Don’t fear the Reaper

We have become reluctant to accept death as an integral part of life. Perhaps coronavirus will give us a more realistic attitude to mortality

Andrew Doyle

The manner of my death struck me as amusing. It was the summer holidays at the boarding school near Ipswich where I had been teaching for two years. The site was deserted, save for the few members of staff who had nowhere better to go. I was taking a walk by the seawall to the south of the school, a long earthen barrier which had been created to prevent flooding. Seized with an uncharacteristic urge for adventure, I deviated from my typical route and turned instead along a crooked tongue of wet sand stretching out into the Stour Estuary. On my third or fourth step the ground seemed to give way, and my leg descended into a sodden mass up to the knee. Undeterred, I took another step. This time my whole leg was immersed, and my other had begun to sink. Before long I was trapped, waist-deep in a kind of quagmire, as though the earth was attempting to drink me in.

I don’t suppose I was there much longer than half an hour, but the tide seemed to be drawing in fairly rapidly. I knew that the water would eventually rise above my head, and so I was for a while convinced that these were my final moments. There was little chance of a dogwalker straying this far from the school campus, so I didn’t bother calling out. For some reason, my instinct was not to panic but to smile. I felt almost relieved that there was no-one around to witness my humiliation. How absurd, I thought, that I should die in such a supremely pointless way by a river in Ipswich, lodged halfway into the ground, with nothing else to do but wait patiently to drown.

I didn’t perish. As an improbable weakling, I surprised even myself when I managed to haul my body out of the ground by grabbing on to a nearby boulder. Hardly a brush with death, you might say, rather an anecdote that I would later embellish for comedic purposes. That said, when I eventually got around to researching the topic on the internet I discovered that death by mudflats on the various coastlines of Britain is not as rare as one might assume. It hardly bears thinking about the number of people who die every year of easily avoidable accidents, some of whom at least achieve a degree of immortality through the annual “Darwin Awards” which are given to those who have eliminated themselves from the gene pool through their own idiocy.

Irrespective of whether or not I could have actually drowned that day, it was probably the first time in my life that I had ever genuinely felt that death was imminent. I suppose that the brevity of the human lifespan means that we are always close to death, so a little mental preparedness is no bad thing. For my birthday that year, my head of department gave me a card in which he had written a quotation from Samuel Beckett: “They give birth astride of a grave, the light gleams an instant, then it’s night once more.” I liked this conceit so much that ever since I have inscribed birthday cards to friends with reminders that they are one year closer to their doom. Sometimes I sketch a little skull in a party hat.

Perhaps one consequence of the coronavirus pandemic is that we will develop a more realistic attitude to human mortality. Ours is a closed casket culture; we don’t deny that one day we will stop breathing, but we don’t like to think about it or be reminded of its inevitability. We prefer to keep the Grim Reaper at a distance, like an annoying uncle at a family gathering who we know we’ll have to get around to eventually. Try to forget him as we might, he’s always at the periphery, sharpening his scythe by the vol-au-vents

It is a truism that the vanity of the modern age has engendered a reluctance to accept death as an integral part of life. People go to all kinds of lengths to extend their lives or ward off the signs of ageing, and wealthy entrepreneurs are pouring millions into research on “transhumanism”, a new field of study whose ultimate goal appears to be finding a cure for death. I remain unconvinced that immortality is necessarily an enviable condition. I’ve seen The Lord of the Rings, and those elves always look miserable.

Besides, what would a life be with no prospect of cessation? Saul Bellow wrote that death is “the dark backing that a mirror needs if we are to see anything”. This concept reminds me of the playwright Dennis Potter’s final interview in March 1994, less than three months before he succumbed to the cancer that was ravaging his body. Describing his writing process in those final days to Melvyn Bragg, Potter noted that he would look out of his bedroom window to the plum tree below. “It looks like apple blossom but it’s white,” he said, “and looking at it, instead of saying ‘Oh that’s nice blossom’ . . . I see it is the whitest, frothiest, blossomest blossom that there ever could be. And I can see it. Things are both more trivial than they ever were, and more important than they ever were, and the difference between the trivial and the important doesn’t seem to matter.”

What Potter called “the nowness of everything” is not, he claimed, a revelation that one can appreciate without direct experience. But if proximity to death enhances the value of life, so too might a healthy recognition of its necessity. A number of years ago I happened upon a fascinating little ring in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, dating from the 16th century. The ring was enamelled with a skull, and bore the legend “behold the ende” on a hexagonal bezel, with the inscription “rather death than fals faith” around the edge. The “true lovers” knot and inscription strongly suggested that this memento mori had been made to commemorate a betrothal or a wedding. Even on the happiest day of their lives, this couple wanted to be reminded that their time on earth was finite.

Today, our relationship with death is not so immediate. In an age of medical innovation and vaccines that seem to be conjured overnight, it is little wonder that death acquires a sense of unreality. I cannot help but think that the intermittent panic around the coronavirus, a disease with a relatively low mortality rate, is partly down to our reluctance to reckon with a difficult truth. The black death, which peaked in Europe in the mid-14th century and carried away more than half the population, meant that people had to quickly learn how to live in a state of continual bereavement. Death became a part of the culture as much as a metaphysical consideration. It is this period which gave us the tradition of the Danse Macabre: pictorial cycles in which the living are seen either dancing or processing towards the grave, accompanied by skeletons. Often the figures are arranged in order of social ranking, with ecclesiastical and political figures at the head. I think it was Madonna who sagely observed that death (in the guise of coronavirus) is the “great equaliser”. If I remember rightly, she was immersed in a marble bathtub strewn with rose petals at the time.

