“Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it? – every, every minute?” “Some, the saints and the poets, maybe.” –
Thornton Wilder, “Our Town”
There are no words. One experience unites all humans. Without regard for income, race, religion, language, or geography, we face the same end. Death is universal. In our last walk down the corridor of mortality we are united. Yet, we have no words, no language to express the incomprehensible, reality-shattering vastness of death.
Sure, we have clichés. “I’m sorry for your loss.” “Perhaps it is a blessing.” “At least he’s not in pain, now.” “She’s in God’s hands now.” “He’s in a better place.” “Time will heal.” “It’s for the best.” “It’s all part of God’s plan.” The phrases are rituals of sort, formulae we have developed to serve as proxies to our bewilderment and fear.
Official clichés have evolved, as well. “Died in service.” “Combat losses.” “Civilian casualties.” “Troop deaths.” “Fallen in battle.” “Acceptable loss.” Each phrase carefully avoids the staring eyes with lids fixed open in rigor, the purging of bodily fluids, the escape – banishment—of another soul from its body. Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.
Our feeble language robs even the act of dying of its reality. Rarely do we say, “so-and-so died last night.” The word feels too bald, too final. We hide behind euphemisms, hoping their impotence will erase the truth. “He passed away,” “She passed on,” “We tried, but we lost him.” Lost, where does one lose a soul – in a drawer perhaps? Here, we move into the realm of medical euphemism. “Cardiac arrest.” “He coded.” In veterinary medicine, we have our own dialect for death, “put to sleep,” “put down,” “euthanized.” Only in moments of bitter exhaustion do I admit that in this process I kill an animal.
Perhaps the clichés shield us from the shattering, inevitable truth. In the end, every dignity, every secret is stripped from us. Death is not a peaceful sleep, a graceful slip into a higher plane. The body’s decay begins before the soul departs. Whether suddenly traumatic or slow and declining, death robs us of the careful protections we have placed upon our body. No ointment, unguent, or garment can hide the failure of these pretty boxes, the carefully decorated shells we inhabit.
Even those who believe in a purpose, a continuity beyond death fall back upon cliché and formula. Immortality, even a perfect one – especially a perfect one, is vast and horrifying beyond human comprehension. Our brains are wired to accept neither end nor infinity. Both terrify.
The false shelter of our clichéd, greeting-card death leaks. Blood seeps through the cracks. How does one tell a mother who has lost her child, that “it is part of God’s plan,” that “it is for the best.” When confronted with the monstrosity of that last phrase, a mother I know whose children were killed at the hands of evil demanded “what could be better than my children?” What indeed? The father of a dear friend died in the slow ravages of cancer, and I had no words beyond “I’m glad for your sake that it’s over, and I’m sorry for your loss.” Nothing more to offer after twenty years of friendship.
In a strange and dangerous paradox, numbers and geography diminish death in our minds. One person dies near home or in the limelight of celebrity and we rally around, cloaking the tragedy in candles and stuffed animals. Thousands die in a natural disaster in a far corner of the world, and we shake our heads, say “isn’t that awful,” and flip back to the reality TV program of choice. Perhaps the magnitude of mass death weighs too heavily upon the soul, squashing empathy. Yet, when we allow the numbers to inure us against the pain of mass extinction, we risk our humanity. Our instinct to turn from mass death enables those for whom genocide is a tool, and renders all humanity more vulnerable to the havoc wrought by disease and disaster.
If we looked beyond the stock phrases, would we see the abominable folly of our petty squabbles? Would we see that we are all walking down the same cold hallway, toward the same end? What happens if we draw the curtain that veils the madness that is human existence? Will we fragment, break under the unbearable weight of reality, or will we find words at last?
The poets come closest.
“For in that sleep of death what dreams may come, When we have shuffled off this mortal coil, Must give us pause...” -- William Shakespeare
“Though wise men at their end know dark is right,/ Because their words had forked no lightning they/ Do not go gentle into that good night. – Dylan Thomas
“Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood./ For nothing now can ever come to any good.” -- W.H. Auden
“Each man’s death diminishes me.” – John Donne
No words. We have no words.