The Obsession with Death and the Dead

In the first chapter, of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s first book of a six-book My Struggle series, Knausgaard asks why we’re so obsessed with concealing our dead?  If a body dies in a public arena, he writes, the civil servants in charge of such things, do their best to have that body removed from sight; if it dies in a hospital, the employees of that hospital see it as their duty to cover that body with a blanket, and eventually move that body to a basement, far from view; and if a body dies on a playground, the civil servants do their best to remove that body from the view of the children on that playground.  Why do we do this, Knausgaard asks, why are we so obsessed with removing these very natural images from prying eyes that we put blankets on them, cordon them off with police tape, and eventually put them in a coffin that no one can see through?  What harm is caused?  Why don’t we just leave the body where it is, uncovered, and in plain view?  Why do we worry that a bird may peck at its eyeball?  It’s just a carcass.

Seeroon Yeretzian
Seeroon Yeretzian

Though there was some humor involved in Knausgaard’s presentation, I do believe there was a central, provocative question he was asking in regards to the denial of death we all seek.  We ask our civil servants to hide death from us, so that we don’t have to face it, and this only perpetuates a denial of the reality that we’re all going to die.  My reply to Knausgaard, if he posed this provocative question to my face, would be: what difference does it make?

What difference is it going to make if we choose to be in denial regarding death?  What difference is it going to make that we continue to require that our civil servants remove human carcasses from view?  We’re still going to die, and the mistress is not going to be any less harsh to those that embrace her.

The reason we hide our dead may have something to do with our desire to live our lives free of the constraints thinking about our end might have on our lives.  Knowing the end of a book, movie, or TV show, for example, might ruin our enjoyment of it.  It’s the reason that we require *spoiler alert* notations for those that review such productions.  Some people prefer spoiler alerts, because they feel it allows them to make an informed choice before purchasing the book in question.  I knew one of them, I was raised by him.  He knew the reality of his own spoiler alert, and he embraced it.  He called it reality, and he mocked me for my unrealistic expectations, but an objective view of his life would show any concerned enough to take a look, that his quality of life was diminished by it in some measure.

The reason that some of us require reviewers to alert us of forthcoming spoiler alerts is that we don’t want them to ruin our journey through the book.  Some of us hate even watching trailers of movies, because those trailers usually provide us the key scenes of a movie that we cannot enjoy until they are over.  Everything in between seems like fluff leading up to that key scene that attracted us.  If those of us that hate trailers, and spoiler alerts, manage to avoid them, we usually end up enjoying the journey to those scenes all the more.

Whenever my four-year-old nephew and I were hanging out, having a blast, he would inevitably hit me with a question regarding the future.  “Are you coming over to my house?” he would ask.  He wanted this fun moment to last longer, and when I told him that I wasn’t coming over, it made all the fun we were currently having less fun to him.  He turned it into a combative “Why?” complaint that informed me that I did not spend enough time with him.

“Why don’t you simply enjoy this moment for what it is?” I would ask him.

“How does this movie end?” a friend will ask me in the midst of watching a movie that I’ve already seen.  She grows so anxious during the fast-paced, action packed scenes that she can’t just sit there and enjoy them for what they are, she needs to know how it will all end.

“Won’t it ruin all of these moments for you, if I tell you?” I ask.  She says nothing.  She knows I’m right, but the anticipation eats her insides up, until she cannot stand it anymore.  She will then pepper me with more questions, when more events play out, until I ask, “Why are you worried about that now?  Why aren’t you just enjoying these moments for what they are?  The end will come soon enough.”

Another friend of mine told me that she was going to see a fortune teller this weekend.  As a non-believer, believing that she had a decent head on her shoulder, I asked her why she would seek the services of a fortune teller.  “Because I can’t stand not knowing the future,” she said.

Let’s say that there is a truly gifted member of the fortune teller community.  Let’s say that this person has a well-documented history of being able to predict the future with 100% accuracy regarding specific, future events.  Let’s say that this fortune teller is so accurate, and so gifted that she doesn’t need to engage in the vague generalities indigenous to her craft.  Let’s say she tells this friend of mine: “You will have a key moment in your life occur at a Smashing Pumpkins concert on May 5th, and that moment will change your life.”  Let’s say that she is very specific regarding what that key moment is.

If she is 100% accurate, and that event occurred in the exact manner that she predicted, how enjoyable would my friend’s life be between the date the fortune teller made that prediction and May 5th?  Would my friend regard any interim moments as exciting and fun, or would they be regarded as inconsequential fluff compared to the expectations she had for May 5th?  How many times would my friend interrupt what could be seminal moments in her life to go back to that fortune teller to ask her for more specifics regarding May 5th? And, most importantly, how enjoyable will that May 5th moment be for her when it finally occurs?  Could it possibly live up to the expectations she built up for it, or will she have set the bar too high by the time the date finally rolls around?

The reason that we hide our dead, I write to Knausgaard, is that seeing them lie on a playground, as nothing more than a carcass, will remind us that we’re nothing more than a carcass.  Witnessing a carcass will remind us of the fact that we’re nothing more than a big bag of bones, tendons, and muscles, that will eventually give out.  It’s a spoiler alert regarding the cycle of life.  It ruins all of the mystery, and excitement, and the process of living while we’re living.  It reminds us that there’s nothing special about us, and that we’re all going to eventually become an image in a photograph that one of our descendants point to and says, ‘Who is that’?  We’re all going to eventually become a carcass laying somewhere for someone to cover up, so that that someone else doesn’t have to see us and think about their own mortality, but how are those, more accepting of this reality, at a greater advantage than those of us in complete denial?

My dad was so obsessed with death that he viewed all of the events of his life from the perspective of his eventual death.  He had wishes and dreams like the rest of us, but he would list them all under a “I just want a happy death” umbrella.  He collected funeral cards in the manner some collect baseball cards, and he memorized the stats on those cards in much the same manner; most of his conversations revolved around how old a close friend was when they died, what kind of health they were in at that moment, and how healthy he was by comparison.

When a doctor informed him that he was close to death, at one point in his life, he could barely contain his excitement.  It wasn’t so much that he wanted to die, but that he thought it was exciting to be the center of attention among those that watching him on this tightrope.  He also recounted, for any concerned, the number of times he probably should’ve died, and he did so in a voice normally reserved for those exciting, and enjoyable, moments of a life.

“Once you’re dead your dead,” I reminded him one day, when he informed me that he wanted the events of his life to line up in such a fashion that would allow him to be happy in death.  “You won’t be happy, or unhappy, you’ll be dead.  There’s no such thing as an emotional aftermath when you’re dead.  The end will come soon enough, and all of these moments that you follow in the hopes of having a happy death, will eventually become meaningless to the living that are concerned about you now.  Your name will eventually whither on the vine, until it falls from everyone’s memory, and you are no longer being considered any more.  So, you should want a happy life.  Your death should be utterly meaningless to you.

“I know we’re all going to die,” I said when he called me out for being unrealistic, “but I would think that it’s simply better to allow that to happen, than to focus of your life on it.

“Even if there is a heaven, and that afterlife is as unimaginably blissful as advertised,” I said when he called me out on that.  “I can’t help but think that we’re all going to be looking down at one point, and say, ‘This is great and all, but I still wish I would’ve enjoyed my time on earth a little more.  I spent so much of it thinking about how it was all going to end that I accidentally forgot to enjoy all of the fluff in between.’”


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