In death’s vicinity

24 Jun
2010

I’m currently reading “A Stranger to Myself: The Inhumanity of War : Russia, 1941-1944″, a unique testimony from Willy Peter Reese, a German soldier in WWII, of the horrors of the Eastern Front. Death is a constant and terrible presence throughout the author’s time there; he also eventually in 1944 fell to this omnipotent and omnipresent companion. The author lives long and closely with death, and he is observant and eloquent; the book is thus a rare opportunity to virtually experience the awesome transformative power of death, in its positive and negative effects.

I am reading it in the German original, and have freely translated a short passage here on the vicinity of death to the soldiers on the Eastern Front.

“We lived in death’s vicinity. But it was not death itself that was grievous. Its indecision, its omni-presence, constituted its horror and and its greatness. It was not the long-spared it loved but the quickly-felled. Yet, it transformed us with each passing year, led us through the secret chambers of the soul, awakened the angel in the good and the spirit of Cain in the bad.  It filled us up and boarded us over, cast out fruit from us and created a sea of misery from a drop of melancholy. Thus it grew up over us like a triumphant tree.

To the weak, it presented itself as a shadow, plunged him into the hysterical laughter of desperation, awakened feverish desire for ardour and lust for life, extinguished the last flames of renunciation and goodness, devotion and faith, then it ripped off his mask and let him fall like a piece of wasted carrion.

Some inclined to death as to a ripened fruit. The far-traveled spirit willingly anchored himself in his own Hades, and preparation for it became his happiness. There death was like a light from within. No spirit world could be shattered by it, and time crowned its persistence.

But in its vicinity all values were renewed. Gold became vanity, while every slice of bread appeared precious. Books became flat or found deeper meaning, love found its completion or trickled away. Only the essential survived. And so death made us into new and better people.”

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Dear Gloria,

Thanks for your reflections on Charles’ blog entry “Sad – ha ha”. May I respond….

In my own comments on this blog entry I was talking about overcoming death itself – not our fear of it.

For the vast majority, claiming to have overcome the fear of it would be a pure lie. If we could fully understand our mortality and had no compensating real or imaginary escape route, we would go mad with the torment, the futility of it all. To save ourselves, we invent (or are given?) religions or we pretend we don’t care and “party on”, or we become “existentialists” and “atheists” (which are forms of belief meriting the label of escapism as much as religious beliefs do.) But all of the above cannot be proved or disproved.

That said, we should never think that to genuinely accept or understand our mortality would be to overcome the fear of it. It might lead to a more inspired living, but the fear of the end would remain.

Because Death SHOULD be feared, it IS a traumatic passage, if not an absolute end. That is precisely the problem with our world, which pretends not to fear it but is secretly dead-scared. Lack of self-honesty. Once we have admitted our impotence in Death’s face, we can begin sincerely looking or praying for ways of “overcoming” it.

Naturally I am not talking of overcoming death on the physical plane, but rather through art, or rather the religious beliefs that are art’s sublimest creation. (Those who believe in cryogenics and company are, with the little respect due to them, fools.)

But the physical impossibility of defeating death does not mean that death cannot be effectively defeated in other ways. God may be dead, as Nietzsche correctly said, but that does not mean we can’t give birth to new gods, to new beliefs. That has always been the case – God has died more than once in human history.

Which brings us to culture. What we have now is the equivalent of a clear-cut forest. The ancient old trees that grew and matured over centuries have been chopped down or blown over, their time is over, after all, EVERYTHING is mortal.

What remains is a ragged clearing, with lots of dead and rotting debris from the past, here and there weeds growing up among the dead wood, and some seedlings of a new generation of trees. But we should be honest and not kid ourselves that these weeds, even with their often pretty flowers, are roses, nor that the seedlings are yet wise old trees. They may become that, but they are not yet that.

This is universally true. This clearcut extends right back to the mountains of Tibet. While “new solutions” may be regional, this leveling of the world’s culture is a universal phenomenon, normally called globalization. It cannot be avoided, so be it – but now it is time to reinvent the wheel.

Finally, regarding atheists: in my twenties, during my scientific studies I also tended to a disbelief in anything not empirically provable, though I came from a Catholic family. I have not become a Catholic again since then, but I do understand the atheist point of view from the inside as it were.

