For many years I have had on my mantle-piece a portrait of … me. Without letting me know, my son-in-law had painted it from a photograph. The reason I keep it there among photos of the family is not what you might think. It’s because I need to check it regularly since I have noticed, over the years, that my face in the picture is getting progressively older, while I …
You don’t believe me, of course, and probably see no point in pursuing the perusal of this prefabricated piece of pathetic plagiarism. (If that’s not enough, the awful alliteration alone should do the trick.)
You can’t spend as much time as I have thinking, reading, writing and, in the distant past, preaching about death and dying without being sensitive to stories like Oscar Wilde’s “Dorian Gray” and Jerome Bixby’s “The Man from Earth”. My book has a whole chapter on death (“From Illusions to Illumination”, pages 93-112), and there are references throughout it and this Blog to ageing, dying, disintegrating and disappearing definitively after our allotted (?) life-time – precociously, or after a respectable four-score-and-ten, or even at age 128, which was my “desiderium privatum”, my wishful thinking, expressed in my “poem” “Now I’m 64” in the book (page 115). Of course, I could well be dead and gone like Clementine by the time you read this. To allow myself a terribly original and insightful cliché : we all die …
But the Man from Earth didn’t. In the movie and stage-play (the movie is itself virtually a filmed stage-play in the one-room setting of the home of the Cromagnon man who is its hero), we meet a University professor who reveals to his friends that he is 14,000 years old. He not only does not look his age (like me) but has retained the features he had when he turned … 35 ! Whether he likes it or not, he just can’t croak.
I’ve already written a couple of Reflections in this Blog about the efforts of some to delay, postpone or eliminate their death. Some nutters who can afford it have paid a fortune to get themselves deep-frozen, to wait for that medical breakthrough that they hope will one day prolong their life or even eliminate their ultimate demise.
The New Testament and expressions of the Christian religion are full of references to overcoming, “conquering”, death as Christ did, and to the eternal life He promised His followers. At Requiems we pray that the Faithful Departed enjoy a perpetual Paradise (along with the total boredom the Church calls “eternal rest”). In my recently adopted new profession as a star of the Big Screen, I attend the Hollywood funerals of confreres whose believing colleagues pray that perpetual limelight may shine upon them and later on all of us.
People just can’t accept death, the term of our natural life. The Church does not accept the deliberate destruction of life through abortion but also by active euthanasia. It teaches that we should all live as long as possible, whatever the pain involved. It proclaims itself “pro-life” and says it treasures life, but the rest of us know that it won’t be too happy if science ever eliminates death. Already we are prolonging life significantly and consider the 120-mark as an attainable objective, if not the 190 evoked by a scientist in “The Man from Earth”, though not the 140 centuries chalked up by its hero. For the foreseeable future, we will continue to die. But the elimination of death would be bad news and a serious financial challenge for undertakers and other people in the death business, including the clergy, to say nothing of the chronic overcrowding of the planet and the extinction of the human race. We are, for the nonce, in the realm of science-fiction. But, more seriously, death will continue to haunt and terrify many, whose only consolation is the chimera of an after-life.
Some atheists fear or remain at least unresigned to death, not because its sequel is uncertain, but because it means the fun’s over. Dying is often accompanied by physical pain and always by the definitive separation from loved ones and the cessation of all that made life worth living. Apart from that, there is nothing to fear. For some it will be a liberation from suffering, misery and injustice. For me it will be the end of a life I was lucky enough to enjoy for many years, especially its latter half since I discovered that only people blinded by wishful thinking, or worse, could take seriously fiction like that of Oscar, Jerome, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.