I have written ~32,000 words to date as part of my planned 2019 writing project, Credidero, including an introductory article followed by ten pieces in ten months reflecting on ten topics. Some of my regular readers may have gotten through all ten of them. Many probably haven’t. Without checking the data, I suspect that the ones with the highest readership levels were those that covered the more common, basic aspects of shared life experiences, e.g. community, security, or authority. Pretty much everybody will have to think about these topics at some point, some of them fairly regularly, and many of those folks might be inclined to see what someone else thinks about them. On the flip side, I expect the more esoteric topics — say, absurdity, complexity, or inhumanity — would have drawn lower readership levels, simply because not everybody has a need to consider such concepts regularly. So why bother investing any time in my thoughts on them?
If I’m correct in this assessment, then this month’s Credidero article — covering mortality — should be the most widely read of them all, since it’s the only topic of the twelve I’m covering that every single human being who has ever lived, is living, and ever will live, has or is going to experience. Some of us will face our own mortality sooner, some later, some suddenly, some after terrible lingering illness, some surrounded by loved ones, some alone, some welcoming the final curtain with a graceful bow, some raging against the dying of the light. We all experience birth (thought none of us remember it, so we can’t reflect on it), and we all experience death. In between those points, the only things that we all will share are breathing, eating, drinking, excreting, sleeping, and aging. When any of those activities stop, we die. Everything else is noise, on some plane. Or vanity, to cite the more eloquent words of the Preacher, the Son of David: “I have seen everything that is done under the sun, and behold, all is vanity and a striving after wind.”
King Solomon went on in his Old Testament Book of Ecclesiastes to lay out a rubric designed to give meaning to our experiences between birth and death, beyond the basics of biological function. His crowning instruction was “Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man,” but before that, he exhorted us to (among other things) enjoy life with the ones we love, seek wisdom instead of folly, cast our bread upon the waters, share our riches with those less fortunate, etc. But even if we follow all of the Preacher’s instructions, eventually “the silver cord is snapped, or the golden bowl is broken, or the pitcher is shattered at the fountain, or the wheel broken at the cistern, and the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the spirit returns to God who gave it,” and “forever [the dead] have no more share in all that is done under the sun.”
I cite Ecclesiastes here simply because it’s a relevant text in the faith tradition in which I was raised, so I’m most familiar with it, but I just as easily could have picked just about any culture in the world, ever, and found texts related to death and dying, and how to prepare ourselves for that imminent eventuality. The universality of mortality means that death must be among the most discussed and debated topics in human experience, and as each of us wrestle with its inevitability individually, so too do we seek to find shared senses of meanings about it, through practices designed to postpone and/or mitigate our fear of death, through rituals related to the disposition of our bodies, and through spiritual traditions designed to inspire or frighten us as to what we might experience after our final exhalations.
In considering mortality for this month’s article, I kept returning to the fact that there are really two aspects to evaluate: beliefs about what happens before we die, and beliefs about what happens after we die. Most faith-based and spiritual traditions put heavy focus on the latter, presuming that we all possess some unseen living essence that will survive the death of our bodies, and will either be reborn in some form under the sun again, or experience eternal paradise or endless damnation in some non-corporeal world. Typically, such spiritual traditions also provide rules for living our physical lives that are designed to heighten the probabilities of positive outcomes for our posthumous infinities. Some focus on litanies of sins to be avoided, some focus on lists of good deeds to be done. But in either case, all of our experiences, and all of our relationships, and all of our accomplishments in our brief (cosmically speaking) physical lives are ultimately just ticks on a tote board, elements of grades to be assigned in a final judgment, precursors to a metaphysical life that’s considered to be of infinitely more worth and value than our mean slogs through the mud of measurable human experience
As it turns out for the purposes of this series, I reflected on and wrote about my own beliefs regarding metaphysical life after death in an earlier Credidero article on eternity, so I won’t revisit them in detail this month. Suffice to say, I believe that when I die, I will not experience any lasting metaphysical consciousness or existence in any way that is identifiable as me, or by me. I will leave behind physical remains, of course, and I’ve left instructions that they should be burned, and my ashes be kept or disposed of as my surviving loved ones see fit. While I have always enjoyed visiting graveyards and cemeteries, I don’t wish to have any permanent marker placed with my name upon it when my time comes. While it won’t be my call, if asked now to identify a place where my remains most sensibly belonged for ceremonial reasons, I’d pick Stoney Creek Cemetery in South Carolina (some images and stories about it here). There are plenty of fire ant nests there, and in my sense of the perverse, I would find it apt for them to spread the little bits of me around the marsh over a period of months or years, the better to sustain whatever living things might find my constituent elements useful.
