The Jewish cemetery at Kosice in Slovakia, a country once home to a thriving Jewish community.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
LAST WORDS: Ludwig van Beethoven in 1827: ‘Friends, applaud, the comedy is finished!’
French grammarian Dominique Bouhours in 1702: ‘I am about to – or I am going to – die, either expression is correct.’
Artist Leonardo da Vinci in 1519: ‘I have offended God and mankind because my work did not reach the quality it should have.’
Writer Oscar Wilde in 1900: ‘Either that wallpaper goes, or I do.’
Death isn’t so much a question of the elephant in the room as a feature of the room itself – if you can imagine its solid walls delineating the finite nature of a life. If the image appeals, you could add two doors: One for coming in, the other for going out.
And while we have come to know almost everything there is to know medically about “crossing over” – just as we have about conception and birth – in their essence both birth and death remain processes wreathed in mystery, inspiring deep awe and, in the case of the latter, unease.
Many people don’t even believe there is anything to cross over to. A tombstone discovered in the US, in Thurmont, Maryland, bears the engraving “Here lies an Atheist / All dressed up / And no place to go.”
One moment a person is there; the next, gone, forever. It’s hard to internalize. Especially the forever.
Thus as with the proverbial elephant, our tendency is to tiptoe around the notion of death while being, in this electronic age, simultaneously unable to avoid the enormous reality of it everywhere, an awareness intensified by the unrelenting stream of news about violence across the globe.
Israelis, who have never really stopped fighting their War of Independence, can claim a tragically close and ongoing acquaintance with premature death from enemy action and as a result of terrorism, an acquaintance with which they can make no accommodation, only resolve to carry on and refuse to be beaten down. At which point, for the purposes of this column, a distinction needs to be made between the terrible occurrence of people dying suddenly before their time for a cause – theirs or others’ – or from illness or accident; and death in the fullness of a person’s years, which is to be expected and accepted as part of the natural cycle of all living things.
English essayist William Hazlitt (1778 –1830) put it simply and well when he said that the best cure for the fear of death is to reflect that life has a beginning as well as an end.
“There was a time when we were not,” he wrote. “This gives us no concern – why then should it trouble us that a time will come when we shall cease to be?”
This being the reality, here’s a question: Is it better to know when we will die, or be taken by surprise so that we may, if we choose, until then think of ourselves as eternal – or at least extremely long-lived? With an impressive number of people today making it to over 100, many of them still active – they’ve even had a term coined for themselves, “centenarians” – it’s not that hard for those blessed with reasonable health to believe that they will just go on and on.
In the timeless Jewish collection of honesty, upright living and sage advice called Ethics of the Fathers, Rabbi Eliezer provides an unusual take on the subject when he urges us to “Repent one day before you die.” This, of course, prompts the question of how we can know when that day will be – to which the answer is that we should repent every day as if it were our last.
Instead of repenting – however we might choose to interpret that word – we could usefully substitute other injunctions such as “appreciate something good in our lives,” “reconnect with somebody we’ve lost touch with,” “call a friend with whom we’ve fallen out,” “see a place we’ve always meant to see but never got around to visiting” and a myriad other positive actions. Knowing we were living out our last day on earth – if we could treat even some days like that – would undoubtedly serve as a powerful incentive to make every minute, and every loved one, matter.
J.K. Simmons, who won this year’s Oscar for best supporting actor in Whiplash, implored anyone who was listening to his emotional acceptance speech: “If you are lucky enough to have a parent or two alive on this planet, call them – don’t text, call them on the phone, tell them you love ‘em.”
Awareness of the date of our death might thus be considered a very good thing; but not by everyone. One novelist, the 19-century Samuel Butler, quotes Psalm 39 – “Lord let me know my end, and the number of my days: that I may be certified how long I have to live” – only to call it the insanest of all prayers, adding that it would have served the maker of it right to have had his prayer granted.
“‘Cancer in three months, after great suffering,’ or ‘Ninety, a burden to yourself and everyone else’ – there is not much to pick and choose between them,” declared Butler. “Surely, ‘I thank thee, Lord, that thou hast hidden mine end from me’ would be better.”
One man who knows that his end is likely to come in a matter of months is the distinguished neurologist Oliver Sacks. The beloved author of many books including Awakenings and The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat recently learned that he has terminal cancer.
In an op-ed titled “My own life” in last week’s New York Times, he wrote how he can now see his life “as from a great altitude, as a sort of landscape, and with a deepening sense of the connection of all its parts.”
Yet he is far from finished with life. “On the contrary, I feel intensely alive, and I want and hope in the time that remains to deepen my friendships, to say farewell to those I love, to write more, to travel if I have the strength, to achieve new levels of understanding and insight.”
He talks about achieving “a sudden clear focus and perspective” and understands that “there is no time for anything inessential. I must focus on myself, my work and my friends. I shall no longer look at NewsHour every night. I shall no longer pay any attention to politics or arguments about global warming.”
This not indifference, he explains, but detachment. “I still care deeply about the Middle East, about global warming, about growing inequality, but these are no longer my business; they belong to the future....”
His predominant feeling, Sacks writes, is one of gratitude. “I have loved and been loved; I have been given much and I have given something in return; I have read and traveled and thought and written. I have had an intercourse with the world, the special intercourse of writers and readers.
“Above all, I have been a sentient being, a thinking animal, on this beautiful planet, and that in itself has been an enormous privilege and adventure.”
Letters to the editor of the Times following Sacks’s op-ed brimmed with appreciation and love for this remarkable man. One writer was amazed at “how calm, observant and affirming Dr. Sacks is about dying.” Another commented on his “ebullient, unfettered spirit” and on the fact that “even when looking death in the eye, he finds reasons to live life more animated than ever.”
Those of us – old, young, sick or well – who do not know how many years we have to live would do well to reflect on what is more a manifesto of life than an announcement of impending death.
Sacks admits that he “cannot pretend I am without fear.” And yet one comes away from his op-ed with a sense of completion, and with the impression that when the moment of departure does arrive, this intrepid traveler will not feel too painful a sting.