As I once said, I would rather have a conversation with an introspective atheist than a true believer of any shade. The important thing is that the questioning cannot stop. And Death, as the insoluble question par excellence, is thus a very important subject.

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I’m stimulated to this post by Charles Cowling’s review of DeathMatters on his Good Funeral Guide Blog.

Charles, I’m pleased that you seem to have mostly understood what I’m aiming at with DeathMatters – reawakening an awareness of death as a way of living better and remembering better. (But you should also have specified “living more compassionately”, because true death awareness leads also to genuine compassion through sensing our common tragic nature.  Every life ends with a personal tragedy.)

You are not convinced that my quote from Ernst Jünger indicates that I believe “atheism generates a form of idiocy”. Thank you for your suspension of judgement – I do not believe that. I may personally believe in something higher beyond material life, but I do not judge others who do not believe this as idiots. In my opinion, it all depends upon how one comes to one’s beliefs, that is, how well supported they are by experience and serious contemplation of the matter.

I would far prefer a conversation with a serious and intelligent atheist than a narrow-minded believer whose faith has not been acquired through personal trial and effort. (Indeed, why else am I continuing with this exchange ;-) )

On the other hand, there are at least as many idiotic and closed-minded “believers in atheism” as there are in God or gods. The former are doubly idiotic for not realizing that their atheism is in fact a form of faith. Higher intelligences can be as little empirically disproved, as as they can be proved – categorical disbelief in them can only therefore derive from a “true-believers” structure. Otherwise it would be agnosticism.

Regarding practices required to increase death awareness – I may claim to recognize a huge problem, but I’m not arrogant enough to propose solutions, as so many glibly do to all kinds of problems.  This is a personal work in progress, and my blog serves also as a place for me to express the tiny discoveries I make on the journey.

On that note, I also do not propose, as the Reverend Murrey does, that God is the solution. I’ll get back to the Reverend below!

Yes, I do believe that personal continuity is the Grand Prix compared to the other forms mentioned. And I think that anyone who has once felt this possibility to be true understands what I mean. Until then, one consoles oneself with what is less but certain.

But other forms of continuity are not valueless, not at all. Memories of the dead and their thoughts and achievements are critical to the building up of culture, which is essentially based on the layering of these memories – “humus” and “human” are related etymologically.  And lasting family memories are expressions of love which have their positive effects also within the family that lives on, indeed only there.

But to be frank, I couldn’t care less not only about Apple’s continual progress, but also about my genetic legacy. We will pass this on in exactly the same form as we inherited it – nothing has been evolved or improved on here, excepting some gradual mutation leading to species evolution. The genetic legacy is really just nature doing its thing – it may be marvelous but it is not strictly my thing, nor even my family’s. As some say, the satisfaction we get from seeing our faces in our offspring is a result of the con-game played by nature to achieve its aims. Even Dawkins would probably agree – the selfish gene, the species pursuing its purposes and fooling us into thinking that this is what immortality is about. This is a real booby prize IMHO.

Now, onto this astounding video you found! Where do you find such things?

I only partly approve. At first glance, I even thought you were making fun of me. But I understood the appropriateness when the Reverend began making his own efforts at fighting death denial – one in 113 in this room will die this year, 223,000 will die this year etc. Good for him – this is true and it should be actively contemplated. I like that he doesn’t pull his punches out of fake sentimentality or cowardice.

Indeed, I particularly like what may of all things seem the most disrespectful or shocking to you – his emphasizing of the awfulness of death by direct reference to the deceased lying right there in the casket, with all her loved ones present. But when he begins moralizing near the end about the life she lived, about Hell etc, then I’m out of there.  Just as I disagree with his exploitation of the awfulness of death to convert people to his narrow conception of God.

We all ideally need to come to our own understanding and integration of death and how it could be overcome -  but this process must be real and conscious, not simulated or provided ready-made by others. Funerals with real dead loved ones are the best possible moments to work on this. Just let’s keep the moralizing and proselytising out of it.