Neither of my parents will be there, though, should Stoney Creek actually be the final resting place of my scattered remains. My father is embalmed and buried at Beaufort National Cemetery (if you visit that Wikipedia link, I took the photo at the top of the page; my dad’s grave is just to the left of and below the huge live oak in the center of the shot), and my mother has directed that she wishes to join him there, an intention that I will honor as the executor of her estate. Neither of them were comfortable with the concept of cremation, and both of them place(d) high value on their remains being together in a dedicated location specifically managed as a memorial resting place for those who served in the armed forces and the spouses who sustained and supported them. So be it. I’ll honor those wishes. And I’ll likely continue to visit the cemetery and keep the graves clean and pause for moments of reflection. As one does. All good.
That being said, I’ve still never emotionally embraced the logic behind preserving a body with chemicals, putting it in an impervious (and expensive) metal box with fine decorations outside and within, then burying it all in the ground — especially in cases where the deceased believed that they are going on to some greater glory where their meat container is as meaningless as a shucked cocoon. Why preserve it? Why look at it before we close the box? Why keep it from the bugs and the plants that could make use of it? It seems most odd to me that we put such expense and effort into disposing of our bodies, beyond taking the most simple and effective steps to ensuring that our remains do not create health hazards or aesthetic displeasure to those who survive us. I suppose in the case of cultures like ancient Egypt where the Pharaohs believed that they’d need all of their corporeal bits in the afterlife it made some sense to keep things from decay, or if we expected to lie in state under glass, Lenin-style, for a couple of centuries. But within the precepts of most modern monotheistic religions that clearly describe a living spirit existing independent of its former body, it seems a largely meaningless excess and indulgence that preys on the emotions of the bereaved and plays into the funerary industry’s profits. But I know mine is a minority opinion.
(For a less jaded view on how our modern American funerary culture arose, I highly recommend reading Drew Gilpin Faust’s This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War. Many of the elements of contemporary death rituals in this country, secular and spiritual, trace their histories to the ways in which our Nation endured and moved on from the carnage of its greatest historic convulsion. I specifically noted above that I do not emotionally embrace the modern practices of managing the death process, because I do intellectually understand how they came to be, and why people want them that way. It just doesn’t feel right to me).
So as I consider the posthumous elements of my own mortality, those are my basic beliefs regarding both the metaphysical and corporeal elements of what happens after I die. Which leads to the second element of the analytical dichotomy posited above: What are my beliefs about mortality before I die? Not to be facile, but the easiest way for me to answer that question on a macro basis is probably to post a picture of the tattoo on the back of my left calf:
Those words come from a song called “Amethyst Deceivers” by COIL, one of my all-time favorite musical groups, who were (the two core members are both dead) hugely influential to my creative and musical aesthetics. That quote, to me, means that I know death is coming, and that I should be mindful and respectful of that fact, and to the other living things that live with me, and will follow me, or even consume me, when I am gone. I’m a small organism in a big ecosystem, and all of us are doing what we do while we have the chance to do it, none of us any better or more worthy than any other. The sigil above the quote is the black sun, an alchemic symbol that represents the first stage of the magnum opus, illuminating the dissolution of the body, and the namesake of Harry and Caresse Crosby’s incredible Black Sun Press, many original editions from which I had the chance to research and work with in a prior professional engagement.
