Wallace Stevens writes, “Death is the mother of beauty.” The line, read in context in the great poem Sunday Morning, is dense with meaning. I’ve pulled it from its context (sorry, Wallace) to illustrate the difficulty of thinking and talking about death. Doesn’t just saying the line make you feel strange? Think of saying it to a group of friends. A conversation killer, for sure. The point is, it’s hard to talk seriously about death. Bringing up the subject in polite conversation is generally taboo. If you insist, you may be viewed as lacking in good taste, morbid, or depressed.
Artists are given special license to deal with death. Where would art be without it? Count the crucifixions in the Metropolitan Museum. Or the great books, plays, and operas in which death is the central event. And death is very common. As Lenny Bruce famously said, we’re all gonna die!
It is kind of funny that death is so ordinary and so frightening at the same time, but not laugh out loud funny. For most of us, death is scary. In fact, terrifying. It serves to define the ultimate in fear: to be frightened to death. It’s emotional in other ways, too. To think of the death of someone else causes feelings to sadness or despair. Death is not to be trifled with.
Even so, avoidance is not the best strategy. Not thinking about it will not make the problem go away. Not talking about it will not help anything. We need to deal with death like grown ups.
The current health care debate provides a case in point. Right wing opponents of reform cleverly started a false rumor that reform would make euthanasia official policy. This outrageous and on its face absurd, lie set off a huge panic reaction. The reaction suggests how hard it will be to address the real problem of our spending enormous sums to put off death when it is inevitable and the amounts spent yield nothing in terms of quality of life.
I was happy to see that last week Newsweek had a cover story entitled “The Case for Killing Granny: Curbing Excessive End-of-Life Care is Good for America.” It is possible to discuss this issue and to make good choices. It is possible to be sensible and courageous. Both my parents, when confronting terminal illnesses, thoughtfully and courageously refused low-probability-of-success treatments. Others have done likewise. Maybe good sense and strength will increase and spread. One can always hope.