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The Taboo of Death

A bit more than 1.5 months ago, my best friend suddenly passed away. He had been ill a long time; it didn’t come unexpected. For him, it was a release from decades of suffering. And yet, I now wonder why society doesn’t prepare us better for the event of death. Why it’s never really talked about. Does it have to be that way?

Death is our constant companion, but we try to push it to the darkest corners of our consciousness. Carpe diem, right? Or rather YOLO, as we used to say before Facebook became itself something of a digital retirement home. In society’s imposed constant struggle for performance, prestige and perfection, it is so easy to lose track of the simple truth — such as the fact that the clock is ticking, for all of us.

The curse and brevity of life is what makes it both meaningful and unbearable. Living isn’t easy. Living right is even more difficult, and something that many may never reach. It is for each and every one of us to determine on our own whether we reached this bar. No one can tell you what life is right for you.

A while ago, I read a story in the newspaper about a train driver. In fact, he had once obtained a PhD and worked in a high-paid job as an engineer for a long time. He ended up doing this because he thought it was what was expected of him. It took him nearly 50 years to realise that he wasn’t living his life. So, he made the spontaneous decision to quit and return to his childhood obsession: trains. After reschooling, he now is a fully qualified and employed train conductor, and — according to his own statement — the happiest he’s ever been. He literally is living his dream.

Whether we lived life right is something that, in my view, is relatively easy to determine. The problem is that we cannot choose when we can. Rather, it is when we are on our deathbeds and get the chance to look back, and ask ourselves whether we would live our lives the same way that we had. Many, apparently, have regrets. Only too late in life they realised that they lost track of what’s meaningful in the pursuit of materialism or status.

“Work and worry less” is the summary of a clip that I saw recently on Twitter. In it, a young men walked asked retirees what advice they’d have for the young. It was one of the most moving things I had seen in a while, and underlining that many of us only get to realise the beauty and meaning of life in retrospect. Our never-ending ignorance towards death is the breeding ground for this.

The ignorance is surely not helped by the loss of culture, community, and religion in 21st-century cities. Or, when did you last attend a funeral who wasn’t an immediate friend or family member? Whereas human civilisation, for the longest time, used to have extensive rituals for the dead, dying has ever more become a meaningless transaction like everything else. Louis CK brings across this point brilliantly in his short sketch “Mom”.

For all the negative things religion has brought upon us, the celebration of death is usually a central part of it. Naturally, it is. With much increased life expectancies and equally much reduced birthrates, the beginning and end of life is much less common now than it used to be when today’s big religions emerged.

Why celebrate death and have rituals around it? Because they remind us of the meaning, gift, and beauty of life. They make us more humble in our own existence and appreciate it. They make us reflect whether our own lives are on track.

Sadly, too often and too easily, we end up swinging back into our original lives. Once the decomposing body of our beloved family member and/or friend is disposed of, they too often are forgotten just as easily. In Germany, we now have an increasing trend towards cremation rather than burial. It’s just cheaper. What a terrible logic of transactionalism.

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