Essays About


When a hurricane strikes a coastline, and I follow its onset and aftermath on the news, I am struck by the brevity of the event. Floodwaters rise to the second stories of buildings, and cars float in the street, but a day or two later, the ground is dry, the sun is out, and the world is as it was. Impressive as storms are, they cannot match the staying power of pleasant weather. They muster all they have and blow themselves out in twenty-four hours, like panting sprinters doubled over after fifty meters. The blue sky pushes their fury aside and re-asserts its casual sovereignty. With unsinkable buoyancy, normalcy resurfaces.

This return to normalcy sets me up for surprise when I read reports that people are dead. Though the waters no sooner rose than receded, the victims they briefly drowned did not revive with the next day's sunrise. The world before and after the storm was livable, and deadliness only encroached upon life for a moment, but life, a featherweight, once knocked down stays down. Surely the victims' lives, like the electricity, should only have been interrupted, not ended. The cause was fleeting: shouldn't the effect be?

The word "death" is a strong and solid word that does not blush or flinch, calling life's terminus by its first name, without apology. But most people euphemize death with the softer phrase "passed away". To pass away suggests a gentle and painless transition from one state to another, like chilled water passing imperceptibly into ice. Thereby words conceal from thoughts the horrors of violent accidents and the wracking agonies of terminal illness, as if everyone, instead of only a lucky few, died peacefully in his sleep. And where we peacefully pass is "away", a nebulous word that does not suggest a termination, but neither specifies a destination. It is a kind of leaving off, a gesture of open-endedness, an ellipsis at sentence's end. It is, accordingly, the perfect word for the skeptical yet sentimental modern mind, which cannot accept annihilation, nor easily believe in immortality. "Passed away" allows vague hope without dogma, as if to say, "He has gone somewhere else, please don't ask for details."

We remember the dead only as they were at life's end. Obituary photographs are nearly always recent, though the deceased was eighteen for as long as she was eighty. Through windows, you glimpse a home's inhabitants and from yard signs guess their opinions, but the marble cottages of the dead tell you nothing but a name and date of death. Is it not odd to remember each other by when cancer or car wreck carried us off—an accidental fact that formed no part of our chosen identity? Our lifelong passions and carefully planned profession are forgotten; the unplanned date our plans were halted is engraved in granite. As with the residents of Pompeii, buried under pumice while washing dishes, death fixes us forever in the amber of our final identity. Thus the ancient Greeks favored an early death, that posterity remember their youth and beauty, not their age and decrepitude.

Bias for the final frame of time's moving picture pervades all of life. Politicians are remembered by the scandals that end their careers. A game is won not by the team who leads most, but leads last. Catholics go to heaven or hell for the state of their soul on their death bed, one unforgiven mortal sin trumping a life of virtue.

Never mind first impressions, let us make good last impressions.

A graveyard has no electricity, no bus routes, little traffic, an abundance of grass and trees, and drains no watershed. The dead downsize from downtown lofts and suburban tract mansions into modest one-room coffins. Consumers who never recycled their bottles recycle their bodies. Oil barons who plundered Alaska's tundras, over millions of years dissolve into oil themselves. We can do nothing as good for the earth as relocate from on it to under it.

From the delivery room to the morgue is a short walk down the hallway of life. Obstetricians keep undertakers in business.

At the funerals of the young, grief is raw and chaotic. Young people being the limbs and liveliness of the world, the death of the young amputates the world, and the mourners' grief is like the howling of an amputee. In contrast, the funerals of the old are more solemn than horrific. Why beat one's breast at the inevitable? On closer inspection, this solemnity for the old is a muted grieving for the young, that is, for the young of fifty years ago, on whose world the barely cracked door claps shut when the elderly die. Fifty years ago, the hunched and white-haired hobblers of the present were in their prime, making laws and making loans and making love, when today's movers and makers were still asleep in the lampless anteroom of the future. The sun shone on a world that, with the elderly's death, no one left living now remembers except through lifeless books and black-and-white photographs. As the coffin is lowered, not so much a person as an era is laid to rest.

If I could be dead without having to die, fetched in sleep to my new home of nothingness, I would not mind mortality as much. Conversely, could I die without ending up dead, I would bear my disease or drowning bravely, swabbing my pain with my plans for tomorrow. But to exit life via life's most wretched experience is a poor favor fate has paid us. Getting dead and being dead, like gang members or annoying couples, are more tolerable individually. The problem with each is the other.

When having my hair cut, I am always startled to see my hair in the trash can. The pile of hair looks familiarly like my head, yet now I am mixed among food scraps and snotty tissues. A part of me which, until today, I washed and combed daily and based my self-esteem on will soon line a rat's nest in a landfill.

Similarly, since seventy-five percent of indoor dust is dead skin cells, cleaning my house is a chore of throwing myself away. When I wipe my desk, I am wiping up my face that fell off. If I breathe too much, I irritate my own lungs and sneeze myself back out.

Whatever dies of us is promptly discarded. Death will be our full and final relegation to rubbish. Alive, we were endowed with sacred, inalienable rights—by our Creator, our courts, our moral codes—but no sooner will we die than the living will stuff us in wooden trash bins and bury us in landfills of human bodies, where they can remember us without the horror of seeing or smelling us. Death transforms the body from earth's most precious to its most repulsive substance.

Organ donation is being buried in someone else's body. It is orphaning our insides. In our absence, a foster heart will nourish our kidney. Our liver will snuggle up to a stranger's spleen. In death we will partner with people we were nothing like in life. A vegetarian's intestine will land in the gut of a meat-eater. With an old lady's eyes, a young bachelor will gaze with lust on his neighbor's wife.

