The last couple of years have been heavy on the death front, in what feels like an “all of a sudden” manner. Last year handfuls and handfuls of famous people I’d admired began dying off in droves, instead of in the isolated incidents I’d been used to before (Douglas Adams, John Peel, these were aberrations rather than a pattern), three people ranging from a friend to someone I’d met once and rather liked took their own lives in differing states of emotional extremis, and a friend of a friend was murdered. This year the idols and celebrities continue to drop like flies, and the personal death toll has moved from friends to family, with three family members already taking their leave of me this year so far.
A sudden upsurge in mortality has been reflected by a preoccupation with it in my own writing: in (currently at 3rd draft) As Simple As Hunger in prose, and a significant amount in poetry. It snuck into my reading material too, with books about death, treatment of the dead, and short stories which can be interpreted as a fairly plain death wish (Dr Woollacott). The culmination from an apparently amused universe has come in the form of a short-term job which involves reading post-mortem reports.
In my late adolescence I blundered through a medium-length Goth period, which in the fashion of all my flirtations with subculture involved taking the concept of “rules” very seriously indeed and trying to work my way through a kind of cultural checklist in the hopes of becoming acceptable in my identity (this is utter nonsense, but I fell for it every time). This involved tedious activities like poncing around graveyards in a ballgown purchased from a terrible shop in Camden, shagging on gravestones, and reading books by Poppy Z Brite in red light that has probably done something unfriendly to my eyesight. Curiously enough despite all the trappings of mortality I was a great deal more interested in living, as it stood – I was frequently miserable and for about two years clinically depressed but the nature of it all remained quite full of vitality. I’d have committed suicide in a very lifelike way, had I succeeded.
My approach to death is more contemplative now. Embracing the very first mention of death I remember, which is a quote from the delectable and apparently still in print People by Peter Spier (“And in the end we all must die.”), nihilistic leanings, and a certain amount of animosity for the mentality which implies that somehow actions “to the good” on one’s own part will somehow cause the grim reaper to swerve and leave one alive, I’ve become a little antagonistic about it. Not only the post-Stoic tattoo, but regular assaults on the consciousness of my friends in the form of “your daily reminder that no matter what you do with your time, you are going to die”, or “the moral high ground will not grant you immortality” and other such pretentious homilies.
This is all well and good, but today I received my own reminder of mortality from an odd source. As I mentioned above, I have been reading post-mortem reports. Having a vivid imagination it’s easy to reconstruct things like “died from head injury sustained while falling down a flight of stairs in a pub while intoxicated”, but the real moment of unexpected awareness of my own death was when I found a post-mortem report on a girl who had been born a few months before me, and who died about ten years ago.
It shouldn’t have done, but the shared birth year and the suddenly huge distance between her death and my observation of her death put me outside myself and made me think not the usual, egotistical thoughts about dying: who will miss me, will they be very sad, I can’t bear it; nor the depressive’s yearning for an end to all the hail of living. It was one quiet moment in a basement where I contemplated what it means to die: before the body becomes soup or ashes, before the bones become safe ornaments, before the whole grisly but inevitable process of decay; the fact that once the current in the brain goes away there is no more you. There is no way to experience death, only dying. “Death” lies outside of conscious experience, and there’s no way to back-pedal and become a person again once it’s done.
Naturally I followed up this discomforting realisation by going for hot chocolate in the kitchen but as insights go… it’s probably one most people have when they’re 12 or so. I’ve never been the swiftest on the uptake.