Thinking about death

I mentioned Still Life yesterday; I wasn’t terribly impressed by the movie. One of the points I disagreed with was the treatment of death – what matters to a person before and after their death. [mild spoiler alert – discussion of the movie’s ending follows]. 

In Still Life, the protagonist looks after the funerals of deceased individuals, where the next of kin can’t be found. He researches their lives, writes detailed eulogies for them, selects personalised music, and orders ornate coffins instead of cremations (I’ve looked for clips as examples, but there don’t seem to be any online yet).

The priests and his supervisors roll their eyes, but the film asks the viewers to side with the protagonist, how he cares for those who’ve died, and sympathise with his noble effort. At the end of the movie, when he’s died, we see the ghosts of all those he’s cared for, gathering around his tomb (unattended by any living people); a demonstration of the nobility of his effort.

I’m unconvinced. In fact, I think the movie has it … dead wrong. There’s a moment when the supervisor says ‘Of course, if it’s for the living …’, as justification for more expensive funerals. I agree; I think funerals make a lot of sense for the living, as a way of recognising, mourning, and beginning to accept a tremendous loss. I think, though, that the living are who funerals are for; if there is no-one living to grieve, it doesn’t make much sense to me to have an ornate process.

It reminds me of two essays I’ve read at different points, that touch on death. Recently I read a piece by Diana Athill, It’s silly to be frightened of being dead. Athill reflects on a number of things, including that it is not death that is to be feared, but the process of dying.

… death was just something that would occur when I was old – and which was not, and never had been, frightening.

That this was true, I owe to Montaigne. I can’t remember when I read, or was told, that he considered it a good thing to spend a short time every day thinking about death, thus getting used to its inevitability and coming to understand that something inevitable is natural and can’t be too bad, but it was in my early teens, and it struck me as a sensible idea. Of course I didn’t set out to think about death in a regular way every day, but I did think about it quite often, and sure enough, it worked. Why coming to see death’s naturalness should have caused belief in an afterlife to melt away, I am unsure, but it did.

She reflects on some of her own near death experiences, and the process of dying. But throughout it all is the understanding that this, now, the life we have, is very much the important part of the process. What happens after we are gone is, to the dead individual, irrelevant, much as, in an interesting way, the millions of years that preceded us are irrelevant (another anecdote in her piece).

From another angle, Samuel Scheffler makes an interesting argument that part of what matters to us is not our individual death, but the continuation of other human beings. I can’t find the article I originally read, but there’s a shorter summary over at the New York Times (and he’s written a book):

Although we know that humanity won’t exist forever, most of us take it for granted that the human race will survive, at least for a while, after we ourselves are gone.

Because we take this belief for granted, we don’t think much about its significance. Yet I think that this belief plays an extremely important role in our lives, quietly but critically shaping our values, commitments and sense of what is worth doing.

I think both of those angles are important. Death is a difficult, complex, and important topic; and there is a lot of room for discussion, and really good art. But having ornate funerals for people who are gone, when no-one else is around to appreciate them, doesn’t make much sense to me.

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