Taking Death Out of the Closet
16 July, 2012
A speech by Brian Jenner at the London Funeral Exhibition, Chiltern Woodland Burial Park, Beaconsfield on Sunday 8 July 2012
It’s a great honour to be addressing the London Funeral Exhibition.
I want to talk to you today about overcoming death anxiety.
I want to take death out of the closet, where it is dark, threatening and unknown, and bring it into the open.
The reason I want to do this is because we can’t really live well until we come to terms with how it must end.
Max Asnas, an American wisecrack, once said: ‘Money is something you have to make in case you don’t die.’
And that’s one anxiety that looms permanently in the minds of people. What if I get sick in my retirement? How can I afford to pay for my own care? How much is enough?
Jokes help us ponder, and bring us to a more profound and unconventional view of the world.
We become fixed on the possibilities of an imaginary future, not realising that the only certainty we have is in the present. If we pretend we’re not going to die, we risk wasting our lives on foolish activity, we’re in danger of squandering our most precious and limited commodity: time.
This morning I’d like to describe what death anxiety is. And I’m going to recommend some ways to overcome it.
Here’s a poem that expresses some of our physical fears about death.
Did you ever think, as a hearse goes by,
That you might be the next to die?
They wrap you in a big white sheet,
And bury you down about six feet deep
They put you in a big black box
And cover you up with dirt and rocks,
And all goes well, for about a week,
And then the coffin begins to leak!
The worms crawl in, the worms crawl out,
The worms play pinochle on your snout
They eat your eyes, they eat your nose,
They eat the jam between your toes
A great big worm with rolling eyes,
Crawls in your stomach and out of your eyes
Your stomach turns a slimy green
And pus pours out like whipping cream
You spread it on a slice of bread
And that’s what you eat when you’re dead.
This poem describes in delightful detail the idea that we will be physically conscious of our own death, and that our physical sensations and cravings for food will remain after we’re dead.
But this isn’t very likely.
The philosopher Epicurus came up with some comforting suggestions about what death must be like. He said we should see death as the return to the state we were in before we were born.
Life is a spark between the darkness.
As Shakespeare put it, ‘ our little life is rounded with a sleep.’
Philosophers have pointed out that sleep is a similar state. We are unconscious. We will not feel anything anymore.
We won’t feel cold when we’re lying in the cemetery. If we’re cremated there will be nothing to feel anyway.
The pain and suffering of physical decay is something that could happen when we’re alive.
If we have a car crash or get caught up in a terrorist attack, we will either get used to our wounds or see death as a blessed relief.
But actually the fear of death tends to be more subtle.
It’s not physical, it’s more that life may have no purpose, a fear that we will leave behind loved ones and children, a nausea felt in the face of the unknown.
How do we take this anxiety and expose it to the sunlight?
One of my preferred ways to do this is to laugh. One of my favourite films is Harold & Maude a 1970s film which is a romance between an 18 year old boy and an 80 year old woman. They have something in common. They both like to go to funerals. Harold, the young man, drives around in a hearse.
He has an overbearing mother who just wants him to get married – Harold responds to theis by faking his own suicide. In the large stately home in which they live, he creates a mock hanging, a simulated drowning, and he pretends to cut his own throat, shoot himself and set himself on fire.
What’s so funny about that? Well I suggest you watch it.
The film illustrates a quotation from a famous psychotherapist, Rollo May: ‘In life, the opposite of courage is not cowardice, it’s conformity.’
What does that mean? It means that in our lives we have possibilities. We can do things, create things, change things, but so often we give in to ‘society’. We do the things expected of us. We accept the limitations dictated by our parents, our employers or the institutions we are part of.
Harold & Maude is about living. The main characters cherish nature, they break the biggest taboo and fall in in love, they try new things. As Maude says at one point, ‘How humanity loves a cage.’
They remind us that you’ve only got one life and it’s up to you to do something with it.
Another strong influence on my life is the TV programme, Six Feet Under. This series, set in a Los Angeles funeral home, also provides insights into how we can overcome death anxiety. At the beginning of each episode we see a death. Later in that episode we’d see the funeral organised by the Fishers.
