Let’s Talk About Death, Baby
Trees, Sydney Helland
Zinta Avens Auzins and Joseph Craddock set out to explore the idea of death by interviewing each other.
What was your first experience or memory of the concept of death?
Zinta: Death was the subject of a series of some of my earliest memories. Sure, I remember the Hawaiian-themed dress I wore on the first day of kindergarten, and my mom still has the drawing I made of myself that day. Apparently I only knew how to represent multiple colours as stripes because in the crayon drawing my dress has diagonal stripes. There are also horizontal lines hanging out next to my feet. My mom says I told her they showed that I was running. Cute.
But I also remember arriving at school that day. My tiny little country bus was one of the first ones to arrive. The schoolyard was basically empty. It was really foggy. I just stood on the pavement in my bright raincoat feeling very alone.
This was one of the reasons I feared death. Yes, at five, I had some sort of understanding that every person’s existence in this world would change or disappear or…something. I knew that something would happen. I knew this because I had two living grandmothers but only one living grandfather. I knew I had another, but he collapsed and died outside his house while smoking a cigarette a few months before I was born.
I didn’t understand why I didn’t get to meet him. I thought it was very unfair. I asked my mother where he went, where he was, and she said “he’s in heaven.” So of course I had to ask where that was, and what it was like. I was very afraid that he just disappeared, and if that had happened to him, couldn’t that happen to me just as easily?
Of course she said, “In the sky. In the clouds.”
She also said, “It’s like Earth, like here, but with different people and different things happening.”
“Who else is up there?”
“Other people who have died.”
So that didn’t seem so terrible. It sounded like it could even be fun. I bet people coloured pictures and climbed trees all day there.
But then I started thinking too hard about it. Well, first, I started thinking about all those cool toys my parents wouldn’t buy for me. I thought that if everyone went to heaven then I could take all the toys I wanted. Of course my friends would stay here with me.
I quickly realized that would actually be pretty sad, because a lot of the other people I knew who weren’t necessarily my friends would be gone. And my momma, and my poppa, and my brothers…
I started to believe it would actually happen. Except my friends would be gone too. I pictured myself walking alone, standing at the peaks of huge piles of toys and garbage. I had trouble falling asleep. I was so afraid everyone would die and I would be left by myself.
What do you think happens when you die?
Zinta: “What? Nothing. You decompose. You lose 21 grams because your soul flies out.” (Thanks to Paul, my older brother)
“I don’t know” (My mom)
“But you told me there was a heaven in the clouds.”
“You were little. You were very frightened.”
So I guess I can’t believe in that heaven anymore. I questioned it early on though, the first time I flew in an airplane. I was looking out the window at the clouds, trying to see my grandpa. I had imagined there would be people playing soccer out there, and that they would stop their game to wave at the passengers on the plane. But I didn’t see anyone.
“Mom, where’s Grandpa? I can’t see anyone out there.”
Mom took the easy way out.
“He can see you, but you can’t see him.”
I’m pretty sure I believed it at the time.
Joseph: I think that there’s a redistribution of your energies. If there’s any type of continuation – life after death – it is because you have influenced others’ minds and thought patterns to mimic your own, and in that similarity of neural firings, you are reborn again and again, sometimes increasing in strength and persevering – like Jesus or Buddha and their ideas – other times disappearing tracelessly, like, say, the daughter of whoever was the cobbler in Wolverhampton in 1308. Human form doesn’t have a universal place; we are Earth-bound, and after we leave the Earth, it’s a completely different game.
How do you think you’re going to die?
Zinta: I think I’m going to drown, because the bridge of my nose has a bluish tinge. I read somewhere that having a blue vein on your nose meant that you would drown. I don’t know if it’s true, but I think that would be terrible. I love swimming. So much. I love it so much that I don’t believe the water could hurt me like that, but maybe that’s why it would. To spite me. It could be really beautiful though. I mean, we’re already mostly water, aren’t we? Then I could be totally water. Or close to it.
Joseph: Interestingly, I always had a hunch that I would drown, too: I thought I’d die in a nautical disaster, shipwrecked, lost at sea. And that’s why I’m not a sailor. There’s just less chance of it that way.
There’s a part of me that wants to answer “death by grizzly bear”, because I think that’s a very honest death, and one that isn’t common these days. I like the idea of directly participating in the food chain. I’ve eaten enough other species that it seems only fair that they also eat me. However, that’s probably just fantasy. Given my track record, my guess is that I’ll probably fall to my death. I tend to push my luck.
Zinta: One day I decided and wrote in my journal that I want to really be paying attention when I die. Really really paying attention.
Joseph: Don’t worry. I bet you will be.
Are you comfortable with the fact that you’ll die?
Joseph: Yes and no. Anybody who is 100% ‘yes’ obviously doesn’t love where they are. I’m pretty good with it, I think. I love life, and life on Earth is beautiful, and I’ve been really happy to be a part of it. Thanks for having me. But in my mind’s eye, when I picture myself dying, I don’t see myself as being afraid. It’s another change, a big one; a return of a drop of water to the ocean. There’ll be no more “me” as I know me now. I’m okay with that. I’m a big fan of anonymity and selflessness.
Zinta: I’m much more comfortable with it than I was before. I used to have negative bouts of existentialism whenever I woke up from a nap and it was dark out. “I am going to die one day” would pop into my head and I would feel anxious, almost sick. I felt time pass very acutely then…I would think about how the present moment was just the end of a bunch of successive moments, and how it was five years later than five years ago…you know how time can go by incredibly fast. I felt as though in one fell swoop I would have accomplished my dreams (or not), grown old, and then I would suddenly die. I was worried that it would go by so quickly that I wouldn’t be able to experience it to its fullest. Thankfully life is a bit slower than that. I’ve recently noticed that I’m actually a really slow person. I am such a sloth when I wash dishes, or move things around, or clean. So slow. Maybe it’s because of that.
