I believe in the sanctity of death. A sacred place we all reach, death holds mysteries we will never know in life, which provokes in us sublime awe. Death humbles us. Death even betrays us. But, we should not forget that death blesses us too, because it reminds us to continue living—the lesson of Morrie, Socrates, and my father. Yes, even I, in my solipsistic temerity, believe that the bells toll for me.
I believe that death is dying in America. Maybe because it’s everywhere these days. Maybe because of how war reduces casualties to mere numbers. Maybe because we’ve all been reduced to a statistic in some way—by insurance companies, by government agencies, by modern medicine.
We’ve grown numb to death, and we do not respect it enough the way all great civilizations did. The Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans left us with great monuments in reverence of death. They left us with their contemplations about death; how they viewed death as sacrosanct. What will we leave to the future about our understanding of death? YouTube videos of Saddam’s execution? Podcasts of Anna Nicole Smith’s embalmment?
I believe that everyone deserves to die in peace. Morir es descansar! In death, there is rest…or there should be. Death is life’s promise of eternal peace—one that is ensured by a transcendent being. To make a circus of one’s death, to make a mockery of another’s death, and to make a spectacle of death, in general, should not be how America observes burial rites. Though it seems that burial rites in America are observed in the courtroom as opposed to the church courtyard.
Remember the lesson of Antigone: how even the mighty can fall if they betray the inviolable, archetypal law of observing burial rites. Even if we disagree with a deceased person’s lifestyle, politics or beliefs, we must honor that person’s right for peace.
When my father passed away two years ago, he left us with nothing, except painful memories of him as a difficult man—an abject failure as a doctor, husband, and father. Despite our deep loathing of him, my siblings and I still paid our respects and for his burial: we all chipped in to afford a proper casket and a dignified cremation. Though we lost our religion long ago, we were reminded of transcendent powers that demanded of us to honor death, even if we didn’t want to honor our father.
A week after the funeral, my mother was informed of a life insurance policy my father had as an employee of Terrence Cardinal Cooke Hospital in New York. Subsequent mailings from 1199 then informed my mother that none of us were the beneficiaries. Upon further inquiry, my mother was given another story—that my father’s life insurance policy was void as a result of his having gone on disability. The pain that my mother endured during those weeks of correspondence with 1199—the initial feeling of elation from an insurance policy she hadn’t expected, then the feeling of betrayal, wondering why she, nor any of her children, wasn’t named as a beneficiary—was salt on painful wounds that my mother should not have endured.
We reassured her, however, that she will be fine. We will take care of her. Would it have been worth it to take 1199 to court? It could have been worth, perhaps, a million dollars—but that’s not worth it for the pain of the past we thought we had buried, not worth it to disturb the sanctity of death.
If you enjoyed this essay, please consider making a tax-deductible contribution to This I Believe, Inc.