotten how to die in the West and we have forgotten to remember the inevitability of death’s arrival. Similarly, we have forgotten how to grieve. I am not suggesting that the death of a loved one leaves us cold and we are not hurt by it, nor that we have become so callous as to continue our life as before without a second thought. But we are embarrassed by death, and its “ncommonness” has made us feel unable to cope with its occurrence. Hence, our resort to life even in the face of death. But this postponement of the expression of grief, the holding back of tears, the exhibit of a cool exterior, the civilised delay in the acknowledgement of the death is harmful. “Waiting is worse than knowing. Grief rends the heart cleanly, that it may begin to heal; waiting shreds the spirit.” wrote Morgan Llywelyn.

I have been thinking of death a lot lately as I have had some people relatively close to me and some not so close die. A colleague’s mother died after a long fight with cancer. The brother of a friend died in a car accident recently and one of my mother’s friends also expired lately. I attended one funeral and the theme there was one of life and happy memories. The MC (what else can I call him?) kept the whole affair upbeat and the as the deceased was an atheist, the ceremony took place in a hall. A cremation followed and the neither family or friends attended it, but all were present after the ceremony for drinks and refreshments. The undertakers were there and they did everything that was necessary for the “disposal” of the body. The move away from religion in many modern Western countries has also reified death and the attitude towards as an end rather than a new beginning has contributed to this glorification of life.

I sat stunned through the whole proceedings and felt completely mortified, hardly being able to restrain my tears while the guests laughed at appropriate parts in the eulogy where the young man’s “life was celebrated”. It was a very civilised affair, the mother of the dead man wore a beautiful pink dress, the father a smart grey suit, the brother of the dead man talked with gusto and his speech was anything but elegiac in tone, while the guests were a multicoloured crowd who had a good time at the function afterwards.

Did that family not feel pain and grief? Of course they did! Did they not feel a loss and didn’t they love their departed son, brother? Of course they did! Did they display their emotions? No, of course not… A suitable restraint was shown. Their grief was controlled or postponed, it was not a public ourpouring. In any case that pain must have remained bottled up inside them and must have gnawed their hearts and souls. Is our modern day coping mechanism an active disregard of death?

In the past, death was commonplace and people regarded it with respect, but also with familiarity. Death was a part of family life. Up to the 19th century most people died in their homes, among their relatives. In the close-knit communities of villages, passers-by would join the priest bearing the last sacrament on his visit to the dying. Death did not spare babies or children who succumbed to diphtheria, whooping cough and all manner of other childhood infections. Young people in their prime were taken by tuberculosis and pneumonia. Grief was immediate, cathartic and well supported by an empathising community who had all gone through similar experiences.

Modern medicine and the advances in disease prevention and treatment did much to subvert this acceptance of death. The protraction of the dying process has become a major medical industry. Medicine regards death as alien, bad, unnatural and to be avoided at all costs. Doctors now concentrate on “curing”, with the “caring” for the sick person having assumed a secondary role. The increasing rationality and spread of the scientific method, industrialisation and urbanisation led, within a few decades, to a striking change of attitudes to death. In the industrialised nations, many people now die in hospitals or hospices, away from most of their family and friends. The nuclear family of the Western world has also isolated a lot of the elderly dying people and helps their family distance themselves from death.

The development of the death industry has parallelled these medical advances. Evelyn Waugh’s “The Loved One” views this industry with great irony and comments wryly on our modern attitudes to death. Drive-in cemeteries have appeared, for those who need to pay their respects to the dead while dealing with other pressing engagements also. The disposal of the body has become a means of quelling the voices of guilt and magnificent coffins, elaborate embalming methods and grand graves are a means of satisfying a sense of obligation towards the dead person. How different from the very simple funerals of the past – a shroud and a wooden box. Og Mandino has the right idea when he remarks: “Beginning today, treat everyone you meet as if they were going to be dead by midnight. Extend to them all the care, kindness, and understanding you can muster, and do it with no thought of any reward. Your life will never be the same again.”

Death is part of life. We must learn to accept it and deal with it when it happens. We must grieve our loved ones’ death openly and sincerely, and allow our friends to share our pain with us. Death should not be feared or shunned, but on the other hand life is too precious to be wasted and death should not be actively sought. Be happy while you live, as when you die you will be a long time dead! Grieve for your dead, seek the support of family and friends, don't be afraid to let your emotions show. Death ungrieved for is a like a cancer that consumes us and destroys us. Tears cleanse our soul and grief expressed is a balm to a heart ravaged by death.

The illustration above is the painting “Memento Mori 'To This Favour'” by William Michael Harnett, ca 1879


  1. A memento mori that you started with is an artistic or symbolic reminder of the inevitability of death. We often talk about this genre of paintings in lectures so it is interesting for me to watch students' responses. The art reminds the individual viewer that his time on earth grows shorter with each passing minute. And it warns the viewer that he better get rid of all the wasteful distractions that create immorality in his business and family life.

    You said it yourself: We must grieve our loved ones’ death openly and sincerely, and allow our friends to share our pain with us. Death should not be feared or shunned, but on the other hand life is too precious to be wasted.

  2. "Our clinical, hygienic, hedonistic existence in the West shuns death and worships life." How true this is, Nicholas. As you say we ignore death and the spiritual things and concentrate on the material things and youth-oriented culture nowadays. No surprise that even death is turned into something that harks back to life and good things and good times...

  3. I admit that I don't like "celebrations" instead of proper funerals and I DO bawl my eyes out if a loved has passed away. It is cathartic, as you say.

  4. Very deep and a profound article!
    Thank you!