Have you ever had a near-death experience? Have you ever thought you were about to die?
Joseph: I don’t actually remember it, but apparently when I was four, I fell into the Elora Gorge. People screamed. My parents flipped out. But instead of smashing into bits on the rocks below, I wound up falling into the branches of a tree, and people had to bring a ladder down into the gorge to come get me.
Another time, while I was backpacking, I found myself out on the edge of some decaying cliffs overlooking a canyon in the South Dakota badlands. There were tall columns of stone, like the ones in road runner cartoons, and I’d been making a little game of jumping from the top of one to the next, not looking down at the 300-foot drop until I’d landed. As I was looking down off of one, I felt my footing slip, and I knew – really knew – that that was the end of me, I’d pushed my luck too far, and now I was never going to see more of this beautiful world, and I’d never understand as much as I wanted to. Everything was just going to end here, suddenly. At that exact moment, a strong gust of wind blew straight at me across the top of the canyon, giving me just enough of a cushion that I could flail myself gracelessly back to the top of the column. I was okay, but my confidence was completely shot. On my way out, I’d been feisty and fearless. After becoming aware of my mortality, the ‘jumping game’ back to the cliffs was terrifying, and an unbelievably long process.
Is killing things wrong?
Joseph: I think that it probably has a lot to do with your motives. It’s tricky. I’m not much of a killer, it’s true, but I often play a mental game where I imagine my village being swarmed by a starving neighboring tribe who was after the food of my family because famine had befallen them. What to do? Defend, obviously. But what if I had been a member of the starving tribe? Necessity and famine drive people to desperate things. One way or another, it is a harsh question. There is a world of difference between that and somebody who drops bricks from highway overpasses to see if they can crash a car, or whatever. I think intentions do make a difference. I’ve killed chickens, and caught fish when I was hungry. I don’t like any of it: cutting worms, killing the catch… any of it. But you gotta eat. That’s life on earth.
Zinta: Sometimes. I have a huge problem with factory farming and with hunting for sport. They offer animals no dignity or comfort, and there are better ways to raise food. I’m vegetarian for a number of reasons. One of them is that I want to participate as much as I can in the raising and procuring of my food. I want the threads linking me to my food sources to be as small as possible. I try to grow my own vegetables; I’ve worked on an organic farm where I got to take food home. I love finding berry and fruit trees out in public spaces.
But I became vegetarian mostly out of concern for animals and their rights. This is still a big part of why I am vegetarian, but there are more nuances to my beliefs. For example, I do think eating meat is okay in some situations. Eating roadkill is fine, as long as it’s discovered and processed very soon after the animal’s death. In fact, I think it’s only respectful to let an animal whose life was ended too early by a polluting machine nourish you. I think that if you can commune with the animal somehow, apologize for what has happened to it (even if you didn’t do the killing), and be grateful for its life, then you may eat it. You can bring its death a positive side.
This same communing and empathy is what should happen in the act of hunting for sustenance.
One time, someone told me that he would be happy if everyone got their food from the supermarket if it meant no one ate meat. I think this is disgusting. It completely disregards peoples who live more traditional ways of life and who rely on hunting for subsistence. And, though I’m not well-versed in these ways of life nor could I claim to be representing every indigenous culture, many traditional hunting peoples are grateful and have respect for the animals they hunt, don’t take more lives than they need to, and make a point of wasting as little of a hunted animal as possible.
And I don’t think that non-indigenous people should be denied the opportunity to supply their own food and to live more in tune with nature and other animals (people are animals too!) just because that is not how they grew up. That would be like saying, “You are not allowed to plant food because your family isn’t a farming family.”
What I’m really getting at here is that I will be a vegetarian until I am psychologically able to take another animal’s life and I am able to process it myself (most likely with someone’s help). I don’t see this happening anytime soon. There’s no need for it. But I wish more people were that involved with the acquisition of their food.
The only thing I kill purposely is mosquitoes, weeds in the garden, and spiky plants that hurt to step on—and I still feel kind of bad and awkward when I do.
Joseph: Yeah, exactly. Respect, right? I just moved out of my summer sublet, and part-way through, we emptied out the freezer. So I rescued this huge chunk of meat – a bigger muscle than I’ll ever grow, tentatively identified as “pork loins”, which I understand is the ass of a pig. It stood accused of taking up too much room in the freezer and not really belonging to anybody. I pulled it out of the trash. It’s meat, sure… but it’s not ‘just meat’. In order for that to have happened, a mammal was born, reared in relatively hygienic (albeit psychologically disturbing) surroundings, and spent most of its life living in a pig city, coming into contact with humans only a few times a day. It lived for years this way. By the time the humans loaded it onto the truck, though, I bet it had some rudimentary concept of death of its own, and knew it probably wasn’t coming back. Then it was killed. And then packaged, shipped, bought, and ultimately sat unwanted in somebody’s kitchen freezer for several years. I hardly know how to cook meat; I never think of buying the stuff; but the internet told me the basics, and it turned out perfectly. It must have been an absolutely massive animal. I ate it with respect. The thought of such a huge beast dying needlessly, and then just being wasted, a bit at a time, messes me up. How did we ever get here as a culture? Consider your food. All of it. Things die for us.
Please describe a good metaphor for life and death.
Zinta: I don’t have one. I’ve decided that I should enjoy life and not dwell on death.
Joseph: Hey, that’s cool. Let’s wrap this up. An acquaintance of Henry David Thoreau, on his deathbed, tried to prepare him for ‘the afterlife.’ His response? “One world at a time.”