It has memorably been moralized that death is a dreadful subject. And indeed it is. Decidely not for the pusillanimous. Nor does it constitute, except for the blatantly curious or the morbidly inclined, an especially vivid literary turn. Nonetheless I find lately that the inescapable eventuality has preoccupied me more than I care to accede. Yet strangely, without endorsing the peril, it invokes a hitherto uncommon liberality, strangely freeing me from former prejudices surrounding the grim theme.
Regularly – though not more often than yearly – we drive to nearby Auld Kirk Cemetery to inspect our tombstone and to audit the headway of the accompanying moss. We purchased the monument years ago in a fit of profligacy. We have no intention of being buried there; it’s mostly just furniture. Our disposal régime in order of preference is to contribute our carcasses to a university for medical study if they’ll have us; otherwise cremation. As for the ashes, whatever. I should note also that we’ve both signed the usual papers authorizing organ donation (assuming we haven’t already surpassed utility).
To this point neither of us has embraced anything approaching a consideration of the after-life, anymore than we currently contemplate the resort of our departed pets. In this respect I recall the agnostic writings of Thomas Paine whom I unflaggingly extoll as a steward of rational thought in the Western world. Shamefully during his lifetime he was much discredited or actively ignored by leading dignitaries in both Britain and the colonies.
Thomas Paine (born Thomas Pain; February 9, 1737 [O.S. January 29, 1736] – June 8, 1809) was an English-born American Founding Father, political activist, philosopher, political theorist and revolutionary. He authored Common Sense (1776) and The American Crisis (1776–1783) two of the most influential pamphlets at the start of the American Revolution; and he helped to inspire the Patriots in 1776 to declare independence from Great Britain.
Natually the accuracy of Paine’s or anyone else’s predictions is irrelevant. I derive little vicarious pleasure of death by directing my mind to its supposed sequences one way or the other. As far as I’m concerned, it’s exit stage left. But as I say there is nonetheless a certain versatility which springs from the impending doom. For one thing I no longer view it as imperative to devote myself to production. My existential preoccupations have dissipated. Those erstwhile governing ambitions and putative necessities have been erased and replaced by the joking obligation of unmoderated enjoyment. Fortunately for my liver, my lungs and my wallet, the boundaries of my current merriment are restricted to reading, writing, bicycling, music, photography and motoring. As for the erstwhile epicurean delights, my days of intemperance are long behind me.
Meanwhile the ineluctability of death lingers like a fluff on one’s sleeve, a reminder that the contamination is palpable whatever the mitigating circumstances. The relieving focus is that the unpredictability of it all hasn’t changed especially from whatever it was before. Anxiety and obsession are not peculiar to old age. Thankfully I have been enabled throughout the entirety of my life to hope for a favourable state of affairs; it is a product of both fortuity and a conscience mindset.
There is however one disturbing point; namely, the ancient adage that Nature teaches us how to die. Contrary to this rather abrupt summation is the twist given it by the transcendental writer of Walden; or, Life in the Woods.
I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately,
to front only the essential facts of life,
and see if I could not learn what it had to teach,
and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.
Henry David Thoreau
Such is the duality of Nature; it both preserves and consumes us.