D E A T H

A Salon special issue

BY GARY KAMIYA
Illustrations by Calef Brown



THE DEATH ISSUE

A brief history of Western death By Gary Kamiya

The Italian way of death By Camille Paglia

Farewell, Lady Decca By Alexander Cockburn

The Artful Suicide of Sally Binford By Susie Bright

The Salon Interview: Irvin Yalom By Fred Branfman

Ashes to ashes, bits to bits By Scott Rosenberg

The Eastern way of death By Sophie Majeski

My last year is my best: Jackie McEntee

Choose death By Fred Branfman

Imaginary endings: A Salon Gallery

Death: A Reading List By The Editors

"Autobiography": By Gary Kamiya

it is the piece that does not fit, the question that cannot be answered, the answer that cannot be questioned. Its shadow is everywhere -- the earth is a charnel house, skulls pile up behind the carousels and sunsets -- but death itself remains elsewhere. The mind recoils from it, even when one is sick or in mortal danger. Freud thought that it was impossible for a human being to imagine his own death. Yet we are irresistibly drawn to contemplate the thing that most terrifies us. In this special double issue of Salon, we look at death from many different points of view, aiming our little flashlights into the great darkness.

We can usually only bear to approach the monster vicariously. The death of others (loved ones excepted) holds a perennial fascination, one half dreadful, half erotic. By leering at death, then pushing it away, we allow ourselves to gloat over our own continuing existence, rejoice in the blood that still pumps through our bodies. (The Italian attitude towards death, as anatomized by Camille Paglia, manifests something of this pagan concreteness.) In mankind's more savage moments, this dancing-on-the-grave instinct takes grisly forms: the great carnal exultation over executions in the Middle Ages (and 1996 America), the Southerners, their faces blank and soulless as insects, staring at the burning body of a lynched black man in the famous photograph. A more innocuous example is our fascination with cinematic death: The bullet-riddled bodies on the big screen affirm our own specious immortality. Humanity's oldest and most ambiguous friend, denial, is the ticket-taker at every violent flick. As the cultural historian Luc Sante memorably put it, "Every one of those bullets has your name on it, only it's written in disappearing ink."

That ink seems fated to always disappear. Our biologically grounded will to survive shoves death out of sight, into the gutters and interstices of the mind. As the existential psychotherapist Irving Yalom argues in the Salon Interview, this denial of death leads to a poorer, less authentic life. Yet even Yalom admits he cannot imagine ever escaping his dark nights of the soul, those 3 a.m moments when the eternal Footman snickers and mortal terror grips us.

Despite the revulsion and horror it inspires, however, human beings have always been drawn to a deeper relationship to death -- as Fred Branfman's eloquent call for us to embrace the unembraceable makes clear. Some, indeed, choose to meet death before it meets them -- like Sally Binford, whose enigmatic departure is examined here by Susie Bright.

If, as Socrates said, "The unexamined life is not worth living," death stands in the path. The Buddha famously began his spiritual quest when he came upon an old man, a sick man, and a dead man; indeed, all of the world's religions can be seen as attempts to deal with (some would say explain away) death. Eastern religion seems more attuned to the nuances of The End, although, as Sophie Majeski points out in her provocative essay on the Eastern way of death, at their mystical core all of the great religions possess similar insights. Human beings in all cultures and all times seem to be obscurely aware that it is only by contemplating life's negation that we can begin to approach its deepest meaning -- a point eloquently attested to by Jackie McEntee, a woman with terminal cancer who has found the wellsprings of life in her extremity.

Each person faces his or her own death alone. In this realm, there are only personal stories. Death hit me full-on for the first and only time when I was sitting in a sixth-grade math class. It was a thought that appeared in the distance, at first no more than a weird fly speck against the horizon, then suddenly getting bigger and bigger, a universe careening out of control, coming right at me. Before I knew what was happening it crashed in through the blackboard, there was a great roaring sound, the walls of the room rushed away and I was shaking and nothing made sense anymore except the terrible thought, a dark wind blowing from nowhere.