But again, the Reverend’s opportunistic use of the funeral, of the presence of freshly experienced personal tragedy, to sharply increase death awareness, even while causing pain, is a surprisingly close manifestation of what I described this way in  Medicine for Life:

It is said that in certain ancient societies the morally correct way of behaving when someone died was to spend many days collectively and mutually impressing upon each other the inevitability of everyone present also dying, as the deceased had. A far cry from today’s sentimental treatment of tragedy, the ancients’ behavior courageously used the inescapable tragedy to help the living better appreciate the gift of their own life. The deceased was in any case dead – nothing to be done – so the resulting sadness was exploited for the good of the still-living. It may sound harsh, but it is actually healthier and more pragmatic than our utterly useless sentimentality – as if condolences truly make any survivor feel better when their loved one has been wrenched away forever!

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“How did we get to this stage?” – a comment on my last blog (Death matters – no kidding!) from Charles of The Good Funeral Guide, whose excellent blog I often visit.

Indeed, how did we get to the point that one actually has to be reminded that death still matters?

This is obviously a complex question, which can be answered on various levels – socially, religio-historically, scientifically, spiritually, etc. All these disciplines will have their own way of explaining this development. They will use metaphors that express the truth from their particular perspective.

In this limited sense I will venture an explanation from my own personal perspective:

One could understand the apparent disappearance of death as an issue in terms of its intrinsic incompatibility with our modern myth of progress. Which is to say that death has not disappeared of its own accord but rather been expelled for the difficulties it presents to our ideal of material progress.

For death is the negation of all material progress. From the viewpoint of the benefits progress brings the individual, death is in fact the absolute negation of progress, for it wipes out everything that has been achieved by or for the individual. A hardworking person may have made much material progress during their life – but death will take all that away. This simply cannot be disputed; therefore the only solution, if one wants to retain the myth of progress as the meaning of life, is to ignore death. It cannot be defeated, softened, integrated, or made friends with by progress – believers in the myth of progress cannot even lightly touch it in thought or discussion, without their belief suffering a fatal infection.

There are qualifications to be made here. Firstly, the absolute loss to death of all progress made is only a certainty on the material level, and therefore within the context of an essentially atheistic or at least non-believing society. A believer in something beyond life believes he or she retains the spiritual progress made during life on earth.  Whether this is true or not, the belief is that “all is not vanity” – the improved soul goes on, progresses indefinitely. Death is the negation only of material or social, collective progress.

The second qualification regards this social progress, for absolute negation is limited not only to non-believers but also only with respect to the individual. The individual may die, but the greater whole to which he or she belongs goes on, and thus progress may be seen to continue therein. This can be the family, the society, or these days even the environment as a whole. The body social, the family, the earth may be perceived to progress, even as its members steadily disappear into nothingness; in this manner the myth of progress can be maintained even as death is accepted.

But the prerequisite for focusing on the continuance of the greater whole is a simultaneous loss of importance of the individual at the hands of the collective.  Where strong genuine individualism is present, the individuals interest themselves for their personal salvation – focusing on the survival or progress of the collective or the family is seen as a miserable attempt at consolation, the “booby prize” in comparison with the Grand Prix of personal continuity through eternity.

We can now summarize our world’s apparent disinterest in death as follows. Once society’s religious beliefs in a Beyond have been discredited, the only possible progress is material progress, and that can only exist for the greater whole, the collective. As this process develops, everything which would in turn weaken the new myth of social or collective progress becomes taboo – in particular, death and a sense of the value of the individual over the collective.

If we now go on to speculate on how death will eventually regain its normal and rightful significance, it is obvious that a fatal weakening of our myth of material and social progress is the prerequisite. The distraction from imaginary collective solutions to death (ie social progress) must be well and truly buried; then, when even the social body can be seen to be going nowhere except down into its own grave, the focus can return to the question of the individual’s progress, to his personal salvation. Now he or she will begin to look, to anguish, to pray for a personal solution. And as we know, necessity is the mother of invention.

Unfortunately, the level of desperation, of need required to “bring back the gods” comes later than one imagines, particularly in a resolutely materialistic and fundamentally atheistic world. In such a world, the belief in material progress must be held onto all the more tenaciously – when there is nothing else, only this world, even the most bankrupt and ridiculously unrealistic promises are still listened to.

For such a society, only an “in-your-face” failure will break the grip on the illusion. Then comes the dark, lonely night of the individual soul – alone before the abyss.

But the dew falls when the night is darkest.

