A Passing in Time

30 01 2009

By Derek Beres

Religion begins with death.

During my four years of study in the religion department at Rutgers during the mid-‘90s, this sentiment was repeated over and again, regardless of the country, race, or god being presented. The religious question — there are many, I suppose, but the major one, as in where do we go when we die — is framed around the fact of death. From that starting point, humans have devised as many scenarios as possible, to alleviate some of the pressures of transience, to make us feel important in an, at times, unforgiving world.

That question, for quite some time in many cultures, was framed as a continuity, the way that dead fruits become fertilizer and spread seed for the next generation of plants. Perhaps human beings, these thinkers thought, do the same thing. Indeed, if we think of the religious figures of the past who have come to influence us today, this is indeed very plausible. Words outlive flesh.

While reading the philosopher John Berger’s most recent book, Hold Everything Dear, the question of death is prominent in this fine collection of essays. In one: “Thus living and dead were interdependent. Always. Only a uniquely modern form of egoism has broken this interdependence. With disastrous results for the living, who now think of the dead as the eliminated.”

I’ve long contemplated this issue, and it seems to me that judging by our actions, it is not death that frightens us — it is life. It is life and, more precisely, the quest for everlasting youth that drives us to slice open our skin and stick plastic pieces next to organs and tissue that have no use for plastic; that lets us believe that injecting a toxic substance discovered in mishandled meats creases out the wrinkles in our brow; that comforts us by stating that an omnipotent figure has chosen the few hundred or thousand or twelve-by-twelve thousands of us to live in everlasting bliss while the rest reside in the flames of perpetual waiting.

As Guy Garcia wrote in his most recent book, The Decline of Men, the American Society of Plastic Surgeons reported that of all breasts reduction surgeries in 2006, 70% were on boys aged thirteen to nineteen. This is not a fear of death; it is the fear of the living, that the creator we believe created did not create well enough, and so we must take things into our own hands. It is a feeling that we are not the carbon copy of the Photoshopped figures we see in advertisements, and must be, or we are failing something. Or something is failing us.

I agree with part of that sentiment, leaving out the creator part. We do indeed create our reality. Not that I’m one to hold up a microscope to society and refer to millennia-old books for verification; that would simply be silly. But there is something to be learned from history, and I take this idea from the cultures of Mexico, Morocco (as well as many African countries), Jamaica, and beyond: death is a celebration.

While standing at my grandfather’s funeral two years ago, I noticed that while there was certainly a sadness about the loss of that man, what was really affecting the crowd was that everyone present would one day be on the other side of that coffin. Someone else’s death is a reminder that this is the true path of humanity: it is a rite of passage to an unnamable, unexplored terrain. I do not take refuge in the churchly liturgy presented at that and other funerals; instead, I heed Seneca’s words: “Unlike life, death cannot be taken away from man, and therefore we may consider it as the gift of God.”

Celebrating death is a skeleton key to unlocking the ritual of life. When you live each moment fully, there is no need for concern of an ending. We are present, in the moment, existing to our potential at all times. Death has no place in that moment, even if it surrounds us. It’s a part of life, not separate from it.

This is hard to find, though, for someone like my grandmother, who after her husband’s death went to live in a retirement home, where the staff told her children not to visit anymore because it caused them too much trouble to “calm her down” after they left. You can learn a lot about a culture by observing how it treat its dead; you can learn even more by noticing how it treat its aging. My grandmother will live out her final years surrounded by people she has just met, and who care about her as much as her money allows them to. This is not living.

Death is not an option for any of us. How we live is. By turning a blind eye to death, by doing everything possible to deny it — anti-aging creams anyone? — and refusing to recognize it as a part of and not separate from existence, we do ourselves and our world a great disservice. By celebrating the dead, the aging (once known as the wise), we celebrate life, and begin to comprehend what the passage of time really means.

This blog was originally posted on lime.com.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: