When Death Burns the Lips
Given that the one certitude of life is our inevitable death, it is curious that we don’t dedicate more of our time to seizing the day. We are extraordinarily willing to give over hours to watching television, flicking idly through Facebook updates, following random web links to videos of cats switching on light switches, keeping up with celebrity gossip, and just generally mooching about in our dressing gowns. Think of those who died tragically young – a budding teenager destroyed by leukaemia, a talented ballet dancer killed in a car accident – and how much they would give to be granted just one extra day of being alive. Don’t we owe it to them to make more of the precious gift of human existence?
Then again, maybe we should not be surprised by how easy it is to put carpe diem on the existential backburner. We have lost the preoccupation with death that was so prevalent in medieval and Renaissance culture, when church walls were covered with frescoes of dancing skeletons, and people kept human skulls on their desks – known as memento mori, Latin for ‘remember you must die’ – as a reminder that death could take them at any moment. It was an age of deadly plagues, shocking child mortality and endemic violence for which we should hardly be nostalgic. At the same time, knowing that their mortal existence might be only the briefest of candles propelled people to live with a passion and intensity that we no longer possess – evident, for instance, in the vibrancy of pre-industrial Europe’s carnival tradition. That is why the historian of death Philippe Ariès concluded, ‘the truth is that at no time has man so loved life as he did at the end of the Middle Ages’.
Modern society, by contrast, is geared to distract us from death. Advertising creates a world where everyone is forever young. We shunt the elderly away in care homes, out of sight and mind. Dying in hospital, covered in tubes and wires, has eclipsed the old custom of dying at home, which is one of the reasons that children so rarely come face to face with death. The question, ‘Are you afraid of dying?’ is hardly a favoured topic on TV talk shows. Discussing death is not completely off the agenda: the dilemmas of euthanasia and palliative care are making their way into public debate, and there is a recent trend of Death Cafés in cities ranging from Boston to Beijing, where people gather to ponder mortality and the meaning of life over tea and cake. But in general, death remains a topic as taboo as sex was during the Victorian era. The newspapers are full of lifestyle supplements, but where are the ‘deathstyle’ supplements?
On a more subtle level, much of social life can be interpreted as an elaborate means of shielding us from our inherent anxiety about death. The way so many of us desperately seek career success or lasting fame, our tendency to accumulate possessions that give us a sense of permanence, our wish to pass on a trace of ourselves to the future by having children, or the way we simply fill our time with so many diversions, from collecting stamps to foreign travel – these are all, at least in part, strategies for dealing with the stark reality that one day, sooner or later, we will cease to be and the worms will claim us. Studies in the US have shown the higher people’s self-esteem, the less likely they are to think about death – in other words, efforts to boost our sense of personal worth serve to protect us from our existential fears. There is also evidence that the more people think about death, the more likely they are to want to have children – presumably as a way of transcending their own mortality. As the psychiatrist Irvin Yalom writes, ‘The terror of death is ubiquitous and of such magnitude that a considerable portion of one’s life energy is consumed in the denial of death.’ Or as Woody Allen put it, ‘I’m not afraid of death. I just don’t want to be there when it happens.’
When it comes to thinking about our own deaths, most people live in a twilight between knowing and not wanting to know. Like the Sword of Damocles, death hangs in the air ready to pierce us. But allowing this thought to inhabit our minds is simply too much for our psyches to bear. So we bury it, we deny it, we distract ourselves with the challenges and joys of everyday living or the solace of religion. Yet in doing so, we rob ourselves of the most exquisite existential elixir – a taste of death that inspires us, or even compels us, to make the most of the limited time we’ve got before the Grim Reaper takes us away to heaven, hell or oblivion.
This leaves us with a delicate task, which is to bring the reality of death close enough to wet our lips without burning them. We need to become like the young woman in Gustav Klimt’s 1916 painting Death and Life who is willing to stare death in the face with her eyes wide open, seemingly unperturbed. She, alone amongst the other figures, has the courage to begin a dance with death. The question then is how to think about our mortality in ways that open us to seizing the day. For this we can turn to an intriguing range of carpe diem thought experiments, or death teasers, which have emerged over the past two thousand years. We will begin our journey by exploring the best known – yet perhaps the most flawed – of them all: to live every day as if it were your last.