For the week of August 19 thru August 25, 1998  

The Last Dance

Commentary by Adam Tanous

There never seems to be an appropriate time to talk about death.

Even reading about it, say now, might be a drag.

But most people end up talking and thinking about death at the least appropriate time: when they or someone they love is actually dying, or worse, after the fact. It is a profound event that can not be thought through while sitting vigil in a hospital waiting room.

Death, however inconvenient, is a lifelong problem.

It is also the single, common thread in everyone's life. Think of it as a junior high school dance. Some arrive early, some late, but eventually we are all there, dressed up in our finest, because, really, there is no where else to go.

That we don't like to acknowledge death as the last dance is understandable but not necessarily forgivable.

There is quite a bit to do and think about in life; why get bogged down in a morass of dismal thoughts and discussions now?

One reason is that you rarely get to pick and choose when you or someone you love is going to slip away. And it may take a while to glean clear thoughts and beliefs from a mind used to hazily skimming through the dark, little realities of life.

Some people take refuge in the fact that death is a very personal issue. By logical extension, talking about it is a moot point in their view.

I grant that death is an intensely personal experience, but I would argue that it is also a communal event that requires some sort of communal resolution. Very few people die in an absolute vacuum.

Often we assume all those people around us realize how we feel. That's not necessarily so. People forget, become insecure, distracted by illness. There is always less time than you think. Blows come from directions you never anticipate.

A man named Paul Buttenweiser, a Harvard professor and psychoanalyst, gave a talk the other day about secrets in fiction and in life. He pointed out that the tension between secrets and the revealing of secrets is what drives a fictional plot.

In real life, he said, death is the ultimate secret. I don't think it is trivial that this is the one secret in life that is not revealed (as far as we are likely to know). And this fact drives us crazy. Crazier, I might add, as we get older.

It is living in suspension, not a state of mind with which we are, generally, comfortable.

As far as I can discern, the central role of religion has always been to relieve this tension by supplying an ending to our story. But the language of religion as it pertains to death has always seemed to me woefully inadequate and somewhat of a cliché.

So often at funerals I have heard that "God has found a higher purpose" for a friend who has died, or that "he lives on in our memories." It rings a little hollow.

I want to believe it, and I've tried, but somewhere deep it feels less than satisfying. "Higher purpose" is akin to saying, you don't and can't understand so don't worry about it. And as far as memories go, they can carry one only so far. They are stagnant and void of the unpredictable and spontaneous nature of life.

In a way, western religion sidesteps the issue of endings altogether. It negates the end by providing the constructs of heaven and hell and eternal life after death.

The logic presented to us is that life doesn't really end, it simply takes on a different form, i.e. the form of spirit. The effect is palliative but temporary.

Funerals are cultural and religious events that, ostensibly, make it possible for us to move past a death, but as everyone knows, healing doesn't occur during a one-hour ceremony.

It often takes years to assimilate another person's life and death into our conscience. It may never happen. It just may be a struggle all the way, which could be the point, too, that long-lasting hurt and anguish means the dead have mattered to us.

Isn't that what we want with our lives--to have mattered?

It is also possible that western religion tries to explain away something that can not and should not be explained. Religion is predicated upon faith, but, oddly enough, faith in a logical system (that is that God has a plan and reason for his actions).

The religious narrative of life after death is with us largely because we can't stand to have secrets kept from us.

Maybe this secret is the one we have to learn to live with. Maybe we should let go of the questions of why loved ones have left us and where they have gone (trying to understand God's logic, assuming it exists). Maybe we should be asking ourselves questions like: what did we learn from those who have left, how can we carry on their qualities, quirks, insights, how can we bring them to the lives of others?

Some people have a firm belief in the narrative of religion that seems to work for them, but many others have a nagging ambivalence about it.

For those, I wonder if the religious approach to death is all wrong.

There is the possibility, however apocryphal, that humans and their deaths are a lot simpler than we think.

People, in general, are not comfortable with the idea of being nothing more than biological creatures, nonetheless, that we have conscious thought and emotions, qualities other animals don't have doesn't necessarily mean we are fundamentally different in the way we die.

Furthermore, the concept of eternal life after death has an insidious way of diluting the power of our existence on Earth.

We might be better off if we actually acknowledged that life is going to end. The finite nature of our lives is what defines them, makes them dramatic and precious.

That we all have a limited time together forces us to make decisions in life, define our lives by our choices: the people we love, the good works we do, the thoughts we imagine.

Thomas Wolfe wrote the following in his novel You.Can't Go Home Again: "There came to him an image of man's whole life upon the earth. It seemed to him that all man's life was like a tiny spurt of flame that blazed out briefly in an illimitable darkness, and that all man's grandeur, tragic dignity, his heroic glow, came from the brevity and smallness of this flame."


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