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On Death (2007)

These things are known to all the world.
         —Cormac McCarthy

Our ideas are in everyone’s mind.
         —Situationist International


If you’re looking for a comforting way to conceptualize your mortality, try thinking of it as a cycle from sunrise until sunset: the way golden youth explodes on the horizon, reaching a bright zenith when you’re drunk and 20, in those brief ecstatic moments that you spend the rest of your life trying to recapture. At midday, you are at middle age and are cruising along steadily, amazed at being given a second lease on life. You can savor the rest of the day having learned how to take your time and make life work for you. You’ve found some degree of comfort and success when out of nowhere, uh-oh, the sunset years. The arc of the sun makes a drastic arc downward and death looms large as everyone you know dies off. If you’ve made it this far, you remain alone, waking up early to savor the sunrise and drink gallons of Folgers, ultimately humbled by the procession of life. The dark motor that turns the world slowly grinds to a halt and you fade away in a pink goodbye, like the end of a silent movie. It’s only natural to think of life as a progression, a series of logical stages heading towards ever-greater knowledge and dignity, toward a wizened Shakespeare-quoting end. Fewer and fewer people actually live out this anaesthetizing myth of our flickering moment here on Earth as a traditional narrative arc, where we laugh and smile all the way to the end. The vast majority of us will be taken out by car wrecks and put to bed by inexplicably persistent cancers, liver problems, heart attacks and bad knees; Even though we have notched up our life-expectancy significantly since Medieval times by the modern wonders of vaccination, central-heating and pharmaceutical medicine, a balance still manages to reassert itself. Life picks us off anyway, like a sniper. We can’t escape paying the ultimate price for vehicular travel, industrial culture, organ-pickling alcohol and heart-stopping food. The sun analogy doesn’t hold up because death is completely unpredictable, not only on an individual scale but across population patterns— people in fifty years will watch our modern movies and look at our casual cell phone use the way we view those charming people who chain-smoked their way through the black and white movies, wishing they could say to us, “What are you doing, you idiots? Don’t put that thing so close to your brain!”

The sun doesn’t threaten to fall out of the sky and plunge us into darkness every time we cross walk in front of a bus, get on a plane or have an inexplicable prescription interaction. It seems ridiculous to talk about  “coming to terms” with death; how could you not come to terms with something that will definitively happen? How could anyone really be prepared for that moment when death comes out of the wall like a demon from olden times and grabs us, dragging us down into the brine? Who among us will not scream and soil themselves at the moment of their departure? The fundamental trapdoor of mortality is that those moments can never be caught, isolated, and dissected by scientists. There will never be a “to bring” list for the journey that each of us will take—we vanish off the face of the earth, unable to communicate what it is like on the other side. We see the dead in dreams—that reel of our memory flapping wildly at their sudden and unexpected vanishing. Knowing what to expect in death would be a real letdown—we’ve already taken all the mystery out of this world by putting every town on the map, archiving everything we know and prodding away at things until we can replicate their subtle, natural mystery with artificial sterility. It would be a shame to do the same thing to the next world. At least in death, the magic and intrigue remains intact. It remains the last mystery, the last truly lonely voyage.


There’s nothing quite comparable to the paranoid delusions that immediately follow a death. The inability to sleep, the abrupt realization that human goals and ambitions are utterly pointless when compared to continued survival. Soon after, the dreams and nightmares, the cycle of forgetting the dead as dead and only remembering upon waking. It’s that not only someone has died, but that we’re also re-confronted with the inevitability of our own death. Somewhere in this process emerges an unfounded mysticism, a belief in unconscious signs and symbols: while sequestering myself up in an icy cabin in the Adirondacks after a friend of mine died, I started to believe that his loves were my loves. In the snow and freezing cold, I ran around the lake at night, flapping my arms in the fogs and dancing on an ice-covered jetty surrounded by big black mountains. I yelled like I had drank ten thousand cups of coffee, and shimmied around in a way that to the casual observer must have looked like some combination of Michael J. Fox, and a black metal rendition of the final meadow scene in Harold and Maude.But we still can’t know what happened to our comrades who fell through to the other side of the looking glass. It’s a testament to these cinematic times that my natural inclination is to think of them as ‘off-set’, like two-bit actors who have been shuffled offstage with a cane and are now in the wings waiting by the catering table. In this reality show, the rest of us are still up on camera. We’re shuffling around awkwardly like fools, bad character actors who mumble and forget their lines, trying to get to the final curtain call. I tend to think of the dead as missing, and fail to really come to terms with their permanent corporeal disappearance. I keep their telephone numbers programmed into my phone, believing that they will eventually come back. If you have an active imagination, it’s easy to think of the dead as hidden away in your attic, giggling at you from the rafters as you grieve, like Tom Sawyer at his own funeral. It’s disorienting to have dreams where they are alive and then wake up and have to reassess reality: They’re dead. I’m alive. It’s been that way for quite some time. Only in the dreamtime giant of Sleep are we all joined together. I find myself dreaming of virgin Earth and dead friends, of golden mornings in some Paleolithic Garden of Eden filled with waterfalls and lush green plants, untouched by the withering hand of civilization. I wake up to find all the ancient forests cut down, the world manifested, all the maps filled: the sad, waking realization of the paved world, the natural frontiers that our rugged predecessors pioneered now lazily inhabited by the people of my epoch, who can never know true discovery.


Death shatters the pacifying assumption that life was going to be like a placid, vacuum-like transcontinental flight with no turbulence. It immediately brings into question the pursuit of success in life using established standards–of the dream of some kind of endless escalator towards happiness, where you can actually reach the top and you’ve finally arrived, unharmed and self-satisfied by the long journey you’ve made. Everything but love and authentic effort seems so petty next to its high-contrast image.

The living are not the best ones—We are just the remaining ones, still here, unable to see our glaring flaws in the show that are so immediately apparent to outsiders. The dead are like giants, as if their genetics knew when they would bow out of the world and what their fate would be. For the living, there are off-ramps all along the highway for those who get tired of the voyage—religion, marriage, children, career or suicide all provide a fundamental sidestep that can rejuvenate or end life for the exhausted. I imagine swarms of blindfolded people noiselessly gliding down a dark river in canoes, each of us approaches that grim waterfall at a different moment. We’re able to hear the screams of others as they fall over the edge, but we never know when we’re approaching the precipice ourselves. It’s confronting to realize that I’ve already lived a third of my life according to a clinically optimistic average American male lifespan of 76—whether that’s a short time or a long time, its uncertain. Every second can be an eternity and years can flash by, unmemorable, both at once. So I take into account that with the theoretical 2/3rds of my life that I have remaining, even if I never found another job, 1/3 of that would be taken up by sleep, and probably another 1/6th by the traps of dull love and humorless conversations. With some occasional freelance work, the rest of my life is potentially booked solid with mediocrity. There’s got to be another way to live and live fiercely, aware of the clock that hangs above us. Dear Reader, my life is passing as I write this, and yours as you read it—Was it worth it? Did you feel anything? Did your time on Earth make you laugh and cry or was it bland and metallic-tasting like aluminum foil? In all the years lived how many brief moments have been seared onto you as wondrous and unforgettable, as horrible and crushing? How many hours have you been fully alive before you fell back down into the morass? It’s as if we wish for ourselves nothing more than a bland conformity to the norms most of the time, as if moderatism would save us. The comfortably numb stasis tastes like sleep, amnesia, and compromise. There is an indescribable other that we can’t understand. Death approaches steadily like an advancing army. Death beckons like a trumpet call.



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