The Death Problem

Death has a PR problem in our culture.  Americans tend to view death in a negative light, as something to escape.  We picture a dark, hooded figure, pointing its crooked finger toward another victim, gathering souls for judgment.  We isolate the dead behind fences, in holding pens for the dearly departed, and turn their disposal over to morticians.  We are so opposed to death that anyone who desires death is considered mentally ill or a criminal.  Dr. Kevorkian did eight years in prison for helping people die who wanted to die and were going to die anyway.  But hastening the process, even to eliminate intractable pain, is prosecuted as a crime.

If given a choice between living and dying, who wouldn’t choose life?  It seems like the obvious preference.  We’re supposed to forestall the day as long as possible, just as we measure success in accumulated years.  You may be a life-long loser, but achieving one hundred will finally get you called a winner.

It’s not like this everywhere.  There are cultures where death isn’t regarded with dread, as the destroyer of all that’s good and beautiful, as something to be avoided at all costs.  Instead, death is a necessary part of the life cycle.  It makes room for the new and liberates the old.  Choosing when to die is seen as a basic human option.

In Western cultures, however, like our own, dying is seen as contrary to the natural order.  Adam and Eve weren’t supposed to die.  Death is a punishment, and, like all punishments, becomes something to avoid.  As a result, we spend a surprising amount of time and money trying to deny, sidestep, evade, and defeat the inevitable.

Americans, for example, spend over $10 billion a year on cosmetic surgery.  Between 2009-2010, as the average American income shrank by .6%, we spent 1.3 percent more on breast augmentation, 5.1 percent more on liposuction, 8.1 percent more on eyelid surgery, and 24.4 percent more on butt lifts.  Nothing beats hard times and intimations of death like having a perky behind.

For the more adventurous, we have cryonic storage tanks where you can be frozen after death, in hopes of being revived down the road.  The price ranges from $25,00 to $150,000, if you’re interested, but I’d worry about freezer burn at the lower cost options.  The ballplayer Ted Williams did this.  He even went the extra mile by having his head “neuroseparated” and frozen apart from the rest of his corpse.  Today, they both reside in cylinders of liquid nitrogen, although bored attendants have reportedly played ball with Ted’s noggin.

For those who remember the cheesy 60’s movie called Fantastic Voyage, nanobots are in development to augment our immune systems.  They can be injected intravenously and then targeted to attack particular tumors or viruses, or administer medication internally.  Once fully available, some scientists estimate human life will be extended by a hundred years.

Not to be outdone, other scientists are working on growing replacement organs from tissue, which will work much better than those mechanical things.  Geneticists are trying to crack the code that governs our cellular clocks and aging process.  Artificial intelligence engineers are hoping to implant memory engrams from living humans into robotic androids.  That way, maybe you’ll live on, only this time in a replaceable body.  I could trade in my current, pudgy one with sixty years of wear for the Taylor Lautner model.  For the kinky, you could trade sexes and get to experience life at both ends.

All of these are logical developments of our desire to dodge the big one, but no one seems to publicly question the morality of it all.  At one point does our desire become obsessive?  When does our avoidance lead to serious mistakes?  Do we want a world where people live five hundred years, or never die?  What will we do about Social Security and Medicare?

It’s nice to live longer, but the reality is that not everyone can afford it.  We’ll end up with life spans dramatically diverging between those with and without the resources to survive.  Imagine an upper class, who can afford the best available health care, living one hundred years longer than the lower classes.  Marie Antoinette would be very jealous.

Even if we could afford it, we can’t afford it, because the world doesn’t have space for everyone to live until they’re 202, let along 502.  Overcrowding causes disease, squalor, and resentment.  I think this is why they’re skipping the moon and heading straight to Mars.  Since it has water available, Mars will be transformed into the globe’s refugee camp.  In the meantime, entire societies will live much shorter lives than their richer neighbors.

I believe that is the direction we’re heading, unless we change our cultural mythology in regards to dying and death.  As odd as it sounds, death isn’t an enemy.  I’d sell bumper stickers reading Death Ain’t So Bad, except I’d probably get arrested for encouraging suicide.

I don’t desire to die, but I don’t desire to spend time avoiding it, either.  My spiritual master chose to die, and sanctified death in the process.  It is ironic that cultures claiming his name deny that basic fact.  Having eaten out of a garden throughout the summer, I appreciate all the dying that makes my life possible.  Unfortunately, we’ve only got peppers and broccoli left, and they won’t last forever.  None of us will.

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About Bucky Dann

I teach religion, sociology, and psychology at Southwestern Community College in the Smoky Mountains. I have worked in the United Methodist ministry and in the substance abuse field. I possess a Masters of Divinity, a Masters of Philosophy, and a PhD in the sociology of knowledge.

One Response to “The Death Problem”

  1. I enjoyed this. You are so right. There can be no life without death. Unfortunately I have read that through the use of medicines, replacement parts and nanobots immortality will soon be acheivable. I have no doubt that this will of course where the mega-rich will soon be spending all of their money. Imagine a world where the likes of Donald Trump are immortal???

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