There has always been a reluctance, it seems, to talk directly about death. People have been saying that ours is the first age in which it has become the great unmentionable. This is not true. A look at the history of the word ‘death’ will tell you. Etymologists say that the word ‘to die’ was borrowed from Old Norse. It may seem strange that English should have to borrow a word for what is a universal occurrence, but it is normal for ‘die’ words to slip their meaning faster than other words, and therefore to need constant replacing. From Old English, ‘steorfan’ and ‘sweltan’, both of which mean ‘to die’, have come down to us in attenuated forms as ‘starve’ and ‘swelter’. Likewise ‘cwelan’ (‘to kill’) has come down to us as ‘quell’. You sense an unease. Euphemisms like ‘passing away’ and ‘falling asleep’ are not such new inventions; and at the other extreme (an extreme always calls out its opposite) there is the vulgar way of referring to death: ‘snuffing it’, and so on. There is some kind of denial built into this too: violence is always a denial. To talk of ‘stiffs’, for example, is to brutalise death so far that it seems foreign to us.
The other great unmentionable has been sex. But now, as a reaction, it is mentioned with brutish persistence; there is a kind of flaunting that looks like nothing but revenge on the past. The expressions for pregnancy, likewise, pass at both sides of the reality itself: the vulgar and the euphemistic. In Italian, a woman is said to be “in an interesting condition”. It all goes to show that it is very hard to look straight at some things, especially sex and death.
Why is it difficult to look straight at death? What do we see when we look? The end. But we don't want our life to end, so we don't want to look. The end puts everything in question. The end means that I can no longer project into the future: it is the end of all procrastination. My idea of who I am includes many fictional notions of who I will be, many big and small plans - to fix that window, to finish some projects, “to become a better person” - but the thought of death puts paid to them all, big and small. The end means a cataclysmic now! - a vivid here and now, as when you are involved in an accident.
That is what the thought of death does to us, but do we know anything about the reality? In a strict sense, no, because we are still alive. But many of us have seen others die, and all of us have known people who died later. It is common experience that a dying person has no difficulty in talking about death, while the relatives are rigid with inhibition. I once saw an old man become really angry (it was one of the few times in his life, it seems) when a nephew tried to pretend that death was nowhere near. “That’s only stupid talk!” he said, “I’m dying!” It seems that people who are dying can cope better with death than the rest of us who are only watching it or thinking about it. As we watch, we have to admit: it doesn't seem to be so bad when a person gets on with it.
This stands to reason. When we are in a situation we have the resources to cope with it, otherwise we don't. In our bodies, it seems, we know something about death that we don't know in our minds. “My grace is sufficient for you.” Grace doesn't keep; it is given for now, not for cold storage. When death comes we will receive the grace of death. Look back on your life: you always received the grace of the moment but never a future instalment!
The old man on his deathbed knew it first, and reassured us with his eyes. He didn't ‘pass away’ euphemistically; he died fair and square.
From I Remember your Name in the Night: Thinking about Death,
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