Musing On Death

Paint, by Emily Slofstra

Sometimes I fear death and dying. Sometimes I ponder what will happen to me when the stone overturns. Sometimes I want to talk about death and then realize no one really likes talking about death. I mean, who talks about death? Don’t we all avoid it? Parents say, “Oh please,” and friends tell you to wear colour. Some say go to church. But beneath all the “cover,” there’s a shroud forming above as time goes by…and yes, it’s unmistakable.

So what is death? Death is black. Death is fear. Death is demise. A decrescendo. All of a sudden your soul takes precedence and all of you that’s physically left is a corpse devoured by worms and maggots. Nice. But does it hurt? Will we pass away peacefully, or painfully? What will time teach us? What purpose do our bodies serve?

So whether you follow the Old and New Testaments or live by your own creed, death is something you’ve probably encountered first or second-hand at some point in time. You’ve likely stood in a funeral parlour and paid your respects, or watched a coffin as it was lowered into the ground. You’ve likely visited a cemetery or read obituaries in the newspaper. For me, death has always been in the picture as both a predominant literary theme and a lived reality. In literature, death symbolizes a rite of passage for young protagonists in particular. It is the coming to terms with the passing of loved ones and not-so-loved ones, depending on the circumstance. But for me, death is most infamously associated with accidents and sickness. One of my good friends was taken by a drunk driver before her tenth birthday. Cancer has plagued both of my grandfathers. My maternal grandfather died of pancreatic cancer when I was ten, and my paternal grandfather is slowly battling a terrible leukemia. Cancer has weakened many of the strong ones I know, but those who keep battling on are those I admire most.

Death in your mind may be the drowning Ophelia or the poor Lady of Shallot. It may be the scene in Oliver Twist where Oliver is taken into the “care” of Mr. Sowerberry, the undertaker where he is used as a professional mourner. It may be the skull and crossbones so often taken up as a popular symbol on clothing and handbags. It may be war. Hunger. Poverty. Disease. It may be a close friend or family member. It may be yourself. But whichever or whatever it is, you know death. You’re just not sure how you feel about it and possibly a little scared to admit this. For seeing the material turn spiritual is a little (actually considerably) frightening for us all.

When contemplating death, I think that what is most important is negation. What we must remember is that without death, there wouldn’t be life. Without hate, there wouldn’t be love. Without night, there’d be no day. You get the idea. This, I suppose, is what creates a fine balance and helps the world go round. I mean, how else would we escape overpopulation? How else would we expect the world to progress? How else might there be hope for the future and hope for restoration…regeneration?

The most vivid image by which you might remember the above is one I will borrow from the introduction to Mikhail Bakhtin’s “Rabelais and His World” which details the grotesque in literature. This is the image of the child being born while the mother is dying; simultaneous birth and death. Grotesque indeed, and unpleasant. But if everyone and everything was eternal, I think we would have truckloads – or “earthfuls” rather – of problems we would likely never solve. And even then, there’s a chance many of us might become nothing more than a mere voice like the Cumaean Sibyl – the one who forgot to ask for eternal youth when she asked the god Apollo for immortality. There’s no giving without losing; no gain without loss. That being said, whether you’re listening to Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony or Evanescence’s “My Immortal,” remember that they both go hand and hand. They’re both pieces of the same puzzle; factors in the same equation. You can’t have one without the other. Life is a cycle, but death is part of it; death is both an end and a beginning.

Death and taxes are the only two things we can be certain of…or at least according to Benjamin Franklin. The only things “written in stone” are quite literally, tombstones. This sounds unfortunate, yes, and quite depressing, though I think it’s important to “make your mark” before “your time” and live your dreams while you can. If you go through life thinking you’re ambitions are “impossible” or that you’ve set your sights too high, then you’ve already spent too much time dwelling and not enough reaching.

So what is your purpose in life? That, I’m afraid, I cannot tell you. Everyone has a purpose, I am sure, but what that purpose is, only you can discover. I’m sure you’ve heard the quote about going through life in a glass case or something to that extent, but I encourage you otherwise: live. So get out there and start acting. What are you waiting for? Death? Because time’s running out as we speak.