Death seems a lot closer now than in my youth; but it was always just around a corner, peeking out from traffic lights, hiding in the limb of a tree I might have climbed. And it’s not as if it suddenly surfaced when I retired either -death is a fact of life; we come from the void; we return to the void. But there are as many questions about death as about life, aren’t there?
What, except as polar opposites, are we to make of either? Is one the absence of what was once a presence –or is that too simple? Too much of a question from those who live? What might we ask in the void from which we sprang? Would we not now be considered equally absent from there?
It’s hard enough to winnow through the ageless questions without having also to wade through the countless theologies with their parochial answers. As if they themselves had arisen in the vacuity from which we are currently the temporary precipitates.
No, Death needs to be handled gently. Sensitively. I happened upon an empathetic essay with an intuitive feel to it a while ago by Stephen Cave from the University of Cambridge. A philosopher by training, he has also served as a British diplomat. https://aeon.co/essays/if-death-comes-for-everything-does-it-matter-what-we-kill
He was reminded of mortality when he accidentally squished a little fly that had been buzzing around his desk as he worked. It wasn’t so much guilt from his act, as the sudden transition from life to not-life that intrigued him. The parts that he once could identify were ‘in turn made of cells, each one of which is hugely complex. And in those cells, among many other things, are – or were – the fly’s genes, which in turn embody an astonishing intricacy and an ancient, multi-million-year history, while in the fly’s gut would have been countless bacteria with their own genes, their own goals. Worlds within worlds, now squidged together into a single dark smudge that I am already finding it hard to pinpoint among the scratches and coffee rings.’
All things die, and if not here and now, then there and whenever. It wasn’t that he’d changed anything significantly, but more that he’d ‘destroyed complexity and beauty many orders of magnitude greater than any [he would] ever create.’ Thus it seemed to him ‘quite reasonable to think that the death of the fly is entirely insignificant and that it is at the same time a kind of catastrophe… highlighting the inconsistencies in our philosophies, our attempts to make sense of our place in the world and our relations to our co‑inhabitants on Earth. The reality is that we do not know what to think about death: not that of a fly, or of a dog or a pig, or of ourselves.’
The death of one, sustains the life of another -that’s how it works, isn’t it? So what should we make of that? ‘In the language of ecology, life and death are obligate symbionts, each wholly dependent on the other. We too are built on a bedrock of old men’s bones. Our evolution to Homo sapiens is a product of the endless winnowing out of the unfit and the unfortunate.’
And yet, when the author squished the fly, he writes that he summoned the Reaper to his desk. ‘If only briefly, I caught his eye. If I had turned away fast enough, the fly’s death would have remained as insignificant as those of its invisible brothers and sisters caught by the swifts. But I was drawn instead inside its tiny head, drawn to imagine the great finger coming to squish me, my little life flashing before my bulging, compound eyes. Through a lapse in my indifference, I was drawn into the catastrophe, drawn to make its death my death.’
But does this polarity impose meaning on it? Should it? Cave talks about Tennyson’s concern on seeing animal fossils, and on Nature’s seeming indifference: ‘how she is so careless of whole species. She cries: ‘I care for nothing, all shall go’, and Tennyson concludes: ‘O life as futile, then, as frail!’
And yet we all create meaning -especially, perhaps, Tennyson: ‘death’s relentless reaping should lead us to question the existence of some higher meaning – one above, beyond or external to us. But whoever thought there was such a thing anyway? Not the frogs and tadpoles… Because life is so teeming with intentions and meanings, the death of each creature really is a catastrophe. But we must live with it anyway… the alternative is the most desperate and convoluted of denials.’
You can see the picture the author is painting: the tension of simultaneously holding two opposites in one’s heart. ‘To take both sides seriously and to seek some way to live with them is part of what it is to be human.’ The canvas is at the same time mysterious, yet affirming.
It takes me back to what could have been a destructive moment in my early childhood. One morning, after getting out of bed, I found my dog, Boots, lying on the rug by the door, but when I called him he didn’t move. He was quite old at the time, and had been slowing down on his walks with me, so my father had warned me that he might not live much longer. But Boots was so entangled with my own life, I couldn’t even imagine a life without him.
When my father heard me crying on the steps outside, he sat down beside me, put his arm around me, and waited for me to speak.
“Boots is dead, daddy,” I managed to splutter. He tightened his embrace. “He’s gone… forever…”
I remember my father taking a slow, deep breath and then sending his eyes to rest on my cheeks. “But he hasn’t gone, G -not really…”
I remember staring at him through my tears. “But…”
“He’s going to return to the earth again, but he’ll live in a different form.”
I thought about it for a moment. “You mean, as dirt, or whatever…?” He nodded. “But…”
He smiled sadly at my tears, and wiped one away that had made it down to my mouth. “Suppose we plant a baby tree over his grave?” He watched my face for a reaction. “Then you’ll remember him whenever you see the tree.” He smiled softly. “And when the tree grows, he’ll still be with us.” He winked. “Maybe even longer than us…”
In the moment, they were just words to me, I suppose -a dog is more than that- but in time, I came to realize just how healing it was. And although I have long since moved from Winnipeg, and even though my own leaves are now falling off, the Boots tree is still there whenever I return to check. Nature has a way of re-creating us as something else. We are, after all, the world.