On Death:

What is it about death that actually scares us?

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When I was growing up, I always took great delight in the autumn season. I’m not sure if it was because my birthday was coming up, hockey season was around the corner, or simply because of the beauty of the Canadian wilderness in fall.

The ordinarily green landscapes would be stroked orange, red, and yellow by the paint brushes of the gods. Fields full of grass became oceans of amber. Bronze sunsets would tint the city gold and set the sky ablaze.

And yet, everything around me was dying.

Autumn
A Canadian Autumn [Source: canadianmusichalloffame.ca]

It’s curious to think that I don’t know of a single person who has wept for fallen leaves, or wilting flowers, or dying grass. We innately understand this is the way of things. We know that spring will come, and the cycle of life (and death) will renew itself.


Why then, do we fear death? Why do we see our own death as the end of the straight line we’ve travelled since birth? Why is it so uniformly regarded as something negative?

Whether we’re afraid of what comes next, or dying painfully, or just the thought of our lives ending, it’s the ultimate boogeyman in the human experience.

Even the Romans, as battle hardened and fearless as they were, refrained from uttering the word “death.” By doing this, they gave power to the very word.

Death is certainly a part of life, and is certainly inevitable. It comes for us all. Does this give it power over us?

Of course not. We do not fear sunsets and sunrises, we do not fear the passage of time, we do not fear breathing. Yet these things are all inevitable. Inevitability doesn’t give something strength, but fear does.


The fear of death is death’s only weapon against us. Like the monster under our bed, it grows in ferocity and size as long as it remains the great unknown. In tackling the fears that surround death, we free ourselves from its grasp.

kiss of death poblenou barcelona 3
The Kiss of Death statue in the Graveyard of Poblenou, Barcelona, Spain. [Source: http://www.kuriositas.com]

Why, exactly, do we fear death?

(1) We fear death because we don’t know when it may come.

We fear the idea of dying young. 

I think of Jimi Hendrix, Alexander the Great, Amy Winehouse, Frédéric Chopin, John Keats, Tupac, and Tutankhamun. They all died at extremely young ages. Yet I would be willing to bet they lived lives more rich and full of experience than many of us rotting away in a cubicle.

On the grand scale of time and space, the difference between living 30 years and 80 isn’t even a blip on the map. Whether we die old or young we’re only here for an infinitesimal period of time, a period of time we cannot control.

We only have the power to make those years count.


 

(2) We fear death because we don’t know what comes next.

If I’m being perfectly honest, I usually have no idea what day of the week it is without ample reminders. Every day is a surprise. I’m at peace with the fact I generally have no idea what’s coming next.

We didn’t know what came next when we escaped the womb and came into this world kicking and screaming. We didn’t know what came next when we shipped off to university.

Sure, there was a little nervous energy, but we were generally excited about that great unknown. It was all new and beautiful.

Life can change in an instant, and that’s exactly what death is – life changing in an instant.

Whether death is the start of a new life or the end of an old cycle, change is never something to be feared.

It is only our concern with what may come in the future, or what happened in the past, that binds us to the wheel of life and death. By remembering that the present moment is the only moment, we free ourselves from that ever spinning wheel.


(3) We fear death might hurt.

I think I can speak for all of us by saying life usually hurts. Breaking bones was a price of playing the sport I loved, for example, and I broke pretty much everything above my waist – twice.

We’re riddled with coughs and colds and aches and pains and pimples and gas. We battle the seasons; we’re freezing in the winters and choking on smog in the summers. The suffering of life is unavoidable.

It seems a bit absurd to worry about the suffering of death, when our suffering is constant and unrelenting in the life we’re living. As far as we know, death is a release from our daily human suffering. Death is the absence of pain.

I’ve seen many people and animals suffer in life – but have never seen one struggle in death.


Nothing can be grievous which occurs but once; is it reasonable to fear for so long a time something which lasts so short a time?” – Michel de Montaigne, How We Weep and Laugh at the Same Thing.


I often wonder if a rose would be as beautiful if it were perpetually in bloom, or if we would cherish the springs if there was no winter. Life isn’t beautiful because it is long, or painless, or safe.

Life is beautiful for the simple fact that we are mortal. Death is what makes life a special gift. Every moment can be our last. For this reason, everything we touch, smell, hear, taste, and see is magical.

Death is our constant reminder to appreciate this life that we’ve been given.

Appreciate the people around us, the things that we have, and the healthy bodies we’ve been given.

Memento mori.

Be good to each other,

– MG.

 

On Remembrance:

Every year during this month, on the eleventh day, at the eleventh hour, we remember.

But what, exactly, are we remembering?

Not one veteran of the first world war is still living. Of the over sixty-five million central and allied soldiers who fired a shot in that war, there is not one of them who still draws breath. Think about that.

There is not a single person alive who experienced the horror of the battlefield first hand. Of the hundreds of millions of bullets and shells exchanged in the first world war, there is no longer anyone who actually remembers pulling a trigger.


Two Canadian Soldiers Share Cigarettes on the Battlefield. [Image Source: stcatharinesstandard.ca]
Two Canadian Soldiers Share Cigarettes on the Battlefield.
[Image Source: stcatharinesstandard.ca]
For our part, we remember statistics, dates, key players, and usually a story or two regarding a distant relative who fought in the war.

Our countries remember glorious victories and heroic deeds. We remember who “won” and “lost”. We remember the names of leaders and generals who led the troops. We remember the rhetoric about our freedom. Men gave up their lives so that we could live free ones.


But are we missing something? Is there something else we should remember?

Too often do we forget it was not statistics fighting the war. It was not the generals and leaders who were up to their stomach in mud, blood and human waste.These were fellow humans, living through terrifying nightmares that our lives of comfort cannot allow us to comprehend.

