Cuture of Death

Today I cover one of the big, heady topics: death. Though I may risk sounding like an unemotional psychopath, please remember I'm covering the topic from a scientific, observational perspective. At times my comments might sound clinical and unfeeling, but I assure you, I can be as emotional as any hard-core football fan or macho-posturing male who has consumed too much malt liquor.

Why discuss death, you might ask? No topic is taboo from scientific inquiry or discussion, nor is it off limits to humorist observation. And death is as natural as, well, life.

Death is also a huge part of our culture. We delight in death-centered entertainment such as murder mysteries, slasher movies, and dramas focusing on a lawyer's, cop's, or hero's-eye view of the demise of a person, country, planet, or galaxy. News interests us most when deaths are involved, and we feel a sense of personal loss when a celebrity we admire dies. Dying has become a cultural norm in entertainment, so much so we expect an action or mystery story's body counts to be high, and walk away disappointed if the villain does not meet a suitable grisly end. We do not want to see the evildoer prosecuted and incarcerated in a maximum security penitentiary; watching his body explode is the closure we desire.

We celebrate an autumnal holiday focused on death, perpetuating the ritual by rewarding youthful participants in ghoulish guise with candy and goodies. Skulls and other skeletal parts are worn on shirts and jackets or displayed on vehicles as a symbol of coolness or bravado, as a proclamation of one's fearlessness of death. Skeletal icons appear in mainstream advertising as logos for motorcycles, gymnasiums, and soft drinks. This is highly illogical; I'm not aware of any person who will rush to buy a product that advertises death as a possible result of use. And does one really expect to be viewed as tough or cool while displaying skull icons on a minivan, or stylized in pink, looking like the de-fleshed head of Hello Kitty?

Though we know death is inevitable, we perpetuate post-partum closure rituals, and only for the benefit of the living. A person expires and we feel the need to place him in a box, file past him staring as if looking at an extinct species on display in a museum, and reassure ourselves through a formal oration the corpse was previously a good person. Then we parade the body around town in a slow-moving convoy, stop at a subdivision for the dead, say a few kind words, and plop the box and its contents into a hole in the ground. Afterward we comment on how the demise was unexpected though we know death is the one thing that is always expected. We remark how the corpse looked good, even though laying dead is one of the few times outside a doctor's office or WalMart when a person is allowed to not look good.

Despite our fascination with and fear of death, we continue to believe that somehow it is not the Great Terminus, but instead a passage into a better realm. We believe this though we have gained zero knowledge and experience emerging from a life prior to our birth. We believe despite receiving no “Having a good time, wish you were here” messages from those who have crossed the river into the beyond.

Unfortunately, death comes at the worst possible time of our lives: at the end. It becomes the last and most vivid thing our family and friends remember about us. I do not want anyone to remember me as stiff casket filler in the first steps of decomposition. I wouldn't mind the memorializing, but I do not want my final impressions on the minds of the people I care about to be those of a sorrowful gathering in a parlor of the dead or beside a six-foot-deep pit in Termination Acres.

While I admire those who break the grim tradition of sorrowfest and replace it with a party atmosphere – such as New Orleans jazz funerals, or Hunter Thompson, whose ashes were shot from a cannon – I also do not want the events of the disposal of my Earthly remains to overshadow the events of my life. Party atmosphere or not, I do not want my final legacy to be that of a dead guy.

I'd prefer my death remain unannounced, my body be shipped quietly away, my ashes unceremoniously scattered at sea. I'd rather those who I leave behind believe I went on a long vacation, or perhaps moved to another country. That way, they can remember me as I was in life and for the good times we've shared. To facilitate this, I will have my estate mail periodic postcards to friends and family after my demise. The cards will simply state, “Having a good time, wish you were here.”