Much of the awe and natural horror we feel upon seeing the cremated remains of a loved one is due to their slight volume—a mere urn of ash. Is that you in there, grandmother? Not only have all her complex features been standardized to dust, she has somehow become a midget. As a child I sat in her ample lap, now I can hold her in one hand. A miraculous weight loss!

How does a 150-pound adult body become an urnful of dust? Where do we go? According to industry literature, cremation is not primarily a process of combustion (like logs on a fire) but simple evaporation. Our bodies being made of mostly water, in the oven we go the way of sweat beads on summer pavement. This strange realization makes me think that an urnful of ash better represents our true size than a living body, which is only big with bloating. Drain the pond in the skin's shore, and we would shrivel like grapes into raisins. Our children would mistake us for their dolls.

   ...every mother's son
Travails with a skeleton.
-A.E. Housman

Poets, painters, and philosophers of the Renaissance used to set skulls on their desk to remind them of their mortality. I have no idea where to buy a skull nowadays, but sometimes while propping my cheek against my hand in thought, I become aware that I am touching the contours of my own skull. I run a finger around my eye sockets, feel the hinge of my jaw, and picture myself as I will one day look, minus everything soft—a bald globe of calcium. The only shared feature of that face and my present one are my teeth—the one place where my skeleton already pokes through my skin.

We are the clothing of our skeletons, but since our skeletons never undress until the prom of life ends, we forget what we look like beneath this tuxedo of flesh. The evolution of the endoskeleton was a key contributor to the denial of death. How could we forget our mortality if, like molting cicadas, we wore our skeletons outside and periodically had to crawl from a now lifeless replica of ourselves?

Instead, self-knowledge depends on imagination. Some lustful teenage boys mentally undress attractive women to see them naked. We should go further and mentally strip them of their skin to see the ribs and femurs that keep their beauty upright. When we shake hands with businessmen, we should squeeze hard enough to feel their metacarpals, which will stock next century's graveyards.

All books about death are written by the living.

Some nights my wife is late getting home, and, bypassing the innocent explanation that she is running errands or had a meeting after work, my mind flies to the thought it dreads: she has wrecked her car, she is never coming home. I permit these morbid hypotheses because they renew my love with miraculous potency. In the midst of my anticipatory mourning, I hear a key turning in the lock: the door opens: she is resurrected from the dead! I kiss her and thank fate, and she kisses back, perplexed by my excess affection. For a happy marriage, the only counseling couples need is an occasional fear that each other has died.

My religion cannot decide whether paradise is a party or a nap. In the New Testament, Jesus compares heaven to a marriage feast, while St. Paul refers to the dead having fallen asleep. The Requiem Mass begins with the paradoxical lines:

Rest eternal grant to them, O Lord,
And let light perpetual shine upon them.

Are we to rest forever, or be shined on forever? Surely we are not to sleep with the lights on—God's glory as the lamp with no off-switch? Perhaps these conflicting metaphors are proper, for on earth we crave both waking and sleeping in turn, adventure and unconsciousness; why not in heaven? An infinity of repose would bore us for half of infinity. Likewise, an everlasting banquet would weary us with very bliss and make us wish our souls were in the coffin with our bodies. Eternal life needs respites of death to be a heaven.

For a few days after we die, more people think of us simultaneously than ever did while we were living. Friends not seen for seven years drive seven hours for our funeral. Neighbors remember us to each other while raking their yards. Church ladies compliment our common qualities as rare virtues. Reading our name in newspapers, the whole town sighs for us over breakfast. In a week, the talk is moving on to other topics, and, being dead, we are powerless ever to call attention back to ourselves again.

Our names burn out like light bulbs, briefly flashing before going black.

Though I hope all humanity will get to paradise, I wonder what single place could be paradise for us all. The peace, light, and love that would please some would make others miserable. Could a fallen Special Forces Marine be happy to wake in a heaven of harps? If he could, then death is life's lobotomy, and what survives after death is not the Marine. He would be happier in hell where he could wage eternal combat against the devil his master. For all to be blessed, some must be damned.

Riding in the caravan of the dead, a peculiar sight: cell-phone-talking teenage drivers, soccer moms in SUVs, and bankers in BMWs all pulling to the road's shoulder. Why this wide berth for death? Do they wish to get as far from the leprous corpse as possible? Is their swerving meant as pity, as in sorry for your loss, may I offer my side of the road? Are they startled to see the hearse—the last car they too will ride in?

They themselves do not know why they stop. Customs are a culture's deep thoughts, embodied in the thoughtless actions of its people.

Often the shock of a shooting spree is that we never guessed the inner magnitude of the gunman's despair. Meeting neighbors in public, he would shake their hands and talk of sports or politics. How could such a maelstrom be swirling beneath so placid a surface?

A desperate man moves through society like a wave through deep water, its power hidden till, suddenly rising, it bursts against the rocks.

A conundrum of lovers is who will die first. Though the masses sweat and diet to live longer, in love dying first is lucky, because living longer means living on alone. Therefore both lovers wish the other to be lucky and die first, since worse than grieving is to think of the beloved grieving. Yet equally, both wish first exit for themselves, preferring not living to outliving living's meaning.

The only suitable death is simultaneous death, neither to leave behind nor be left. Happy is the widower who follows his cooling wife into the ground within a week. Happy are the honeymooners whose car careens from the cliff, smashing their atoms into everlasting union.

We seldom catch the transition from sleeping to waking. Gently we dawn into consciousness, but because so gently, we do not notice the metamorphosis until it's complete, when we discover ourselves lying fully awake in our bed. It is like the change into life itself. Having clambered up the steps of infantile cognizance, one day in childhood it first occurs to us that we exist, already many years after the fact. Looking back for our beginning, the past is a fog, and we find we cannot remember a time when we did not exist. No wonder in youth we feel immortal. How could we die when it seems we have always lived?