I’ve been thinking about death a lot this week, as I expect everybody has. It’s been inescapable, with the shock of David Bowie, and then Alan Rickman, an aftershock knocking you over just as you were getting back on your feet.
Of course, death is everywhere, always, but for many of us in the West, life is so much more abundant that we can put it to the back of our minds. Not this week.
My gut says death is what gives life meaning. None of us know how much time we have. The knowledge we can end at any time is what defines us. Is there an after-life? I don’t know, but I don’t believe our human consciousness survives death, so what does it matter? We each have this one, unpredictably short life as a human. The question is, what to do with it?
I’ve never seen anything like the outpouring of love for David Bowie since his death. The only thing that comes close in my memory is John Lennon’s death but we didn’t have social media then so others’ grief was filtered through mass media. In the hours after the news of his death broke, there was little talk of anything else on social media (in the West, at least) and days later, the tributes continue to flow. Suddenly we’re all connected by loss. It’s like a disturbance in the force.
I think we feel David Bowie’s loss so keenly because he taught us so much about how to live. A skinny working class kid who lived by his own rules and changed the world through art. He never stopped exploring the limits of his potential. He’s credited with helping bring down the Berlin Wall, FFS. Yet he never held himself to be better than anyone else, even though in all our eyes he was exceptional. He’s been described as a “secular saint” but he was utterly human; his addictions and other battles are well-documented. And when he found out he was dying, he kept on making art. He did not go gentle into that good night.
I’m unsentimental about my own death. I fear suffering but I accept my time is limited. I want to live my one life as I please, and to die peacefully, with dignity. Most of my politics arise from my belief that all humans should have that right. This week, as every week, there have also been scores of deaths of innocent people whose life was ended prematurely thanks to war and exploitation and poverty. I read a beautiful article this week about two Australian scientists who took their own lives in a suicide pact. It’s what I would hope for myself and as a Westerner I can possibly arrange my life so it’s an option. Few people in the world have this luxury, and that’s a shame.
I try to live as though I could die anytime. My friend Joanne says I’m the grasshopper from Aesop’s Fable, so I guess I succeed. What really scares me is the amount of death I must face if I keep living. A colleague my age remarked that our generation have to look forward to watching all our idols pass. That faces me in real life too. I’ve been incredibly lucky so far; my life has been relatively untouched by death. Inevitably that will change. All the more reason to pull our loved ones close while we can.
I don’t want to be buried when I die. What a waste of money and space! I’d be happy for my body to go to science. I’ll have no use for it. If there’s funeral, I want them to play I Go to Rio and for everyone to dance and sing and drink too much and hug each other and to leave vowing to spend more time enjoying life. We have just one short life, we have to live it.