That sign recurs regularly in the COIL oeuvre (they were artists as well as musicians), including the lyrics of the song “Fire of The Mind,” (click the link to hear it), which I’ve suggested should be played at any memorial service held on my behalf. The song’s lyrics are as follows:
Does death come alone or with eager reinforcements?
Does death come alone or with eager reinforcements?
Death is centrifugal
Solar and logical
Decadent and symmetrical
Angels are mathematical
Angels are bestial
Man is the animal
Man is the animal
The blacker the sun
The darker the dawn
Flashes from the axis
Flashes from the axis
On the hummingway to the stars
Holy holy, holy holy, holy oh holy
Holy holy, holy holy, holy
Holy holy, holy holy, holy
Man is the animal
The blacker the suns
The darker the dawn
(As a related side note, for many years, I suggested the Velvet Underground’s “Black Angel’s Death Song” as my final musical elegy, though my feelings about Lou Reed evolved over the years to a point where it seems less fitting for me now than it once did. Still, that song’s lyrics, especially the last ones — Choose to choose, Choose to choose, Choose to go — speak to me, and I know its truly abrasive music would be terribly uncomfortable for the people being forced to listen to it in the stuffy confines of a church or funeral home, which appeals to me. Have I mentioned my sense of the perverse?)
So, is it morbid that I wear that COIL quote and image on my body, and will until my body is no more? I didn’t intend it to be so, and I don’t think that it is. The tattoo celebrates the memory of artists who moved me, it reminds me of my place on the planet, and it exhorts me to be respectful of even the least attractive denizens of our amazing living world, for even they have their places, and their roles. (The song “Amethyst Deceivers” also references crows, rooks, ravens, humans, and the toxic little mushrooms that give the song its title, also all things I like). Man is the animal, indeed. One of many. The COIL quote doesn’t make me think about death, it makes me think about life. It’s not telling me to dwell on the vultures (metaphoric or otherwise) that will consume me, but rather telling me to be in the moment, alive, now, mindful, and to acknowledge the vultures on the occasions when our paths cross, graciously.
For the third time in the Credidero series, I find myself returning to an old article of mine called “Seawater Sack Guy Speaks,” which I originally wrote as light parody or absurd satire, but which, as I get older, somehow moves closer to being a sincere manifesto of sorts, though it’s still a bit more extreme in places than my real views might be. The key quote relevant to the topic of mortality is this one:
I’m not going to be carrying any metaphysical seawater around any metaphysical heaven or hell when my sack breaks down and releases all its atoms, so I figure I should use every bit of the consciousness I’ve evolved, here and now, to enjoy my fleeting, warm, moist moment in the Sun. This is not to say that I’ve a problem with other sacks of seawater whose enjoyment of their own fleeting, warm, moist moments in the Sun involves the belief in something different. If such chemical processes provide them joy or comfort (or at least the chemical processes that cause their seawater to produce such sensations), then such is their right, and who am I to force my chemistry upon them?
I take joy and comfort from just being conscious, and consider that scientifically miraculous enough.
When I actively think about my own mortality, which truly isn’t very often, I usually end up thinking and feeling along the lines of that quote, rather than finding myself consumed with existential terror and despair. (I do recognize that this might change were I given three months to live, or were I a frail 95-year old). I don’t come out of any occasional reflections on my own mortality feeling like I must do anything and everything to push death as far away as I possibly can, but rather I come out thinking that, well, it could happen tomorrow, so I’d better do something I like doing today, and be happy doing it.