That cataclysmic feeling never came back, not even a few years ago when I had cancer and was given survival odds somewhere between 50-50 and 85-15. It grows increasingly difficult to remember exactly what I thought and felt exactly what I thought and felt during that dreadful and euphoric year (which itself proves the difficulty of keeping death in view: Must the sword of Damocles be present?), but it wasn't the same as my classroom vision. I was scared, of course, but not terrified: The strange wind didn't blow. Death did not have any meaning, it was not a country, it did not violate the essential meaning of life, it did not make life absurd, it was just the end of everything. I couldn't get outside of my existence to sum it all up, and even if I could I wouldn't have wanted to.

Being inside was enough; walking down the hill to North Beach was enough. The sun hitting San Francisco's slanting roofs made me cry with a joy that had been too close to see. I finally understood what Camus' Meursault meant when he said, before his execution, that he realized that he had been happy and was happy still.

I would like to believe that I had stared death down, but I had simply endured, as we all do when we have to. Like the family in Bergman's "Seventh Seal" who, as Death storms overhead with terrible thunder and rain, look up in awe from their little wagon ("He is very big," says the father), I had just ridden out the storm.

Death comes in different sizes, and each person gets their own. "Am not Lord Hamlet," says Eliot's Prufrock, "nor was meant to be." Battling Big Death, strange-wind death, was for knights and heroes: I wasn't one of those. Yes, in my extremity I had caught a glimpse of what Nietzsche meant when he wrote, "One should part from life as Ulysses parted from Nausicaa -- blessing it rather than in love with it." But it was hard to maintain that gentle detachment. Mostly, thinking about leaving simply made me sad.

And that was all right. Montaigne, whose calm words about death constitute one of mankind's great testaments, said, "Every man beareth the whole stamp of the human condition": I had simply joined, for a moment, that great procession of ordinary men and women, walking, their heads held as high as they could, towards the last door. If we could see those footprints, those humble tracks lost in the endlessness of time, we might begin to understand the secret history of human courage.

But if the inward acceptance of fate is a human universal, death speaks differently to different ears, times, cultures. There is no single pattern -- neither what the positivist 19th century regarded as a progression from primitive superstition to unflinching acceptance, nor what nostalgic moderns see as a collapse from mystical acceptance to repressed scientism. Metaphysical consolation, sheer physical terror, stoic acceptance, agnostic intuitions mingle without much apparent logic through the ages.

In our own time, we have tried to domesticate death even as we shove it out of sight. The cold efficiency of modern medicine, which treats death as the undesirable outcome of a technical procedure, coupled with the bland positivism of our reigning ideology, science, has helped reduce its primordial terror, or at least push it back into life's darkest corner. (Technology has also changed the way we memorialize the dead, as Scott Rosenberg's tour of memorial sites on the Web demonstrates.)

But despite our sterilizing of death, which has given us greater control over both its spiritual and physical aspects, death refuses to stay put. No matter how many syrupy, life-affirming commercials are run by caring multinational corporations, no matter how many counselors appear to begin the Grieving Process (TM) five minutes after someone's family has burned up in a fireball, no matter how many helmet-haired anchors smear smiley anti-death gel over the 7 o'clock apocalypse, death burns through. It will never be a commodity. It is the one thing capable of blowing the whole smirking, bathetic mess we have made of our culture to Kingdom Come.

That fact is strangely reassuring -- and it returns us to a contemplation of death's double nature. Being unknowable, death makes life unknowable, opens it to mystery: How wonderful not to live in a world shriveled to the pathetic measure of man! Being utterly knowable -- it is, after all, the simplest thing in the world -- death makes life knowable, leaves it alone: How wonderful to understand, once and for all, that this old miracle, this brief moment when we are given trees and tears and children, is no different from what it appears. That is the lesson of death: that it is apart and part of it all, and so are we. Without death, no tragedy, no comedy; without death, no life. Truly, as it was written 2,000 years ago, it bringeth forth much fruit.
August 5, 1996