Thanatology is a domain of study which seeks to organize and curate experiences surrounding Death. Far from being a dispassionate scholarly pursuit, the thanatologist will leverage the collective wisdom of cultural “death lore” to help society, and the individual, take a holistic view of death while hopefully relieving the fear of demise which nags even the most rational pragmatist. Medical science has found ways to extend our lives, but are we generally worthy of an extension? Most people, given a biological reprieve, will probably continue as before. Whether death represents the permanent annihilation of consciousness remains unknown as does the prospect of eternal Paradise or Damnation. There is only one way to find out but, ya know, I can wait…
Our primary educational system does no one any favors by omitting essential discussions on things like tax preparation, the basics of contract law, and how to deal with the passage of a loved one. I’m not talking about a wholesale displacement of math, history, or language, but why not take some time for authentic dialogue on the practical issues? But, who am I kidding, as many adults refuse to discuss a basic Will out of fear that it will arouse the premature interest of the Grim Reaper. Of course, the phrase “Last Will and Testament” is pretty intimidating so maybe calling it something less threatening might help. Most families know only the name of the local funeral parlor and have only the vaguest of ideas about what to do after that. I was told by a physician, that when it’s someone’s time, it’s their time and it won’t be denied. It seemed like some bullshit a doctor might say to deflect oft-asked, yet unanswerable questions. But with experience, I’ve come to believe exactly that.
Speaking of The Grim Reaper, I had a high school drafting teacher, Mr. Johnson, whose side gig involved a militant form of Christian theology which held that humanity was in the midst of an unseen, yet literal, spiritual war wherein humans were daily tempted (even assaulted) by evil forces. I had never encountered someone whose religious beliefs were so well-integrated into his daily life that referencing the Whore of Babylon moments after reminding the class of an upcoming test seemed entirely natural to him. Thankfully, he exhibited none of the histrionics offered by the typical evangelical minister seeking to win souls by conjuring images of Hell. I’m not even sure he cared about saving souls. He seemed to function more as an embedded war correspondent, documenting the ongoing action as part of some larger crusade. He was also a Mason which, when combined with the Draftsman angle, gave me the creeps.
As an example, we were talking in class about The Exorcist, a then-recent movie. I had totally abandoned my work and was deep into conversation with Karen Murphy, talking about green vomit and rotating heads. Mr. Johnson, overhearing us, deadpanned, “Demons are real although they generally don’t manifest as portrayed in the movie as that can attract too much attention. The last thing the Devil wants is for you to believe in his existence.” (Clearly, a fan of the Screwtape Letters).
Psalm 89:48 “What man is he that liveth, and shall not see death? Shall he deliver his soul from the hand of the grave? Selah.“
This all became relevant when later that month a basketball star classmate, Kenny, died of an aneurysm while doing jump shots. It was a huge loss so much so that the local news came to cover the story and interview students who were all trying to put it into perspective. We found ourselves in Mr. Johnson’s class talking about it:
Me: It happened so fast. He was shooting baskets, looked up, and died.
Mr. Johnson: Kenny looked up because the Angel of Death appeared. He is 9 feet tall which is about 6 cubits (spoken like a true Draftsman).
Me: (Ignoring the nonchalant Angel of Death reference) No. they said he looked up because he had a brain aneurysm
Mr. Johnson: He looked up because FIRST, he saw the Angel of Death, and THEN had the aneurysm.
Me: Kind of unfair isn’t it? Being 9 feet tall is a huge advantage on a basketball court.
I wasn’t disrespecting Death or any Agents thereof but how could Mr. Johnson NOT have seen the irony of the situation? Of greater concern was why the Reaper NEEDED to be 9 feet tall? Was the journey to one’s final destination subject to a mugging by after-life thugs? The idea of a chaperone also shows up in the form of Charon who, for a payment, will usher the recently departed across the River Styx. (One would think that he could have retired long ago). I’m quite certain I would lose my coin almost immediately and have to barter my way across the water “I’ll clean your boat. Tell ya a story? Women these days !“
Is Anyone At Home?
Death is more about absence than anything else. If you witness the passage of someone or see them moments right after, you might see them breathing (which can happen in the form of agonal respiration) but it’s just as likely that your brain does some form of corrective interpolation to preserve the familiar, which is to continue seeing that person’s chest move when it really isn’t. Of course, we do that in life, don’t we? Viewing situations with a form of rationalization to preserve the familiar? Physical phenomena aside, what I have seen is a brief lingering as if the individual is saying goodbye to their own organism – taking one last look around before the departure.
But it doesn’t take long for the absence to manifest and, quite suddenly, no one is at home! To attempt communication would be futile, like knocking on a door of a vacated house expecting the former occupant to answer. But it’s not to be taken personally. There is no judgment or intended slight towards the observer who is incidental to the event which levels the playing field for those who thought they had some angle or insight. Actually, it makes clear that there really is no playing field and that what we know, or think we do, about Death is akin to a boy whistling in the dark as a form of self-comfort. Not that there is anything to be feared.
What Do I Do With All This Stuff?
Going through the possessions of a loved one is a tough task as inevitably you become the caretaker for the memories and emotional attachments of someone else. What do you keep, give away, or toss? (I can’t even make such determinations for my own stuff). It’s for sure that any action would disappoint the departed who had deliberately accumulated things based on the idea that they would continue to be lovingly cherished and never disposed of. The Egyptians went a little overboard with this idea but as they were affluent and had an undeniable flair for self-theater it was no surprise that they directed lots of wealth towards the assembly of some kick-ass tombs. The modern, less flamboyant, equivalent might be having to deal with lots of “brown furniture”, which was all the rage for those living through (or being born in close proximity to) the Great Depression.
I totally get it that “things” can remind us of better times or serve as indicators of ancestral sacrifice – “This chair was built by Uncle Jack during the flu outbreak of 22 using wood from a tree he chopped down while simultaneously fighting off a ravenous wolf pack using his one good hand”. That kind of thing makes sense to at least consider keeping but what about the mid-20th century vase or dusty dinner sets? Rather than treat it all as inventory in an estate, it’s better to view it as familial archaeology which allows one to better interpret the individual over time. I do not know why my Mother kept so many items of little practical use (an infinite supply of Christmas stationery, for example) though do understand that it somehow got her through some rough times. However, it doesn’t mean that it should hold an equal level of significance for me.
Most people will talk about observing the passing of another using hushed tones of reverence under the assumption that each passing is a mystic event, full of meaning and resolution – and usually, it is. However, a Bank’s liquor store regular told me that as his estranged brother was dying, the brother smiled and motioned him to come closer only to hear a hoarsely whispered:
I just wanted you to know that you can go fuck yourself
So much for the profound statements alleged to emanate from those situated on the axis between this realm and what lies beyond. The absence of deathbed confessions or lack of last-minute conveyance of heavenly revelations does not reduce the meaning of the event for either the subject or the observer. It has undeniable power all to itself – at least one of the participants can choose to make something of it. Possessions have a peculiar power to elevate or depress so choose carefully when sorting through them. This is also a reminder that should you find yourself with lots of stuff that someone else would have to eventually sort through then maybe figure out now if you really need to keep it all.