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What a sign of the times,  that giving this name to my blog should not be ridiculous!

For what could have been more obvious in every other epoch of history that death mattered! Of all things. That it mattered as much as being born, as getting married, as choosing a career, as making a living. In many past societies it mattered even more than living – life was merely a preparatory school for what came after. Whatever came after was the real thing, the permanent thing – what happened here was merely an interlude.

But even aside from the significance of death in the context of after-life beliefs, what could have been more obvious that an event which ended EVERYTHING mattered?

Now I ask: what is the matter with us, or what could be so special about us, that we are so uniquely oblivious to – or perhaps beyond – death? Are we in fact superior to all those others through the millenia that gave this event so much importance? Could that really be true? The lack of time and effort we give the subject suggests we just might be that conceited, that arrogant … that ignorant and naive.

Or has our amazing technology taken us beyond death, as the only society in the history of mankind to defeat death? Or has our unique wisdom allowed us to philosophise ourselves beyond death, to become so wise as to have accepted so fully what cannot be otherwise that we no longer waste time on the matter?

Evidently it is neither of the above.  In confronting death we are no superior philosophically or technologically – we have no sophisticated metaphysical solution to death – on the contrary we are children compared to past civilizations in this respect, less prepared spiritually or psychologically than others – and we still die as predictably as ever, despite every minor technological prolungation of life.

Moreover, we are not even oblivious to the significance of death – it has merely retreated more and more from the conscious to the subconscious, where it occupies us far more than we like to admit. It is still there – we just refuse to deal with it, pretend that it does not matter.

So in the end this title does make sense – in our weird world, people must actually be reminded that death matters.

(Aside: If a scornful tone is evident in the above, forgive me – sometimes I don’t know how else to deal with such conceit as ours. Compassion for such a fallen state of affairs in humanity would be better – and indeed, when I contemplate where this fear and denial of death is leading us, I cannot but feel compassion.

Because – tragically – however effectively we have hidden death in our society, it has not gone away. On the contrary – every act of “damming the river of life“, which is what death denial effectively leads to, adds to the volume of undealt-with death that accumulates behind the dam of our subconscious. At some point, the weight becomes unbearable, the dam breaks and the flood overwhelms us. That a literal demographic flood of death will of necessity occur in the next decades makes the breaking of the dam even more certain – and more terrifying.

Please people, wake up – death matters!

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Ye Mortals!

3 May
2010

When I was writing the mission statement for this site some time ago (“Medicine for LIFE“), I used the words mortality and mortals extensively. It occurs to me now how unfashionable these words have become, particularly the latter.

In ancient literature, particularly in mythologies where humans existed alongside gods, titans, demons and other immortals, humans were characterized by their one universal difference from all these other life forms. The others lived forever, whereas we mortals were condemned to die, unpredictably and after only a brief earthly existence.

What was so obvious to the ancients,  indeed the primary attribute of humanity, has become invisible to us. But the ancients understood better, more objectively – for what unites all human beings is our common equalizing mortality. We are all mortals – some of us get given a few more years, some even a few more happy years than others. But in the end, we are all pathetically equally mortal. In comparison with the lifespans of the universe, of the earth, of the species and even of certain of our own artworks, we are blips on the radar screen, indistinguishable one from the other.

Our awareness of ourselves as mortals humbled us with respect to the immortals – to the gods, to the earth, to nature, to art. It imposed sensible limits on our ambitions in their realms.  And our common mortality made us respect those who were equally mortal with us – our fellow human beings and the animals. An acute awareness of being mortal also created the basis of our hunger for immortality – you can only hunger for what you are aware of not having. Religions were formed to answer these hopes, some better, some more honest than others – but all in all humanity lived in hope of something more than a short brutish life on earth (and this is not the place to argue about all the admittedly detrimental effects of false or corrupted religions!)

Since losing all hopes for any form of eternal after-life, as well as all external frames of reference for immortality such as gods, we have become our own subjective frame of reference when it comes to life. We thus take the trivial differences in longevity and fortune  existing between men as all-significant and desperately attempt to equalize what is relatively-speaking already equal – to the gods, to the earth, even to the species, there is no significant difference between one human life and another.