Just as the bubonic plague led to a newfound fixation on death in art and literature, the horrors of the Second World War gave rise to the philosophy of existentialism. In his essay “The Myth of Sisyphus”, Albert Camus argued that suicide is the “one truly serious philosophical problem”. That is to say, the fact that we haven’t killed ourselves is a proclamation of our investment in the condition of existence. There is something darkly comical about this viewpoint, yet perhaps there is some consolation to be found in contemplating the sheer absurdity of being alive. 

To find humour in death isn’t to degrade or deny the sanctity of human life, but rather to grapple with its finite nature. We are the only sentient creatures aware that we are going to die, and yet we persist with our daily chores and petty squabbles as though any of it mattered. It isn’t surprising that Terry Pratchett found such comedic mileage in the character of Death for his Discworld novels. In Pratchett’s rendition, the Grim Reaper is a sardonic figure with a fondness for cats and curry, endlessly baffled by humanity and their capacity to persevere with their useless lives. I read somewhere that medieval tarot cards occasionally depicted Death as wearing the piebald garb of a court jester. He has the last laugh, after all.

I find it reassuring when those on the cusp of death are able to retain their sense of humour. Having been diagnosed with terminal cancer, some of Christopher Hitchens’s religious acquaintances speculated publicly about the possibility that this most vocal of atheists might finally accept the light of God. His response was priceless. “If I convert,” he said, “it’s because it’s better that a believer dies than that an atheist does.”

It is said that Oscar Wilde’s dying words were: “This wallpaper and I are fighting a duel to the death. Either it goes or I do.” Perhaps this is too fanciful a story to be believed, and of course when it comes to witty deathbed declarations it’s difficult to get the timing right. Even if one finds the energy to conceive a devastating bon mot, how would one know when best to utter it? Spike Milligan circumvented this problem by requesting his epitaph in advance: “I told you I was ill.” It makes a refreshing change from some of the more mawkish efforts on your average tombstone.

The existentialists posit that we must find meaning in life in order to reckon with the absurdity of the human condition. In spite of how this might seem, it is an essentially optimistic worldview. It invites us to resist the temptation to indolence, and to celebrate the potential for creativity that lies in all of us. Nor are the consolations of an afterlife necessarily to be sought. Nietzsche mistrusted such beliefs, seeing in them a manifestation of the “will to destruction”. He deemed the Christian notion of Heaven to be little more than a “yearning for extinction” and a “cessation of all effort”. Quentin Crisp was delighted with the idea: “The absolute nothingness of death is a blessing’, he said. “Something to look forward to.”

Certainly it seems as though our fear of death might be a corollary of an individualistic culture and the commodification of the self as most keenly expressed through social media. The egoist sees life as a product and death as a glitch, but it does not necessarily follow that our existence has no value if we acknowledge that the world will barely change once we have left it. Life becomes bereft of purpose if we occupy too much of our time dwelling on its terminus; one risks ending up like Jack Gladney in Don DeLillo’s novel White Noise (1985), who becomes obsessed with an experimental drug that will cure him of his terror of dying. At the same time, we are not best served by a culture that sees death as the great taboo.

Socrates had a simple answer. Having been condemned by the court, he proclaimed that there was nothing to fear from death because there could only be one of two outcomes: immortality or oblivion. William Hazlitt opens his essay “On the Fear of Death” by reflecting on the fact that we have been dead before. As relatively late additions to the long history of humanity, few of us are troubled by our former state of non-existence. “I have no wish to have been alive a hundred years ago, or in the reign of Queen Anne,” he writes, “Why should I regret and lay it so much to heart that I shall not be alive a hundred years hence, in the reign of I cannot tell whom?”

If the fear of death can be conquered at all, it will be through a process of honest reflection rather than endless preoccupation. There are many who claim that the fear dissipates with age, and that they regret wasting so much of their youth fretting over the inevitable. An elderly friend of mine once said as much to me, and claimed that she was perfectly content to die, given the richness of her experiences over nine decades. Hazlitt felt it too. The terror was far more present in his younger days, he tells us, “when the idea alone seemed to suppress a thousand rising hopes, and weighed upon the pulses of the blood”. I have a memory of early childhood, crying by my mother’s side because I did not ever want to die, and her consoling me by saying that only grown-ups—those with one tentative toe in the grave—should be ruminating on such matters. I am older now than she was then, and the natural anxieties I feel are not so acute. Maybe if I survive for another few decades I will find it amusing that death ever bothered me at all. One can but hope.

It is possible that there is simply no realistic prospect of subduing our innate thanatophobia. The playful skeletons of the Danse Macabre are forever capering in our shadows, so we may as well enjoy the performance while we can. Our fate is to be interred in the memories of other transient beings who are likewise destined to die and be forgotten. And perhaps that makes the comedy of life all the more special. 

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