It is uncommonly difficult to talk about death. It is always other people who die, not us. Only the living talk about death. We contemplate the nature of death, but don’t even really know precisely when it occurs!
We take it as read that the family and doctors ultimately declare someone as dead when they switch off the life support machine. But are we sure we are not killing? Even when there is no brain activity, certain processes in the body are still going. Is that death? Compared to how our ancestors thought about the subject, everything has become blurred and at the same time immensely more complicated.
And still no one knows what happens after death. Of course, there are the stories of those who have been through a near death experience and the accompanying visions of tunnels and bright lights. However, if truth be told, these visions don’t differ from narcotic hallucinations. I myself have seen similar images during a hypnosis session. It is more a question of chemistry: dopamine, adrenalin and the like; it is just a brain reaction. I don’t think that these visions can tell us what happens on the other side, precisely because they are experienced by the living.
I have noticed that it is mainly young people who are interested in death. Once this subject used to fascinate me too, but the older I get the less interested I am in death. Maybe because the prospect of meeting it is ever closer and I just don’t want to be preoccupied with it. But these days, death has become way more enigmatic than it was in the past. It seems that we used to live closer to death. Philippe Ariès wrote that in the Middle Ages the inhabitants of towns often settled in cemeteries, surrounded by the bones of those who had very recently still walked among them. In Cairo, the Copts still live like this; I have seen it with my own eyes in the so-called city of the dead. Apartment and cemetery, all together, close.
In my childhood, I also knew people who were at ease with death. I am thinking of people who were really not much older than us; people who today would be some 120, 150 years old. They were able to sense their own deaths. For some reason, they were absolutely certain about it. They invited their family round to keep vigil for a day, two days, a week. Conversations took place, old misdemeanours were forgiven, goodbyes said. How did they know? Was there a general premonition about departing? We no longer know this. We have lost this skill. These days one can get the impression that we all die in accidents, struck down by bullets; suddenly, taken by surprise, quickly. We often don't even see the moment of death itself. I have personal experience of this. When my mother was dying in hospital, I tried to find the right moment to say goodbye to her. She was on morphine and it was hard even to make contact with her. I left the room for a few minutes and when I returned, Mum was no longer alive. She had become tiny, like a little bird; they wrapped her straight away in a sheet. We didn’t get the chance to say goodbye. I couldn’t say to her: “I love you, in spite of everything.” I couldn’t tell her: “Thank you.” I regret this bitterly to this day.
Where has this distancing ourselves from death come from; the need to push death away, out of sight? I don’t know. Maybe it comes from the fact that as a civilization we have grown old and, sensing our imminent end, we don’t really want to be preoccupied with it?
Translated by Annie Krasińska