Our loss of an objective frame of reference for life has other negative effects: We feel ourselves infinitely superior to our non-human fellow mortals, the animals, and lord it over them as gods. We instinctively refrain from building or planning anything for the long term, since anything beyond our own short existence no longer has psychological reality for us. We are less interested in history and art, since they are also symbolically connected with transcendence over time and thus immortality of a sort. And we expend enormous sums and efforts in medical research, health care, sanitation etc in order to extend our lives for a few more usually-miserable years.

How the immortals – and indeed those humans who still aspire to immortality – must chuckle at our foolish vanity!

I think it would be a very positive sign for the world if we became mortals once again – and I shall do my best to rehabilitate this word!

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In a recent discussion about perservering through all the difficulties of life, I retorted at one point, “But in the end, the only thing that really matters is not dying. Anything is better than that”. To which was answered, “Are you sure? What if one suffers terribly?” I realized my mistake -  what really matters is being happy to be alive, and not just avoiding the worst case scenario, death.

So ask yourself – do you live life ex-positivo or ex-negativo – are you positively enjoying your life, or are you basically unhappy but at least not dead?

I suggest that most of us are in the latter category, however counter-intuitive that might seem in a society so supposedly happy and dynamic. I’ll try to explain.

I suggest that we collectively tell ourselves white lies, albeit subconscious ones. That the vast majority of us live essentially unhappy and empty lives. But since we are impotent to change this, we are forced to pretend that we are happy and enjoying life. The only other alternative – to wish or wait hopefully for death – is not the option it was in the past, since death has become NOTHINGNESS to us.

Thus we “choose” to accept living dull unhappy lives. And we protect ourselves from the futility of this choice-that-is-no-choice by distraction and self-delusion. We distract ourselves with sex, partying, extreme sports,  continous consumption of media and matter and see these as signs of vigor, when they are really symptoms of death denial. And we delude ourselves somewhere between our subconscious – which closely watches the invisible bogeyman from the corner of its eye – and our conscious level, which sees only externals and thus perceives all the pretence of vigor as living reality. This optical illusion convinces us that we are happy to be alive, perhaps even exceptionally so, more than any past civilizations.

The truth is the opposite: metahistorically we are living the nihilistic terminal phase of our civilization, which is essentially dying to its old form and precisely for that reason must be death-denying in order to keep moving forward at all.

This death denial expresses itself wherever death comes into unavoidable contact with life….  We keep brain-dead humans alive on machines for months, when they are no longer conscious enough for happiness to have any meaning.  We force old people against their own wills into nursing homes, where, instead of them dying naturally at home with the family, paid strangers tend their bedsores, “disimpact” them (manually remove the feces when their bowels no longer work), ignore their terrible loneliness, and treat them like mindless infants. In North America, we have a ridiculous and childish fear of cemeteries, which should instead be beautiful sanctuaries of peace in a mad machine-driven world.  We scoff simplistically at death and don’t see that this is actually a defensive reaction from our impotence against it. And we lapse into an unnatural silence at any serious mention or connotation of death that unfortunately comes our way.

Are these evidence of a society that is revels in the joy of life – or one that is scared witless by death?

It would be healthier if we could be more honest with ourselves – if we could admit that it is insufficient not to be dead, that we should find positive meaning and joy in being alive. Only by bravely facing up to our reality – and from the heart-felt pain that would result – can a genuine solution to the problem of existence materialize.

A plausible new vision of an after-life for example? I don’t know.

But I can tell you honestly, that I don’t care anymore when I die – because I’m happy to be alive!!

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It has long astonished me how clever we have become about eliminating the visibility (that is to say, the reminders) of death in our modern world.

This has not happened only by chance and greater competition for space from “life enterprises” – there is deep subconscious death denial at work here, manifesting itself from the individual through the family and up to the institutions such as city planners etc.

Yet this aberration is of no real importance. I don’t want to sound like a prophet of doom, but when death is denied, or pushed forward a few years by health care, it does not disappear or experience a reduction – it merely accumulates behind the dam, like water that is not allowed to flow naturally to the sea. At some point, the dam breaks or overflows and death become visible again with a vengeance.

We would do well to address this issue now, attempt to let some of this natural flow occur – practically by rethinking our health care strategies and psychologically/spiritually in our homes, churches and city squares.

