Random pearls of wisdom on death — a subject often avoided

BY DARYL FISHER, News-Ledger Features Editor

BY DARYL FISHER, News-Ledger Features Editor


One of my tasks at the News-Ledger is to organize and edit the obituaries that come across my desk most weeks. It’s a job I always try to take seriously since an obituary is usually the last words that ever appear in print about a person. What makes it especially difficult now and then is when the obituary is about a person I have known and liked, which seems to be happening much too often nowadays.

I guess as we all get older, when we learn that a family member or a friend of our youth has passed away, it is only natural to give death a little more thought than we usually do. And there has always been much about death that makes absolutely no sense to me. I mean, just when we human beings finally start figuring out what life is all about, it’s usually about time to wrap the whole thing up. So, over the years, I have found myself looking to others to help me get my head around the fact that none of us are going to get out of this thing alive, and here is a little bit of what I have learned, starting of course with Shakespeare, whose insights into the human condition know no equal.

“Cowards die a thousand times before their deaths;
The valiant never taste death but once.
Of all the wonders that I yet have heard,
It seems to me most strange that men should fear death;
Seeing that death, a necessary end,
Will come when it will come.”

There are also those who take an even more pragmatic way of looking at death, like the platoon sergeant who crawled up to me in the middle of a firefight in Vietnam to see if I had enough ammunition, and when he realized I didn’t have enough spit left in my mouth to speak, he smiled and said, “Fisher, dying is no big deal, anyone can do it.”

There are those whose faith plays a big role in the way they look at dying, summed up I think by a very religious friend of mine who once told me, “I’m not afraid of dying at all, since all it means to me is that I get to go home.”

Woody Allen, whose movies are often overflowing with his fear of death, thinks it would actually be best to live our lives in reverse.

“In my next life, I want to live my life backwards. You start out dead and get that out of the way. Then you wake up in an old folk’s home feeling better every day. You finally get kicked out for being too healthy. You work for 40 years until you are young enough to enjoy your retirement. You party, drink alcohol, and are generally promiscuous until you are ready for high school. You then go to an elementary school, become a kid, and spend your days playing. Then you become a baby and spend the next nine months floating in luxurious spa-like conditions and then finish your life off as an orgasm.”

Then there is the wonderful 17th century poet John Donne, who wrote the following famous poem, entitled “Death, be not proud”:

“Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;
For those whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow
Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be,
Much pleasure; then from thee much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee do go,
Rest of their bones, and soul’s delivery.
Thou art slave to fate, chance, kings and desperate men,
And dost with poison, war and sickness dwell,
And poppy or charms can make us sleep as well
And better then thy stroke; why swell’st thy then?
One short sleep past, we wake eternally
And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.”

Susan Sontag had these sobering words to say about death: “For those who live with neither religious consolations about death nor with a sense of death as natural, death is the obscene mystery, the ultimate affront, the thing that cannot be controlled. It can only be denied.”

And for those of us who have never been able to understand why so many good people seem to die so early in life, there is this from Hemingway, which I have come to believe is very true:

“The world kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these, it will kill you, too, but there will be no special hurry.”

Helen Keller, who was left deaf and blind from an illness at the age of two, saw death very simply: “Death is no more than passing from one room into another. But there’s a difference for me, you know. Because in that other room I will be able to see.”

Anyway, the older I get, and the more family members and friends I lose as they move on to bigger and better things, the more I have come to realize that although maybe the great writers and poets have come to understand death, all I really seem to know about it can be summed up in one little sentence from Emily Dickinson:

“Parting is all we know of heaven, and all we need of hell.”


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