Historian Dan Carlin refers to it as the “human element” in his fantastic Blueprint for Armageddon series.

These were people like you and I, thrown into the 20th century version of a meat grinder. This was the future generation of an entire world being gambled like poker chips.

In forcing ourselves to face the human element of war, we force ourselves to remember what we have.


Children forced to evacuate their home country of Montenegro as a result of Austrian occupation. [Source: U.S. Army Signal Corps No. 153238.]
Children forced to evacuate their home country of Montenegro as a result of Austrian occupation.
[Source: U.S. Army Signal Corps No. 153238.]
Roughly 18 million people died in the first world war alone. To put that into perspective, take the two biggest cities in North America (Mexico City and New York) and then imagine every single person in both cities being wiped off of the face of the earth. Our minds simply cannot conceive how much life was lost during those four years.

Entire neighbourhoods of men signed up together, and were slaughtered together. Think of a group of your closest friends, people you grew up with and love like family. Brothers from another mother; sisters from another mister. You may think of team-mates, neighbourhood besties, dance-mates, the list goes on. I think of a group of brothers I grew up with in the cold rinks of Canada.

Now picture the group of you, walking miles in a wasteland. Think Mordor, the aftermath of Hiroshima and Dresden, or the Moon. You shiver as the cold spring rain beats down on your group. Bullets whiz past your heads, and shells are exploding all around you.

On the first day, half of your group is killed by a single shell. Their body parts litter your trench but you’re uncertain what leg belongs with what torso, so you don’t bother with the pieces of them.

Your closest friend of the group goes insane within days of your arrival because of the constant pounding of artillery and screaming of machine gun fire. That friend is accused of cowardice by your superiors for his refusal to control himself, and is executed for it. You know he wasn’t a coward, his mind had just been incapable of accepting the horrors all around him.

The rest of you are sent over the top of the trench which, like the last fourteen attempts, ends in complete failure. You fall into a hole carved into the earth by an explosion and hide there, hoping the enemy doesn’t jump into the cavity and gut you with his shiny new Nahkampfmesser made of the finest German steel.

At dusk, you hear one of your last remaining friends screaming in pain and crying for help. He’s bleeding out in no-man’s land. Just as you build up the courage to try to save him, you see another friend you had no idea was still alive dart across the barren waste in your injured friend’s direction. He is immediately cut to pieces from machine gun fire. You lose your nerve.


Meet a Few Members of the 1st Newfoundland Regiment; of the 801 who Arrived at Beaumont-Hamel on July 1, 1916, only 68 Were Able to Fight the Next Day. Among the Dead, 14 Sets of Brothers Died Together in a Single Day. Stories Like This Were More Common Than We Appreciate. [Photo Source: Wikipedia]
Meet a few of the members of the 1st Newfoundland Regiment; of the 801 who arrived at Beaumont-Hamel on July 1, 1916, only 68 were able to fight the next day.
Among the dead, 14 sets of brothers died together in a single day.
Stories like this are more common than we appreciate.
[Photo Source: Wikipedia]
Darkness falls. You rush out into the field while the artillery fireworks light up the night sky. You find the friend who had been crying. He’s dead. His own fist is shoved down his throat. You realise that he had seen one friend die because of his screams, and didn’t want to see another, so he gagged himself with his own hand. You remove the letter he wrote to his fiancée back home, who is pregnant with a baby girl, and you run back to the trenches.

Everyone you arrived with is now dead. It hasn’t been a week.


By the end of the war, this will happen to thousands of people. Some will witness people grasping at their throats, eyes bulging, as they fight for the air that chlorine gas is suffocating out of them.

Some will look into the tear filled eyes of barely eighteen year old boys gasping their final breaths. Some will see men wrapped up in barbed wire and covered in bullet holes. Most will smell the stench of millions of rotting corpses. Many will starve or freeze to death. This is the human element.


Early Gas Masks Were Terrifying, But Not As Terrifying As Everyday Life For Soldiers On The Front. [Source: historyonthenet.com]
Early gas masks were terrifying, but not as terrifying as everyday life for soldiers on the front.
[Source: historyonthenet.com]
And yet, for the most part, these people dug in their heels and kept fighting. The romance of war had long been shattered by the horrific scenes they were forced to endure, and yet these men trudged on. They weren’t stupid, but they felt they had no choice. They were terrified. They  believed they would die.

And yet they showed a resilience that is the truest testament to the strength of the human spirit. Let us remember that these were the people that, after witnessing humanity completely shatter itself, had to pull up their boots after the fighting was done and put the pieces of civilisation back together again.


But I can’t help but ask, how would we have handled it? We in the west have lived in relative peace for a long time. We have no great war to fight, no existential threat to truly fear.

In peace, sons bury their fathers. In war, fathers bury their sons.” Herodotus, The Histories.

We think poor WiFi signal is a problem, or that it’s preposterous when we don’t get a strong cell phone signal in our apartment. We think the weekly grind is a struggle, and our weekend spin class is torture. We think we’re hungry when it’s 6 pm and we haven’t yet had our third meal. Many of us can hardly handle the loss of a dog or a cat, how would we react to witnessing millions of humans being slaughtered in front of us?


So what, exactly, are we supposed to remember?

We remember all that they lost – in the most tragic and sickening of ways – so that we may appreciate all that we have. We remember the darkness they were forced to endure, so that we may embrace the light. We remember the senseless hatred and violence so that we may promote love and laughter.

Let us remember the horror our fellow humans endured, so that we may never again do it to each other.

In putting ourselves, as best as we can, into the shoes of those who walked in the trenches, we’ll realise that we actually have a lot to be thankful for.

And to the soldiers who walked through hell, we thank you and we remember.

Be good to each other,

~ MG.