THE BOOK Tuesdays with Morrie was on the best-seller list for nearly a year. This was unusual, inasmuch as it centered on a dying man. Death usually does not attract a large readership, as the admission of it as a fact of life is one of civilization's taboos. We all admit to its inevitability in an abstract way, but steadfastly refuse to acknowledge it as an existential fact of life. The exception may be seniors, who know its inevitability is closer rather than further at their stage of life. They even are reminded of this in TV reruns of the "Lawrence Welk Show," often sponsored by a mortuary. This may seem macabre to some, but not to the oldsters who know the sands of time are running out.
Jokes about death, though, are commonplace and often involve "gallows humor." Example: A man doesn't quite know what parting words to say to his friend who is about to be electrocuted, so he simply says, "More power to you." It was author Mark Twain who spoke of the "reports of his death as being highly exaggerated." On the other hand, Albert Camus, the existentialist-novelist, insisted that there is only one real philosophical question--that of suicide.
The word "death" has a certain harshness and finality about it that makes us reluctant even to use the term. We do not say a sick pet dog or cat was killed by the vet, but rather that it was "put to sleep." Seldom do we express directly that one's friend died. Rather, we euphemistically report that he "passed away," entered a "better world," or went on to "meet his Maker."
Young children scarcely appreciate the fact and meaning of death, for most kids somehow presuppose that they are immortal. As the song from the movie musical "Fame" has it, "I'm gonna live forever." That is why they are particularly shocked at the death of someone who is their own age, or of one who is particularly close to them, such as a parent. The trauma of seeing death so nearby often calls for therapy sessions in which they come to realize that every living thing dies, so death really is something natural. Supposedly, this assists in so-called "closure," which really is not possible.
When a couple marries, how many have the slightest concern for the stark phrase, "till death do us part"? As Hamlet said in a different context, it "falls trippingly from the tongue." Despite its "everydayness," we are hesitant to look death in the face. Perhaps this is one reason for objections to the death penalty for capital crimes--that we see our own selves in a mirror image. Another explanation is that we are uncertain of what, if anything, lies beyond death. We secretly wonder if this life is all there is.
Psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud wrote of the thanatos factor in man, which accounts for what seems to be an unconscious death wish. It explains, in part, people who are "accident prone" and those who seek the adrenaline rush of extreme sports. Possibly, it even accounts for heroes who risk their lives. The presence of such a tendency can be illustrated as follows: Most of us are a bit hesitant to lean out over a window sill and look down at the street 20 stories below. …