Narratives of dying, being dead, endings: The Endlessness and the Space Between
“Life is a holiday, a moment stolen from the black, before the demons drag you back” - Frank Turner
As a child, you may have heard some stories about the matter of what happens after you die. Depending on who it was that spoke to you, they may have outlined, colourfully or in reprimanding tone, confidently or timidly, anything from eternal life to that curious idea of “when you die, you won’t feel any pain, so there is nothing to worry about” (so I’ll just chill out in sensory deprivation? Who is that I that won’t feel any pain?). Personally, I had dying frequently likened to falling asleep (which caused somewhat regular bouts of insomnia throughout my childhood). It was not exactly a satisfying explanation of why existence presents itself the way it does.
But what would be a proper narrative to tell children, or anyone really, about the matter? Is there not the fundamental problem of both eternity and finitude being difficult to grasp? A curious child hears about death being the end of experience, and envisions reality as an endless void of nothingness, in which their life, and all memory of it, will get sucked up and annihilated. Another child hears of eternal life, and is just as terrified as the other, for what does infinity extend into? What if it got boring? Both seem, to some children (and many adults) like inescapable horrors, and some communities and cultures inability to provide satisfying answers as to how it ends ,what it ends into, and how that can be, might set them up for lives of cynicism.
Now we are not children anymore, we may have gotten terrible or wonderful answers to the questions when we were young, and how we handled those answers likely varied considerably. A few things remain. For one, we still will die, so it might seem that we are not free from the matter. We still inquire into the nature of our mortality from time to time,though for the most part we do that privately (from what I can gather). Lastly, it seems that most of us still haven't found any answers, or stable narratives, that we would be comfortable with passing on to children. Of course, there is the question of whether those are really necessary, can we not simply live? While I tend to say that we can, it remains that most of us were exposed to narratives making sense of existence by contrasting life and death, and it seems to me that many such narratives remain rooted in our minds. I know of many – and I was, and sometimes still am, one of them – who conceive of their life as but a little stretch of time trapped between two great nothings, with the “life” of this earth, of humanity, being similarly trapped between the nothingness before and the nothingness after, rendering anything that happens in the middle sisyphean.
Alternatively, they have become so overwhelmed by total stakes (and the prospect of their actions implying different afterlives) that they are fundamentally terrified by the prospect of enquiry. With narratives this powerful, it is odd that they are not a matter of public discourse.
So how to ask the question once again, how to tell the story, this time from a perspective of maturity? Did the question change, are there ways of contemplating the end that are accessible to us now, that weren’t accessible to us when we were younger? To find out, let’s look at some seemingly mature perspectives on the matter, or perspectives deemed mature by people. There is the idea that the reason, or at least part of the reason, death is so incomprehensible to a child is that it is not in their nature to die. The old, or ill, person is close to death, and thereby somehow acquires an intuitive approach to the process of dying. Just like it is not in the nature of falling rain to evaporate, it is not in the nature of the young to die. At the age we are at now, some of us, for a variety of reasons, will feel closer to death, out of one experience or condition or the other. Sickness, depression, and death of important others would have meant (and still mean) increased chance of dying soon. Death salience, by a certain logic, comes when it is natural, and the feeling of understanding occurs more often the more natural it is for you to die. This, of course, is not a scientific claim, but most likely a narrative derived for the purposes of living better, and to not waste living time on dying.
There is, however, another set of ideas, one that encourages contemplation of death as a way to live a better life and die a better death. In some schools of Buddhism, for example, there is the idea that one should take care to contemplate the ceasing of existence of the human being by envisioning one’s own body decaying and eventually ceasing to be recognisable as such. While this might sound unappealing to the unintroduced, it is -from my experience- a very calming and pleasant exercise. Not because it denies significance of the particular life, but because it takes away that anxiety of that sharp, and artificial, distinction between living and dying, and, perhaps more importantly, between that part of existence in which there is a you living consciously in your body and the one where there isn’t. You might come to see it all as more of a continuous process that happens on its own.
In addition to images of transcendence, there are images of purpose. In the west, the exercise of imagining one’s grave, what is written on it, and who will attend it, has gained popularity within meaning-interventions of various kinds and degrees of academic influence. What would you want written on your grave? Who would you want to have been close enough, or influential upon enough, for them to attend your service? While this does not take away that sharp distinction between you-being-there and you-not-being-there quite in the same way the previous image does, it provides some transcendence nonetheless. While the decay-contemplation puts the contemplator in their natural context, this one puts them in their social context, and makes the systems of meaning in which they move more salient. If done properly, this exercise can create a narrative and make explicit a meaning-framework that can last a lifetime.
Ultimately, perhaps it is the case that, as we get older, we care less about what it is like to be dead than we care about how to die. Further, the topic of mortality, and speaking of mortality, is so vast that I have not even scratched some rather prominent surfaces (terror management, etc.). If you are interested you might want to look up scholarly Thanatology (see below) or explore the topic at a library. However, there is one last thing that might need to be said - for us here at UCG-; our time here will end. Before we leave this life we will leave the life we have here, we will go our separate ways. No matter whether you ignore that fact or not, it will happen, life will go on. Sure there will almost certainly be new challenges, new joys, and new people afterwards, something that is not exactly guaranteed when it comes to dying, but the fact is that all we do now will one day be memory, or lack thereof. So instead of ignoring the end and putting all our attention in whatever might be after, let’s all contemplate what will end before.
Arrowood, R. B., & Cox, C. R. (2020). Terror management theory: a practical review of research and application. Brill Research Perspectives in Religion and Psychology, 2(1), 1–83. https://doi.org/10.1163/25897128-12340003
Clark, E. J. (2014). The thanatology community and the needs of the movement. Taylor and Francis. Retrieved February 19, 2022, from https://public.ebookcentral.proquest.com/choice/publicfullrecord.aspx?p=1656187.
Steffen, L., & Hinerman, N. (2019). Death, dying, culture. BRILL. Retrieved February 19, 2022, from http://public.eblib.com/choice/PublicFullRecord.aspx?p=6481621.