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Rated: E · Essay · Family · #1833492
A new version of this title is now part of my new book, 'The Secular Fundamentalist'.
Post-Modern people are not only going to have to completely rethink the questions of life, but death also. They are going to have to listen to and embrace death instead of denying it until it is undeniable. They are going to have to be above all practical about it to the extent of where necessary smoothing its path and in some circumstances, facilitating an early exit.

Modern technology has delivered birth control as a necessary response to lower infant and child mortality rates and rising and lengthening educational cost pressures. It has also delivered a death control regime that prolongs life well beyond independently sustainable use-by dates. In many ways death has become semi-discretionary, albeit for long periods in a terrible health state. This discretionary capacity implies an ability to apply rational decision making about how and when we die. Certainly in a much more rationed post-modern society, this issue is bound to become a more pressing matter.

This is not playing God. It is taking back from Gods decisions we should be making for ourselves. Gods are no more going to save us from our follies any more than they will substitute for our absolute individual and species responsibility for whatever happens to us. Nor should we be unnecessarily worrying ourselves about questions of the final fate of our egos or feeling guilt about our sins of omission and commission. As death comes upon us, all this becomes redundant. All that the dying person has ever done is irreversibly ‘out there’ and it is now up to the living to enjoy or wrestle with whatever that legacy is. We really have nothing to fear from the ‘big sleep’. And today, even the most terrible pangs of death can be softened and its intentional onset made peaceful and painless.

My preference, if the nature of my death enables this, is to have a ‘last curtain’ party with my closest relatives and friends while I am sufficiently compos mentis to talk to them sensibly. At the end of the party, at around midnight (why not!?) those who are in my will or want to be with me when I turn on my exit fluids can stay to see me off. But first a toast, a mercifully short last speech and then, voila.

Such a death has the added benefit of avoiding that hideous (and massively expensive) last few weeks of twenty-four hour care, loss of physical control and dignity and inability to think clearly as increasing loads of palliative care drugs kick in.

I don’t wish to make light of the grief and loss that comes with death. An unexpected demise of someone close or the death of a child is both shocking and wounding. I just don’t want to make a meal of or indulge surplus emotions when dealing with someone whose time is clearly coming. This kind of death should be an active and disciplined disengagement between a life that is terminating and lives that are moving on into a more complete and mature emotional independence.

From the side of the dying person, this discipline means taking control of ones death process rather than leaving matters to Doctors to put off until even they have run out of options. This discipline means not allowing egoism and fear to rule over the proper exercise of judgement.

From the side of those who are being left behind, this discipline means starting to manage rather than give themselves up to the emotions of loss. This means preparing to take over the psychological space that is to be left in the community network by the dying person.

Whether it is hatred or love of life, fear or optimism, or just plain egoism, the fierce will to live grips us all when the crunch starts to come. It is not easy to let go of our little ring of power. However this is also culturally and economically mediated. In societies where the struggle for survival has been particularly harsh, as in some sub-polar Inuit communities, the old might persuade themselves (or be persuaded) that it was best for them to die if they felt they had (or it was felt they had) become too much of a burden on their families. This was extreme, but so is expecting to be preserved from death no matter what the cost, either to the patient or the community. The consumer paradigm is to preserve life at any price, go to any lengths to do it and strive to get as close as possible to the ideal of immortality. This isn’t just the ordinary desire to live. This is megalomania.

If one has managed to put ones ego into perspective; i.e., realized that it is not all that important in the grander scheme of things, then death isn’t going to seem such an overwhelming issue. On the contrary, it may be a welcome respite for a life albeit satisfyingly lived, getting weary of itself and sensing the inevitability of decay and collapse. For such persons, the approach of death is not merely an opportunity to get their affairs in order, but to reflect upon their lives and to celebrate their end by sharing the wisdom and richness of what they have got out of it. The end of well-lived lives ought to be as illuminating for those approaching the everlasting sleep as for those who attend upon them. For Post Moderns, death may well be one of life’s most exalted moments, when it all comes together in a vision of its own completion and the legacy it is leaving behind.

In my case, I know some of my nearest and dearest will be hardly able to wait for me to eventually shut up.

The ability to say a humble and resolute goodbye, with a light heart, in the knowledge that all things are transient and must come to an end, is the acme of a life well lived; or if you like, a death well died. Good lives and good deaths go hand in hand because they share the same focus and sense of being and not being.

To the modern mind, this may seem on the face of it to be overly austere. But what post-modernity represents is a transfer of wealth resources from the tangible to the intangible sector; from the toys economy to the economy of social and emotional networks; from a rapaciously destructive economy to a low impact and sustainable one. For the post modern these trade-offs promise to get us out of the production warfare that threatens the very basis of life itself. For post-moderns, the consequences of not adopting a sane and balanced economic system soon are far worse than any ‘austerity’ they could possibly dream up. 

For post-moderns, modern ideas of 'austerity' really mean ceasing to be self indulgent, insecure, socially and morally  under-constructed and irresponsible egoists, who imagine they have a sacred right to as much immortality as money will buy, no matter what the cost to themselves, their friends and relatives, and the broader society. 

Such a consumption paradigm is a bottomless pit that ultimately no society, no matter how affluent, can really afford.  And it diverts resources away from much more cost effective and low tech public health resources, which capitalize and maintain whole-of-life good health practice; practice that ensures aging population cohorts require less medical intervention when they get older; practice that spares many more of them a long, miserable and impaired health twilight; and practice that enables people to become genuinely conscious of the flow and ebb of the life force within them, so that they can behave rationally in the face of their impending ends.

Of all the things that define us, our attitude to death says the most about us.  Our mortality puts everything else into perspective; that everyday is precious and that its meaning is what it delivers, even in the smallest ways, to the legacy we will leave our collective descendents.  This is as close to immortality as we can get, and that when we die, this everyday lifelong investment in the future becomes our lasting gift and punishment to our children, which they will likely have already imitated and passed on to theirs.

Death is a passing of the baton of life; a passing of social memory from one generation to the next.  Death is a life's final summary, already long buried in the imagination and lives of the living.  And how long that life is, is infinitely less important than what it bequeathed as a template for others, virtues and vices alike; which is why in life, cultivating the former and eschewing the latter is so important. 

Your individual life is infinitely less important than the life it passes on,  All generations have a sacred duty to give the best of themselves, because everything gets passed on, for good and ill.

The company that pays its last respects at your funeral will very much reflect the kind of character you were, and your vices and virtues, in some measure, will be there on parade, as it mourns your passing; death and life unified in the process of succession.

So getting one's death right is part and parcel of getting one's life right, or at least as right as it can be, in as many ways as possible.  In means consciousness of the permanence of one's acts and attitudes in the others that one is bound to influence, even in the smallest degree.  Over a lifetime this contribution accumulates and represents the largest piece of social wealth and poverty any person can leave behind.  All other forms are as nothing compared to this.

There is a blessing that I must start to have the courage to use whenever there is something important to be celebrated.  My nearest and dearest think that I am something of an eccentric and may not indulge me, but hopefully its meaning and importance will seep into their lives by its eventual declamation and repetition:

"Go therefore in the peace that is to be the fruit of your love’s labor.  Eat of it freely, for the more you partake of it, the more it grows and the better it tastes. It can never cost you too much, for its value is priceless. It will enrich all of us while you live and it will be the most substantial part of whatever you bequeath to your successors.  Bless you all. May the warmth, comfort and love you and we give to each other, keep and hold us all our lives, and down the generations."

© Copyright 2011 Christopher Eastman-Nagle (kiffit at Writing.Com). All rights reserved.
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