The chief embalmer of a busy funeral home recently remarked, “No matter how often I do this procedure, I am always struck by how we end up here on the table by ourselves. We are in a single file line, we all die alone.”
The cornerstone of human existence is its temporal nature. “None of us stay young long enough and none of us live forever,” James Crumley observed in his novel, The Last Good Kiss.
In more scientific terms, analyst Otto Rank put it this way: “Life in itself is a mere succession of separations…man persistently separates from his old self…beginning with birth, going through several weaning periods and the development of the individual personality and finally culminating in death, which represents the final separation.”
Ancient philosophers hypothesized the central problem in the human condition is mortality — many of us, if not most of us, spend our time doing everything possible to avoid confronting our finitude on this planet. The notion that our time will eventually end up in nothingness is too overwhelming to tolerate.
In 1973, cultural anthropologist, Ernest Becker, published the bedrock study on the uneasy relationship humanity has with eternity — the best-selling, Pulitzer Prize winning, The Denial of Death.
Identifying fear of death as a universal trait shared by all mankind, Becker posits that we know we must perish and we are condemned to spend our lives trying to resist that fate.
“The idea of death, the fear of it,” Becker wrote, “haunts the human animal like nothing else. It is a mainspring of human activity — activity designed to avoid the fatality of death, to overcome it by denying in some way that it is the final destiny for man.”
Toward that end, man creates a mythical hero-system where some lasting mark is left upon civilization: accumulating a family fortune, building an edifice which will stand well into the foreseeable future, conquering an empire, being named to a sports Hall of Fame, any achievement that will ensure remembrance.
“The hope and belief is that the things man creates in society are of lasting worth and meaning that they outlive or outshine death and decay, that man and his products count,” Becker stated. Unfortunately, Becker explained, these attempts often result in poisoning our own lives as well as the lives of others. Our desire to achieve immortal self-esteem results in an obsession with money, goods, and superficial trappings — not a satisfying outcome.
Becker offers no miracle cure. Enlightened individuals must develop a rational understanding of the human condition, accept that death is part of our natural evolution on earth, and abide with the inevitable. This awakening is accompanied by a rejection of the destructive energies associated with heroic acquisitiveness.
One of the most profound writings about death and the riptide of emotional uproar it produces is fictional — Leo Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich, written in March 1886. It anticipates much of what Becker later discovered.
The protagonist, Ilyich, a successful judge, is dead when the story begins.
The reaction to his passing is poignant and all-too-real. Among his associates: “Besides considerations as to the possible transfers and promotions likely to result …the mere fact of the death of an acquaintance aroused, as usual, in all who heard it, the complacent feeling, ‘it is he who is dead and not I.'”
Ilych’s wife has a similar viewpoint: “He suffered terribly the last four days…he screamed unceasingly…I cannot understand how I bore it…oh, how I suffered.”
In spite of themselves, people move away from death, as if that distance protects them from the same destiny.
Ilych, whose voice eventually is given center stage, passes through steps which reflect Becker’s findings — initially he is in denial, disgusted with the decay of his body, and finally, in an epiphany, he surrenders the egotism which has driven his worldly pursuits in order to achieve a final resolution before death.
The inescapable conclusion is that while man is fated to die, man does not have to live in constant dread about that circumstance. The Roman Emperor and Stoic philosopher, Marcus Aurelius, had perhaps the best perspective: “A thoughtful person should await death…not with indifference, not with impatience, not with disdain, but viewing it as one of the things that is required by nature. It is not death men should fear, but rather we should fear never beginning to live.”