Saturday, January 03, 2015


Yesterday at lunch we were talking about death with some friends. I hadn’t been the one to raise the topic, but I did participate willingly, since death seemed to be the topic of the day for me. Only a few hours had passed since I read Sandra Martin’s article in The Toronto Globe and Mail—THE LONG GOODBYE: LET’S TALK ABOUT DEATH. In it Martin poses the question: “Have you noticed how few people seem to die these days?” She was not, as it appeared on first viewing, talking about a decline in the death rate, but rather about our tendency to replace direct mention of death and burial with other expressions. People pass away, or they glimpse the last rays of afternoon light, or become bright morning stars, or are laid to rest. Martin, it seems, would prefer conversations to be more specific, less poetic. I have some sympathy for her point of view. I am, in fact, forced to confess sympathy, or admit that I was wrong all those years ago when I engaged in subversive conversations with my friend Bert. Each conversation would resemble the others. Bert would mention that so-and-so had passed away. “When did she die?” I would ask. “She passed on in late December,” he would say. “Oh, I am sorry she died.” On and on it would go, neither of us willing to back down, neither of us willing to acknowledge that we were arguing semantics when we ought to have been grieving. We were in our twenties then and though the deaths we discussed were the deaths of real people, we spoke of them at a distance, as if they were theoretical. These days, when I discuss death with friends, the conversations are different. Gone is the competitive tone replaced by the recounting of experience and the gentle prodding of a future not yet determined. There is much to talk about. We have all sat sadly and fearfully with dying parents and felt the desperate grieving of those closest to us as we arranged funerals. We have all wandered aimlessly through our homes after the funerals, wondering how to fill the gaping holes. What’s more, now that we are in our sixties, our thoughts are turning to impending deaths—our own. Some of us have cancer, others have other conditions. None of us has been given a probable date for our death, but we can see how it might happen even as we engage in the most positive approaches toward living. So we practice talking about with people we trust, lighting on it cautiously, tenderly, careful not to linger too long. But still we light on it. Where once I would have stood in enthusiastic defence of Martin’s position on telling it like it is, I now find myself reading in sympathy that so-and-so has joined the choir of angels, or watches happily over grandchildren from a better place. It’s poetry, really. Poetry comforts. I wonder if there is anything to be gained by trying to force people to say words they do not want to utter. We all no that a death occurred. What we don’t know is what is happening now to the person who is no longer alive, and because we are grieving, because we are in need of comfort, , we want to give the benefit of the doubt, to believe that something good has come of it all. Near the end of her article Martin asks “Will you join me in a collective resolution to rip the shroud off death imagery?” Honestly, at this point in my life, speaking as a person who has always been willing to address death in direct language, I think I’ll decline the invitation.

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