It seems that we are members of the only animal species that lives most of its life knowing that it’s going to die. I sometimes wonder if life would be easier if we didn’t know it. It really is the worst of all spoilers. Happy Monday, by the way.
Now, there are other animals that do seem to realize when death is approaching; venerable elephants famously leave their pack to die in seclusion, and dogs and cats often run away from home or hide when their end is near.
But I suspect they don’t quite know why they’re inclined to do these things. It seems unlikely that they do it out of a rational understanding of their life cycle; I suspect that the urge just mysteriously comes over them along with the illness and weakness, and they take heed.
In any case, they don’t seem to know what’s coming until it’s on their doorstep.
Human beings, for better or worse, inevitably gather a more complete understanding of death, and very early on. We learn the concept of death as children. A person can’t live for more than four or five years without discovering the unpleasant fact that they are ultimately, well, doomed. Every child soon encounters a situation that someone else must help them understand by breaking this sad news, whether it’s when a pet disappears, when they ask where their grandma’s grandma is, or when they watch the Mr Hooper episode of Sesame Street.
It’s quite an unsettling revelation, and one of the few that is truly beyond doubt. As we live our lives, it’s hard to completely forget about it, so people all over the world have come to handle this troublesome knowledge some way or another.
How Do People Deal With It?
Perhaps it’s the fact that we’re privy to this disturbing information that makes humanity so troubled.
Animals don’t have funerals for each other, as far as I know. Curiously, nor do they fret about wasting their afternoon or not living up to their potential.
There are thousands of theories, mythologies, and beliefs about what happens to a person who dies, but to be frank nobody really knows. All we know is that whatever form the deceased take is not the same one they have when they’re alive. They disappear from our material world, that’s all we can really tell, if we’re to suspend any wishful thinking.
Judging by fossil records, human beings have been burying each other ceremonially for about 130,000 years. Tools, clothing, and treasures lie neatly alongside ancient skeletons, as if the mourners were quite convinced they’d be useful there.
Did we, at some point, become smart enough to recognize the possibility (or probability?) of life after death? Or did we just become a little too aware of our impending doom, and develop the fanciful notion that life paradoxically goes on after death, just somewhere else.
It couldn’t just end, right?
It seems to me that most people find that thought unacceptable. I don’t think it’s too cynical to surmise that many traditional teachings about life after death are probably products of our death anxiety, rather than a result of careful reasoning or personal experience.
I am not arguing that there is no life after death, not at all. I don’t think debating the topic makes much sense. We just don’t have any first hand information about it, just speculation, hope and traditional beliefs. People tend to be very strongly attached to their beliefs on this issue, which only seems to testify to the level of anxiety and uncertainty death arouses in all of us.
My only argument is that as a species we are profoundly uncomfortable with the prospect of death, and we invest great amounts energy trying to conquer it, escape it or deny that it even really happens.
The recurring theme is that if we can just live in a certain way, if we can just sacrifice enough money, time or worldly things, we can circumvent the inevitability and finality of death. Or at least have a chance.
Psychologist Ernest Becker wrote a Pulitzer Prize-Winning book in 1973 called Denial of Death, in which he argues that human civilization is essentially an elaborate mechanism to defend ourselves from the unbearable knowledge that we are going to die.
He theorizes that each of us has an overwhelming urge to create or become part of something that we suppose to be eternal, a motive which he refers to as our “hero project.” People in all walks of life create great monuments and works of art, raise children to succeed in ways they never could, seek to become famous, devote themselves to religions that promise eternal life, or in some other way build something that will outlast their physical selves. The profession of writing has long been associated with attempts to become, at least in part, immortal.
In all cases, these pursuits consume one’s time and energy in greater quantities than anything else they do. Whether the aim is becoming a great writer, raising brilliant children, taking over nations, or amassing great wealth, they inevitably become one’s purpose in life.
Monuments of Death
I just finished watching an incredible BBC documentary called Around the World in 80 Treasures. Architectural historian Dan Cruickshank embarks on a five-month round-the world journey in which he visits 80 astounding human creations: temples, monuments, buildings and works of art.
Almost all of these extraordinary creations venerate one of a small group of familiar human themes: fertility, weather and climate, God, the heavens, and fortune.
Near the end of the documentary, while reflecting on a bridge over a Venetian canal, Cruickshank confides that he couldn’t help but be affected by the fact that an overwhelming number of these great treasures had to do with death. Evidently, it has been very much on the minds of people from every culture throughout history. Sacrificial sites, tombs and mausoleums comprise some of the grandest, most visually and spiritually imposing constructions on earth.
The surface of the planet is adorned with epic “hero projects,” and the amount of effort and money involved in creating them is often staggering. Here are two memorable examples:
The Great Pyramid
The Pharaoh Khufu is said to have conscripted over 100,000 people for 20 years to build his tomb. Today it’s one of the world’s most iconic images. It has been 4,575 years since his death, and here I am talking about him. But I couldn’t tell you anything else about the guy, except that he had nine sons and fifteen daughters.
The Terracotta Warriors
The first emperor of the Chinese Qin dynasty, Qin Shi Huang, was buried with an army of over 8,000 life-sized warriors, horses and chariots, all molded in terracotta. According to the ancient historian Sima Qian, only a small part of his tomb has been uncovered; he is said to also be buried with “palaces, scenic towers, officials, valuable utensils and ‘wonderful objects,'” whose creation involved 700,000 workers. He was thirteen years old when construction began.
Life Can’t Be Owned
There is a brilliant line in a Dresden Dolls song:
By counting your blessings you wind up in debt
It starts with your family and ends in your bed
Life is a gift that comes to us out of nowhere, but I think we sometimes have trouble admitting to ourselves that is only borrowed. As attached as we become to it, we have to give it back eventually.
Don’t get me wrong, I am humbled by the ingenuity and grandeur of the above monuments, but it appears to me that these individuals were trying to exert enormous amounts of worldly power in a vain attempt to defeat death. I suppose they reasoned that their privileged position in life should somehow exempt them from paying back the only loan that can’t be defaulted on.
I don’t know what happens after death, but I would guess that for all his wealth and ambition, Khufu didn’t end up any closer to God than did the slaves who toiled to death building his tomb.
Can we truly come to terms with the idea of absolute mortality, without adding any caveats, fantasies, or what-ifs? I’ve thought about it all night, and to speak only for myself, the answer so far is no. I can’t, not really anyway. I see now that I am indeed working on a hero project of sorts. Thanks for reading it.
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