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Though Some May Call You (A Meditation on Mortality)

April 1, 2009

“I have a lust for life
‘Cause I’ve a lust for life.” – Iggy Pop, LUST FOR LIFE

Zombies, baby!

Zombies, baby!

It sounds like a reasonable claim to suggest our culture is obsessed with life. A significant amount of scientific research and commercial space is dedicated to extending the quality, style, and image of life. We have pills to keep our erections functioning; products to keep our hair full and the correct color; operations to inflate or deflate different parts of our bodies; supplements and skin creams and age defying make-up; botox injections and laser treatments; gym memberships and organic food. When I read through my local free alternative weekly paper, The Phoenix New Times, most of the ad space is taken up by plastic surgeons. The models are lovely in that shallow west coast way, typically blond, and always showing a nearly inappropriate amount of flesh – cleavage, thigh, and the ubiquitous “side boob” shot. (Taken out of context, there is little difference between the models for boob job ads and models for strip clubs and phone sex ads.) The models are always smiling, always confident looking, and seemingly satisfied.

The message is as clear as it is commonplace: the beautiful people are happier. Our cultural self-image is based on this vapid and banal statement that, because of its simplicity, is often quoted as a truism. People have shown they are willing to go to any expense – even going so far as to buy surgery on layaway – to attain that union of perfect image and perfect happiness. The equation breaks down with frightening simplicity: Skinny People (SK) = Happy People (HP). And HP, as any conveniently placed psycho-babbling shrink will point out (after settling the matter of his hourly fee), tend to live longer and more Productive Lives (PL).

There’s a point, though, where this simplistic logic simply fails and the pursuit of the coveted outcome – PL – shows itself for what it really is: a desperate and futile attempt to avoid dying.

We hate death. We hate dying. We hate it so much that we’ve developed some ridiculous euphemisms to say it without having to utter the word. “Passed on” is by far the most common; but what does this mean? Where have they passed on to? I realize this calls up all sorts of answers and depends largely on whether you have a spiritual /religious perspective. I also realize that I am, in the parlance of our times, supposed to be “tolerant” give the metaphorical high-five to anybody and everybody and accept all points of view, regardless of the level or lack of intelligence, awareness, or evidence. (I will, at some late date, blog on the double-edged nature and naiveté of “tolerance.”) But seriously: passed on to WHERE? To WHAT? If we stick with what we know and operate from the commonly accepted definition of death – which has nothing to do with the presence or absence of some indefinable and impossible to locate entity often referred to as The Soul – then there is nothing that has passed and nothing that can be passed. And claiming that people “pass” from living, in the same way we “pass” people on the interstate is as ridiculous an analogy as I have ever heard to describe what happens when people die. Another term that’s often used to describe the death of a loved one is “lost.” Lost. I won’t spend a lot of time on this one, but I would like to point out that “lost”, as a term, implies that we don’t know where the object in question is. We do not lose people in the same way we lose the TV remote or our car keys. Nothing is misplaced. I know quite well where my dad – or what’s left of him – is. I didn’t lose him. He died. I didn’t lose my good friend Lonnie. He died. Let’s move on.

The claim that our culture is obsessed with life simply doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. As a result, it is often amended to the statement that we are “obsessed with youth.” This one makes a bit more sense. but when you consider how much air time is spent telling aging baby boomers it’s okay to be old and that they can still lead active, vital PRODUCTIVE LIVES (PL), youth has very little to do with it. Youth, while often touted as the goal, is often accompanied by another, less glamorous condition: poverty. To be young is to be money poor, unless you’re a trust fund brat or you’re sucking on the parental credit tit. We don’t want to be young forever because we don’t want to be poor; how else can we afford all those iphones, HDTVs, and cars that parallel park themselves? “Well,” you might respond, “it’s not that we want everything that goes along with being young; we just want not to be old.” Indeed. Or, someone might say, “It’s not that we’re chasing youth; we just want to live as long and as well as possible.” Absolutely… though that does conform to the previously discussed and hopelessly naive equation SK = HP = PL. We want the trappings of youth. The energy. The libido. The digestive system. But we don’t want all that other crap. Acne. Poverty. Awkwardness. Economic Dependence.

It is more appropriate, and more honest, to accept that our culture is a culture of AVOIDANCE. We want to look younger and act younger and have all the trappings without the hassles because we want to avoid dying for as long as possible. We want to avoid having to deal with the inevitability of our own death. We don’t want to think about the fact that we have been dying from the day we were born. Part of not dealing with our own mortality means that we’d prefer not to deal with the mortality of our loved ones; we want to keep them around, regardless of their wishes or quality of life, and while we would afford a rabid dog the dignity of a swift death, we never want to think about the fact that Grandma won’t ever leave that hospital bed and make those homemade cookies.

Our obsession with avoidance extends to our maudlin funeral rituals. Open caskets with preserved corpses that are supposed to “look like they’re sleeping.” Canned wisdom and empty statements of comfort like “It must have been his time,” or “She’s better off.” Wheezy hymns sang by preacher’s wives with too much vibrato and not enough tonal awareness. Flowers and wreaths and cards expressing sympathy for the mourner’s “loss.” And of course, the viewing, in which guests at the service shuffle up to the corpse and double check to make sure the person in question is actually dead. An entire industry thrives on our cultural avoidance. One of the things that makes funerals so expensive is the preservation of the body. Consider, for a moment, how ridiculous an idea that really is. What are we preserving all of these people for? Even if you’re religiously inclined, is your god so puny as to need a physical body to make the dead walk? George A Romero (Dawn of the Dead) needs a corpse so that it will wake up and eat people. What’s our excuse? In keeping the body of our recently dead loved ones intact, we are really just trying to convince ourselves that WE will not disappear. We can touch dear dead Uncle Chet (though most people are squeamish at the thought of touching a corpse), and we can bury him, forever preserved and locked in a really expensive box that’s also designed to help preserve him (think: Strawberry Jam or Apple Butter) for eternity; in that way, he’s never REALLY gone and we can “visit” him on those infrequent trips to the cemetery. Maybe even have a little chat with the tombstone. In keeping our dead with us in this fashion, we are simply avoiding the truth that they ARE dead – and by extension we are avoiding the truth that someday, despite all the tricks, nips, tucks, and organic fruit smoothies with added boosters, we will die.

Benjamin Franklin is often attributed with the quote: “Certainty? In this world nothing is certain but death and taxes.” As much as I like dear old Ben (who is, in case you forgot, dead) this quote isn’t strictly true. It is possible to avoid taxes; naturally, there are consequences to avoiding them, but you can avoid paying taxes. For a while, anyway – and some people have gotten pretty good at avoiding them altogether. But there are no off-shore accounts that will keep us alive forever, and no loop holes to keep our living bodies from turning into corpses. Of course, George A Romero has his take on things; but until my friend Lonnie comes knocking and wanting to eat my brain, I’ll assume that the only zombies I have to worry about are in movies or in administrative offices.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. April 1, 2009 2:33 pm

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  3. May 17, 2009 9:03 pm

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