“The following day, no one died. This fact, being absolutely contrary to life’s rules, provoked enormous and, in the circumstances, perfectly justifiable anxiety in people’s minds, for we have only to consider that in the entire forty volumes of universal history there is no mention, not even one exemplary case, of such phenomenon ever having occurred, for a whole day to go by, with its generous allowance of twenty-four hours, diurnal and nocturnal, without one death from an illness, a fatal fall, or a successful suicide, not one, not a single one.” (Jose Saramago, Death With Interruptions, Harcourt, 2008, p.1)
In Saramago’s most recent novel, everyone in a particular small European country inexplicably stops dying. The Queen mother, on her deathbed, stays there. Healthy persons who are injured or become ill go to hospitals and stay there, too. Life goes on the way it always has, until it is time to die.
Chaos follows. Nursing homes and hospitals overflow, life insurance companies grow wealthy, while health insurance and pension funds and the funeral industry go broke. A calamity overtakes the church, and the hierarchy from the pope on down, begin praying that God return death as a fact of life! Death- the fear of it, the theological threats able to be made because of it- had become the primary sustenance of this country’s church and nobody’s dying meant no one was bothering with church anymore!
Saramago is one of the world’s living literary treasures- he sees the world differently than most people; he sees beyond the superficialities of life and into the real and true underpinnings that define the ‘stuff’ of life. And he doesn’t hesitate to indict us as a society for our peculiarities and vagaries, even though he does it with humor, even gently. Death he says, is a big deal- of course! But we also tend to make it into an even bigger deal for financial, religious, and other societal reasons!
The funeral industry, the entire insurance industry, and (Saramago would say) the church industry- all are built upon the foundations of death’s inevitability. Those “industries” depend on death (again, Saramago says). Therefore, death in a modern sense gets dressed up in ways death was never dressed up in before. Jessica Mitford’s 1963 book An American Way of Death, was an expose of what she named the “death-care industry” in America: the funeral business. Hers was an indictment not only of high pressure sales techniques being used at the time, and of genuinely underhanded marketing, but of the industry’s simply making of a much, much bigger deal about funerals than any other country in history had done for persons other than royalty. What we had come to think of as normal- funeral homes, embalming, sealed and expensive caskets, and flowers- Mitford exposed as purely American ideas, successfully sold! (In the later, revised edition of her book, she added a chapter on the frequent collusion of funeral homes with local pastors: “Nosy Clergy” the chapter was called.)
Death had become- and largely remains- Death as a series of exclamation points!!!!! And that emphasis obscures the true nature of Death’s marking the end of a life, the end of a period. The Death of a body need not be a disruptive, climactic extravaganza. The death of a body is the cessation of breath, stillness, and the preparation of those nearby, for burial. The remembrance of the soul, the person, the consciousness which gave the body animation and distinction- that remembrance can be, should be acknowledged and honored. That remembrance is a very real psychologically and emotionally necessary period at the finish of a time. But it is not easy to do. There are decisions to be made, people to call, flowers to be ordered- Did anyone call the florist? There are clothes to be chosen and- one limousine or two? How many songs, which songs, who should pray, and- oh my god- do we go with ebony, bronze, or walnut, or- gross!- plywood? Do you have the checkbook with you? Open? Open? What, I have a choice?
Such is life, but c’est l’muert, too! We need respect and quiet, and we need to be able to note the passing of time without trying to stop the passage of time. We need to remember, and keep walking. Others have always done it that way, and we used to. We’ll be looking at some ancestral memories of those times soon.