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Death as Liberation

23 Feb
2010

In my humble opinion, this famous contemporary vision of death’s “value” mostly misses the mark.

But with a minor correction, it gains profound new meaning. From the soul’s perspective, death can be seen as a liberation – hence its pricelessness.

Death as Liberation

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“Death? It’s the only thing we haven’t succeeded in completely vulgarizing!” Aldous Huxley

Seeing this provocative phrase atop one of the pages of the Perpetua’s Passages site made me pick up Huxley’s excellent compilation of essays on art again, “On Art and Artists”. Although I didn’t find the source of the quote there, I did find an essay entitled “Art and the obvious”, with direct relevence to death matters.

Before I begin, the reader needs to understand the essay’s essential message.

Huxley differentiates between two kinds of obvious truths: the Great Obvious Truths, those eternal unchanging ones, such as the brutality of war, the shortness of life, maternal love, the therapeutic effects of nature, the mystery of death etc; and the small obvious truths, the ephemeral localized ones – that America is the most powerful nation at present, that Toyota makes better cars than Lada, that heels are higher this year than last year etc.

Both groups of truth are obvious, and art occupies itself with both of them.  The public is also interested in both: it likes being able to recognise the small obvious truths; and it wants to be reminded of and retold the Great Obvious Truths which it cannot so easily grasp.

Now as populations grew in the last century and the swelling masses demanded their own daily dose of art, so more and more mediocre artists dedicated themselves to supplying this mass need. Art by mediocre artists is necessarily mediocre, so when these artist addressed themselves to the Great Obvious Truths they necessarily produced what is best described as kitsch – sentimental, superficial, easy to swallow.

As incompetent and false interpretations of the Great Obvious Truths filled the marketplace, the minority group of truly sensitive and gifted artists  felt increasingly repelled by all obvious truths, Great and small. They simply didn’t want to be associated with all the incompetence, falseness and kitsch of the popular art. So they turned away from addressing anything obvious, towards the unusual, the unexpected, the invented, the obscurest of realities. For the first time in millenia, the best artists refused to address the most archetypal and significant facts of human nature, the Great Obviousnesses – including death.

Result? The plastic arts were stripped of their literary qualities, reduced to mere formal relations of their elements. The tragic, mournful and tender was removed from music, which now only expressed motion and energy. And literature excluded all the great obviousnesses of human nature from its subject matter.

The (erroneous) popular justification for all of this was that human nature had fundamentally changed in the last few years, and modern man was deeply different from all his ancestors.

This is how Huxley saw it – and I completely agree with him. Indeed, when we turn to death matters, the most consequential and eternal of all Great Obvious Truths, we see that modern art has completely abandoned the field. For two centuries or so, it has been left to the talents of the most mediocre of the mediocre “artists”. NO, I correct myself – not even to them, but to technicians and draftsmen paid by businesses to produce something, anything, to sell as a pseudo-memorial, a pseudo-ritual.

A bizarre state of affairs, because until now death had always been the great topic for artists, right back from the Egyptians. Of course – because it is the ultimate question, which no science or other human initiative can even attempt to solve or explain. Only Art can even approach death with some hope of “success”. Even the major religions, which were Art’s grandest achievements, were also fundamentally concerned with the defeat of death, the artistic defeat of it.

Now hardly a serious artist dares approach the subject. A bad state of affairs indeed! Because contrary to our progressive fantasies, humans have not changed in their essence and death is as relevent now as it ever was. It still kills everyone of us -and no solution is in sight.

To return to the Huxley quote. Did he actually contradict himself – has death not also been vulgarized in our society? Certainly in the funeral industry, death has been vulgarized to the nth degree. What about in the art world, in the rare moments when it dares approach the subject?

Recently I saw two rare exhibitions devoted to death, one in Berlin, one in Vienna. I wouldn’t call most of what I saw vulgar – rather I found the insights of most artists depressingly simplistic, “adolescent” in comparison with the subject material. Evidently, even our best artists have lost the thread of this eternal Great Obviousness.

But there is always room for hope. I believe a time is coming when Art will rediscover this eternal font of genuinely significant subject material. I have found a few initiatives that are trying to resurrect true funeral art.  (See Perpetua’s Passages for example.) May these efforts signify a new approach to the Great Obvious Truth of death and dying.

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