Sometimes that’s an active pursuit, sometimes it’s a passive one. I love adventure travel, as an example, but I can also have a really good day hanging out around the apartment, puttering, occasionally popping in to bother my wife with kisses and nonsense. It may not be an epic and memorable day, but it doesn’t mean it’s a bad one. If all goes well, I’ll be able to do it again tomorrow. And I’m good with that, I really am. As someone who has wrestled with anxiety, depression, addiction, chronic pain and/or neurological health issues through different significant chunks of my life, I have learned to appreciate every day that doesn’t hurt, mentally or physically. Damned if I’m going to create bad days when I don’t need to by dwelling on the inevitability of my death until I make myself unhappy.
I will admit as I was researching the topic of mortality that I felt like I should sort of think about it in ways that made me unhappy, or at least uncomfortable, but I just couldn’t really make myself do that on any meaningful emotional basis. Maybe I’m too shallow or unimaginative, or maybe I’ve just built such strong walls between my intellectual and emotional states that I can’t deploy the former to excite the latter. I found the concepts of mortality salience and its underlying terror management theory to be the most interesting new (to me) things I uncovered during my research, but they remained intellectually stimulating, not emotionally so. The Wikipedia summary of those related articles explains that:
Mortality salience engages the conflict that humans have to face both their instinct to avoid death completely, and their intellectual knowledge that avoiding death is ultimately futile. According to terror management theory, when human beings begin to contemplate their mortality and their vulnerability to death, feelings of terror emerge because of the simple fact that humans want to avoid their inevitable death. Mortality salience comes into effect, because humans contribute all of their actions to either avoiding death or distracting themselves from the contemplation of it. Thus, terror management theory asserts that almost all human activity is driven by the fear of death.
There’s boodles of academic and popular writing out there to back up this premise, but it rings hollow to me when I try to apply it to my own life experience. If there’s anything about the concept of mortality that does make my soul quake on occasion, it’s not pondering my own departure, but rather pondering the departures of those close to me. I don’t have a lot of deep personal connections in my life, but the ones I do have are titanic in their import to me. If I were to outlive them all, then the ratio of “hurt” vs “doesn’t hurt” days would probably change pretty dramatically for me.
Most couples who have been together as long as my wife and I have will pick up inside songs or phrases that speak to the nature of the relationship in casual, affectionate terms. One of ours is a song called “More Than The World” by FREEMAN (the band that Aaron Freeman, a.k.a. Gene Ween, established during a hiatus from his better-known act), which features these lines:
I can’t make it alone
I’m too dumb to be on my own
I’ve never been very strong
I love you more than the world
That would be me speaking to her, not the other way around. And while it’s been a long time since I’ve had to test the theory, the “too dumb to be on my own” line is probably still true, so I’m more frightened by that future than I am by the prospect of my own departure. I do recognize that works both ways: while I might not spend much time or energy dreading my own flight into nothingness, those who love me likely worry about and fear my departure as much as I fear theirs. That’s the main thing that motivates me to consider longevity in my actions, despite my temperamental proclivities to embody that old joke about the stereotypical redneck’s final words: “Hey, y’all . . . watch this!”
But once again, what else can we do in the face of the ways that mortality will impact us, sooner or later, except live life to the fullest while we still can do so? As trite or pat as that might sound as a concluding sentiment for this article, it’s what I have believed, do believe, and hope to always believe. While death is ultimately just the absence of life, living is not just the absence of dying. There are so many things, big and small, that give me joy, and that I want to do, that it seems short-sighted to dwell on the time when such joys and desires are going to be snuffed out.
I’ve honestly spent more time thinking about death and dying this month as a result of writing this article than I probably have in all of the years combined since the early grieving stages that followed my father’s death in 2002. And once I finish tidying up this article and hitting the “publish” button, I’m going to get right back to happily respecting the vultures and moving my seawater around and loving my wife (and daughter) more than the world, because I can, and it’s good to do so, no matter what tomorrow might bring.
Note: This article is part of an ongoing twelve-part writing project. I’ve used a random online dice roller to select a monthly topic from a series of twelve pre-selected themes. With this eleventh article complete, I don’t need to roll the die again, since I know that December will be dedicated to that last remaining topic: “Possibility.”
All Articles In This Series: