It seems to me that one element of our modern liberal society that causes great problems is our inability to calmly accept the inevitability of death. It was more difficult to avoid thinking of death in the past, when it was more visible and more likely to come suddenly.
The delaying of adulthood by putting off marriage and children; the obsession with exercise and health; the absence of older faces and voices in TV and movies; the continual rhetoric calling for “universal health care”; the massive and ever-expanding regulation of the food industry; the filing of lawsuits whenever blame can conceivably be assigned for an accidental death – all of these bespeak a culture in denial of death.
Older writers, and poets, by contrast, made death a regular theme. Were they being “morbid”?
William Cullen Bryant (1794-1878) wrote his classic poem on the subject, “Thanatopsis,’ allegedly when he was only 16. The remarkable maturity, from today’s standpoint, of his thoughts serves as a rejoinder to our present indulgence of a shallow, narcissistic “youth culture.”
Of the last bitter hour come like a blight
Over thy spirit, and sad images
Of the stern agony, and shroud, and pall,
And breathless darkness, and the narrow house,
Make thee to shudder and grow sick at heart;–
Go forth, under the open sky, and list
To Nature’s teachings, while from all around–
Earth and her waters, and the depths of air–
The poem advises, in Romantic fashion, to take solace in the beauty and vitality of nature, and Stoically, to accept the inevitable and take comfort in the fact that in dying, one is joining the greater part of mankind:
…yet the dead are there:
And millions in those solitudes, since first
The flight of years began, have laid them down
In their last sleep–the dead reign there alone.
So shalt thou rest: and what if thou withdraw
In silence from the living, and no friend
Take note of thy departure? All that breathe
Will share thy destiny. The gay will laugh
When thou art gone, the solemn brood of care
Plod on, and each one as before will chase
His favourite phantom; yet all these shall leave
Their mirth and their employments, and shall come
And make their bed with thee.
(Incidentally, it appears Bryant had the American Indian mound-builders in mind as the vast host sleeping beneath the earth.)
The final passages exhort the reader to live so well as to not be afraid to die. Elsewhere, and later in life, Bryant expressed clearly a belief in the Christian afterlife, but in this poem the main comfort to be found is in the utter naturalness and ultimate “fairness” of death.
So live, that when thy summons comes to join
The innumerable caravan which moves
To that mysterious realm where each shall take
His chamber in the silent halls of death,
Thou go not, like the quarry-slave at night,
Scourged by his dungeon; but, sustain’d and soothed
By an unfaltering trust, approach thy grave,
Like one who wraps the drapery of his couch
About him, and lies down to pleasant dreams.
Certainly if we want to live civilized lives, we mustn’t be so afraid of death that we’re unwilling to take risks and to fight when an enemy seeks to harm us. It also strikes me, as I get older, that whereas the inevitability of death is often used as a justification for hedonism, it really calls for the opposite: a seriousness of purpose and a valuing of things that endure, including the well-being of our progeny, which goes naturally with a reverence for our forebears. Coming to terms with death (to the extent that anyone can) is an important part of living well, a fact always recognized by civilized peoples.