Parting words

January 25, 2016

How many of us seek a “good death”? The juxtaposition of “good” and “death” is not easily tolerated. How many of us are willing to linger long enough near the dead and dying, to enter thoughtfully into the space of our imagined transition (I say “thoughtfully,” not “fearlessly”), to even consider that something “good” might be found in life’s endgame? Fortunately, as Tom Rachman observes in “Meeting Death with Words” (New Yorker, 25 Jan 2016), help has arrived for the spiritually timid. Recent years have seen increasing numbers of writers taking up pen and word processor in their last year of life, and these numbers are likely to increase as the Baby Boom marches into history.

Rachman’s article is more a survey of recent books than a meditation on death, but even his survey of the stances taken by different writers is informative. We all die, but we are unique individuals and our deaths will be uniquely ours to experience. Drawing close to the variety of experiences that others have shared may help diffuse whatever fears we may have concerning a particularly horrific death.

Rachman closes with a conundrum:”Unfortunately, dying is something we are figuring out only through doing.” I can’t argue with this except to ask whether death needs to be “figured out.” If thought evolved as a tool for securing our safety and future, thought is probably useless as a tool for negotiating death. A person is no more likely to “figure out” death than to figure out bungee jumping, sunlight on water, a lover’s sigh, or heartbreak.

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