Death is so frightening, so existentially lonely, that our reflexive defence is to make defiant jokes about it
Appeared in Business in Vancouver – June 4, 2013
I had a brilliant idea a quarter of a century ago. That’s about their frequency.
I pitched to my newsroom masters of the day a surefire circulation booster. You’ll have noticed that on weekends the dailies run a blockbuster: A big main story and several lesser stories on a single theme. Well, there was one such theme that no paper in my experience had ever dealt with.
Yet it was obvious. It touched everybody. The subject matter would startle and fascinate. It would cause sorrow, reminiscence, rage, cries of tastelessness – how could a family paper print such upsetting stuff? Better plan for a huge press run that day.
What was this explosive topic?
I sent a long memo. I suggested explicit medical details of what happens to the body and mind in, and after, death. People of different cultures would explain their practices concerning the beloved dead. Euthanasia by any name would be argued.
Religious leaders would contribute their beliefs about the afterlife. Agnostics would debate atheists about the meaning of life and death, possibly resorting to fistfights. Academics would expound on the theory that organized religion has caused only divisiveness and war.
Philosophers would dilate on the Great Questions. The history of attempts to contact the dead would find a niche. Death as depicted in literature, TV, popular fiction would not be overlooked. Snippets of death poetry would be sprinkled throughout.
The death industry would be well represented (business angle!). And of course there would be moving accounts of how being a young orphan, or losing a lover or cherished friend, had changed lives. Many a reader’s tears would be shed.
Sensational? The entire world would sit up, take notice. The Death Issue! Extra, extra, read all about it!
The hole my brilliant proposal was dropped into was too deep for any bucket to plumb. It didn’t help that, as I discovered, the executive editor’s uncle was an undertaker.
The present reader will detect that a sort of gallows humour flavours the foregoing. Yes, because it complements the deeply serious point: Death is so frightening, so existentially lonely, that our reflexive defence is to make defiant jokes about it. Woody Allen: “I’m not afraid to die. I just don’t want to be there when it happens.”
Everyone knows what Mark Twain said of his reported death.
Thus subversive jokes and heroic defiance wreathe the matter of death.
And it recently hit me, a slow thinker: Movie death is so numerous and so ridiculously unlike the real thing – consider the “deathbed speech” – because it’s human nature’s way of assuring us “there, there now, see, it’s not that bad.”
In Samuel Johnson’s fable of Rasselas, a truth-seeking prince encounters an elegant sage who, preaching reason, loftily mocks passions and illusions. Rasselas eagerly takes him as his model.
Next day he finds the sage broken, devastated: “My daughter, my only daughter, from whose tenderness I expected all the comforts of my age, died last night of a fever. …What comfort … can truth and reason afford me? Of what effect are they now, but to tell me, that my daughter will not be restored?”
The above memories stole back when I was recently summoned to visit my closest schoolmate, met 65 years ago.
On his last good day, “Unca Billy” was surrounded by three adorable, blissfully unaware grandchildren, fine family, laughter.
He was maybe the smartest man I’ve known, too smart to climb any greasy pole, and when I heard he’d died while I was homebound on the plane, what I remembered best was not our shared interest in serious matters but our riotous schoolboy silliness of long years ago.
© Trevor Lautens, 2013