Saturday, l went to a viewing of Griefwalker. I’d never heard of the documentary before but thought it sounded interesting. Actually, I didn’t have a clue about the film, the person hosting it or the venue. It was a perfect experience for a full moon in Scorpio – mystery and death.
l have so far in my life been shielded from the process of physical death, or the ‘dying time’ as Steve Jenkinson, the subject of Griefwalker, calls it. The most intimate I have been with Death is when my dog died on the kitchen floor with me by his side. My grandparents, with the exception my grandfather, all passed over in old age and without apparent illness. When I was eight, a boy in my class was run over and killed by a lorry.
I worked for a while as a director’s PA in a nursing home. Death occurred frequently and it was treated sympathetically as not to alarm the remaining residents that they could be travelling on the gurney next. One day, I peeked into the room of a man who had just died. I’d never seen a dead body before, and I wanted the mystery to be revealed. I’m grateful to the gentleman for allowing me to briefly gaze on his death face.
My maternal grandmother would tell tales of death from her youth (none of my grandparents spoke of death from the war). Family members would be laid to rest in the front room before the undertakers arrived to take complete the final voyage. Death was still part of everyday life but by the time that she died in the mid-90s, it was a subject swept under the carpet and kept in cold mortuary drawers.
The saddest part of her death was the service performed by a vicar she’d never seen, whose religion she’d never seemed to take much interest in. He described her joy in life as playing bingo in The Sun newspaper. I know he got the words from relatives but surely a life should be summed up in more words than that.
Death will come for all of us soon enough, which means we should savour each moment of life. But we live in a society that is in denial about death.
Griefwalker touched on many subjects that have been heavy on my mind lately but particularly our society’s rampant death phobia.
My friend and I sat around her kitchen table last week chatting about a dream I had had the night before of her dead sister. She then brought out photo albums she was putting together of her family so when she passes, her children and grandchildren would know their family history. She told me that no one wants to speak of death or the dead. It’s taboo.
We’ve become fearful of death and maybe we believe by speaking of it, we will conjure it into existence. If we forget about its constant companionship, never leaving our sides from the moment we take our first breath, then it won’t happen. We will cheat death by not facing it.
I want you to take a moment to consider the death phobia in the West. Go further than the obvious hushed whispers around dying, the deceased and grief. Look at what’s happening outside to see the epidemic we are facing.
Let’s start with food.
We survive because of death. Anything you eat, unless it is man-made manufactured in a vat, is something that was once alive. Whether that’s a slab of meat, a vegetable or fruit – it is all the same, it’s all dead.
But we are protected from this truth. Vegetables are pre-washed and pre-packed, devoid of any proof that they were pulled from the earth or plucked from the stalk. Traditional butchers have almost become extinct and now people buy from the supermarket. There is disassociation between that sterile packed hunk of meat presented to you in the chiller aisle and the animal it once was. It’s even further removed when the meat has been processed beyond any natural resemblance. Fish finger, anyone?
When there is no conscious connection between food, sustenance and death, then there is no reverence for life.
While I’m mentioning food, let’s look at the packaging.
Not sure what that has to do with death? Everything, my friend, everything.
Pre-packed food lasts longer on the shelf. This means we can manipulate natural decomposition by wrapping it in plastic, which is made from natural gas or petroleum. We are using the remains of dead things to extend the ‘life’ of other dead things. ln our phobia about death, we are blind to see that we are unconsciously trying to conquer the unconquerable.
If you symbolically took at the plastic pollution problem, you can unravel the cause to a fear of death. We have become so afraid of death and our own mortality that we created things with no natural expiration. It’s as if we are declaring to future generations that we’re here and we refuse to be forgotten. We’re immortal by the junk we leave behind.
This terror of our own impermanence plays out in social media with the influx of selfies. I’ve heard it said that ‘if you don’t have a selfie of such and such event, it never happened.’ We snap photos of ourselves and plaster them over the internet to show that we’re vital, alive and happening right now. Society has lost its reverence for the ancestors, so we know there’s no one to talk about us or carry on our stories once we have died.
But we can’t be truthful in our selfies. Wrinkles can be smoothed out and perceived imperfections photoshopped so that we can appear more youthful and attractive. Ageing is not fashionable or desirable, and the booming business of cosmetic surgery supports this.
Each day we step closer to death but instead of the journey being celebrated, we live in a society that fears this natural process. We can’t handle our immortality and by doing so we have lost the sacredness of living.
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