Understanding DeathMatters better

14 Jun

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!


1 Response to Understanding DeathMatters better


Charles Cowling

June 14th, 2010 at 10:18 am

Very interesting what you have to say about the DNA booby prize.

The Rev’d in the YouTube clip is remarkable, I think, in that he pulls no punches. “Living that fast life comes to this, right down here.” She died like a fool. It certainly seems to have a salutary effect on his younger listeners.

Yep, let’s keep talking about it!