A traditional American family is forced to come to terms with their mortality because it was their family business. What I love about Six Feet Under is the way that the idea of death takes the layers off the characters.
What I mean is, that when the series begins we have an uptight mother, unhappy in her marriage, with regrets about how her life has turned out. We have an older brother who is wasting his life doing odd jobs and sleeping with waitresses. We have a younger brother who is in denial about his sexuality and resentful of his older brother not playing a part in the family business, and we have an adolescent sister who is experimenting with drugs and sex, while feeling doubts about her ability to do the things she really wants to do.
The series shows how death – the knowledge that their lives offer them limited choices, and that they must overcome their inhibitions to take those choices – forces them to become who they really are.
The mother loses her repression and experiments with boyfriends, she lets go of her children and starts her own business. The older son takes responsibility for a family. The younger son is honest about his sexuality and the daughter moves to New York and pursues her ambition to become an artist. There is pain along the way, but this drama is so important to me because it reveals practical ways to overcome death anxiety.
To define the practical ways to do this, I turn to one of my favourite authors, Dr Irvin Yalom, an American psychotherapist, who has written a book, Staring at the Sun, Overcoming the Dread of Death.
One of his most memorable observations came when he was treating a group of patients suffering terminal cancer. They found that they had a choice to despair, or see their last few months of life as an opportunity. They found that the illness took away their fears of rejection. It wiped away their petty neuroses. It helped them to have a richer experience of the transience of life – they appreciated the seasons more keenly and the wonders of life more sharply. ‘What a pity I had to wait until now to learn how to live.’ – one dying patient told Dr Yalom.
Dr Yalom provides several strategies to overcome death anxiety. I’m going to end with three.
The first is rippling – rippling is the way we positively influence other people’s lives.
Yesterday I went to the reunion of my German ‘A’ level class with my teacher. I took the opportunity to make a speech. It is very unusual for a class to stick together for 25 years after we have left school. He was very good at creating an esprit de corps. He was meticulous at marking our work. He took an interest in who we were.
His dedication as a teacher has rippled through my life – his attitude to grammar – his example of what was important.
I have done things in my life that have influenced others. I set up a group for arty types in Bournemouth which I ran for two and a half years – many friendships sprang up which last to this day. Several others have copied me and found the drive to do their own artistic projects. Rippling – acknowledging how other people’s lives have shaped our own – and taking satisfaction for having done worthwhile things in our own lives that have had a positive influence on the lives of others.
This is a good way to give meaning and purpose to our existence. And this leads to a second way to overcome out fear of death – and that is to build deep connections. My schoolfriends who I met yesterday knew me from the age of 12. That makes for a wealth of memories and a history between us.
My family has been through upleavals, but as a result we are much more open and honest than we were when were children. But that means I enjoy phoning them, our connection is much deeper. As you go through life some friendships fall by the wayside, but others become stronger – and having good friends is a great comfort, especially if they understand the ups and downs you’ve experienced.
If you’ve nurtured strong relationships, you know that they have easy times and hard times – times when you withdraw and times when you rediscover each other – and a confidence in that pattern helps understand life more profoundly.
Lastly, the third way to overcome the fear of death is to live free from regret.
Last weekend I met a husband of one of my stepmother’s daughters. Previously I have felt quite intimidated by him because he had a job in London with a car and a house and a family, while I was living the precarious self-employed life. But when I asked him if he enjoyed living in London, he said he’d leave in a heartbeat.
He hated his journey to work and the fact that it took him over an hour to travel five miles. He wanted to run a camping site. I have no idea how much he really wanted to change his life – but it reminds us that we do need to ‘become who we are’.
Often it takes a bereavement, the end of a relationship or the loss of a job to wake us up. They say that the people who have the greatest difficulty coming to terms with their own death are those who harbour the most regrets.
And as we saw in Six Feet Under – death is the motivation – death – the fact that one day whether we made something of our lives or not, whether we acknowledged the truth inside ourselves, or ignored it – will be settled by oblivion.
And if that is the case, why not anticipate our regrets now? Let’s look inwardly and work out who we really are and what influence we can have for good during our brief lives. So to end with one of Irvin Yalom’s favourite phrases: ‘While the physicality of death destroys us, the idea of death can save us.’