Revisited: Thoughts on death and dying

I’ve been thinking lately about death and dying, and there are a few things I don’t like about it.

Obituaries, for one. I find myself being drawn to reading the obituaries in the local paper, since I’m more likely to find people I know hanging out on that page than in sections like sports, weddings or commodities futures. As my young son used to observe as we’d drive past a cemetery – “that’s where the dead people live” – I think it’s time for us to take a fresh look at the concept of death notices.

Currently we get to read all about how old people were, who some of their survivors were, and which email address condolences can be sent to. We’re told that they “passed,” “departed this life,” “were funeralized” or “went to be with [their] Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ,” but are given few other details. Sure, some notices may say that the departed passed “peacefully but unexpectedly” or “after a courageous fight.” That doesn’t really tell us enough. What we don’t get to hear, unless we’re good at reading between the lines, is what everyone really wants to know – the cause of death. If, in lieu of flowers, mourners are asked to make a donation to the National Skydiving Association, there’s a decent chance that the dead guy fell 10,000 feet out of an airplane. If they were employed by Johnson’s Crushing and Hacking, Inc., it’s a fairly safe bet they were killed in an industrial accident.

I think it’s a shame that the dead and their family members have to be ashamed of the way in which they left this earth for realms unknown. We have a much better understanding these days of what’s involved in the cessation of bodily functions, and it’s usually not anything to be particularly embarrassed about. My face might be red (before turning ashen) if it’s reported that I died trying to hold down a mattress in the back of a speeding pickup truck before the mattress became airborne. But at least everyone would know I was the kind of guy to help move a friend to his new apartment.

Then there’s the issue of what to do if your passing is going to take a while. No one wants to die of a lingering, painful illness, though I can’t say for sure I’d prefer the quick and easy death involved in a head-on train impact. You hear people saying they don’t want to spend their last days lying in a hospital bed hooked up to all manner of mechanical intervention to keep them alive. “I’d rather be home with my family,” they say, conveniently forgetting the smell of the cat box, the annoying telephone solicitations and how far ten steps to the bathroom seems when you’re no longer the most continent person in the home.

Before I’m discharged to my cluttered, dusty bedroom, I’d want to know more about which particular machines I’d be hooked up to if I stayed in the hospital. Might there be morphine involved? High-definition satellite television? The ability to pee without having to get out of bed? Talk about being treated and released. I’d be tempted to sign up for that now if I didn’t have to start paying for four years of college education this fall.

Speaking of early enrollment, I read a science fiction story once where members of the aging population were given the opportunity to end their lives sooner rather than later in return for a cash reward, a fabulous vacation and a pain-free passing. The short-term expense to society would be offset by the decades in which the fading individual was not eating their meals on wheels and using up other social services that might be better dedicated to those who could chase down their own food. I think this proposal should be given serious consideration. Put me down for spending a week in a hot tub on cruise ship eating prime rib with Anne Hathaway.

There’s one important consideration to reconcile before this can become a workable public policy: how you would create the least difficult death. Humanity has had a long history of failing to figure out the easiest way to go, if you can use execution methods as any example. The intentionally cruel attempts of ancient peoples – stoning, crucifixion, being fed to whatever wildlife was handy and hungry – gave way in recent centuries to progressively more user-friendly methods. The guillotine, gallows, electric chair and lethal injection were all thought at one time or another to be humane choices, though I don’t think any are quite my cup of poisoned tea. I think more research is needed to figure the fastest way out, and might I suggest the cast of the movie “Twilight” as possible volunteers in this study.

Finally, there’s the question of the afterlife. Most organized religions regard self-destruction as a sin, probably because it can make such a serious dent in their membership rolls. If you get to the other side legitimately and have lived a relatively good life, most creeds will give you a pass to a magnificent paradise featuring angels, harps, virgins, clouds, cows, gods with lots of extra arms, and all your dead relatives, though presumably the grumpy ones will have found other accommodations. If you’ve sinned or, in the Southern Baptist tradition, done a disco dance, you instead are consigned to a hell that will likely include at least one Bee Gee as well as a lot of other horrible stuff.

I honestly don’t know what waits for me in the Great Beyond. My best guess is that it’s eons and eons of nothingness, kind of like what the A&E channel has become. It’s only because we have such difficulty imagining what that void would feel like that we’ve come up with all these elaborate afterlife scenarios. Since they can’t all have it right, and because I hesitate to cast my lot with a randomly chosen sect (with my luck I’d get Zoroastrianism, which preaches a final purgation of evil from the Earth through a tidal wave of molten metal — ouch!), I prefer to think that you get whatever it is you believed in while you were alive.

And for me, that’s where Anne Hathaway comes in again.

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4 Responses to “Revisited: Thoughts on death and dying”

  1. fakename2 Says:

    I’m with you! Not telling how the person died is one of my serious pet peeves. When I die I want my obit to say why, that is, unless I accidentally off myself hanging naked in a hotel closet a la Keith Carradine. (Not likely, but who knows what may happen once Alzheimer’s really sets in.)

  2. tychy Says:

    very funny, as always – especially the crack about the A&E channel – but your writing is getting morbid. reminds me of the lines by philip larkin about death being a mountain that is always in view, but for some is “rising ground.”

  3. spicyt Says:

    Nice one! I actually do read the obits frequently…mostly a throw back from my nursing days and also probably due to my chronic health issues and the fact that I almost died a few years ago…it has piqued my interest in death, I also am really reading a book on life after death too! I am Christian, so hopefully I won’t go to Hell for reading it! 😉

  4. pclark138 Says:

    Nice post. Way to spin the issue of death.

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