What? You know what "thanatophobia" means and you're still here? And what the hell are we talking about death for today? It’s Thanksgiving! Could there possibly be two less compatible topics? But the fact is that the greatest thing we can possibly give thanks for today and every day is…being alive. Taking a moment to realize that we won’t always be should only increase our gratitude!
The very subject of death any day of the year sends 99% of the population mentally heading for the hills. Of all the astonishing number of fears afflicting mankind, surely the fear of death is far ahead of whatever might be in second place.
We go to great lengths to throw a sheet over the elephant in the room. Uncle Charlie didn't die, he "passed away," or "passed over." Uh-huh. Our grotesque funeral rituals--painting and primping Uncle Charlie's corpse so those passing by his open coffin can pretend he's just taking a nap--are a case in point. I love the lines from Oklahoma's "Pore Jud Is Daid": "Poor Jud is dead,/poor Jud Fry is dead;/he's layin' there so peaceful and serene..../He looks like he's asleep;/it's a shame that he won't keep,/but it's summer and we're runnin' out of ice."
I find it fascinating that thanatophobia covers both the fear of death and the fear of dying, and to me, they are two quite separate things. I'm not afraid of being dead, but I am more than concerned by the process of passage between the two. Though it is impossible to know, I’m quite sure that most people are as unaware of crossing the actual line between life and death as they are aware of crossing the line between being awake and asleep. Except for those relative few who experience a sudden trauma resulting in their death and are conscious of what is happening up to that very instant, most people first lapse into a coma. Few, I suspect, experience real fear.
I know that, for myself, the "fear of death" lies primarily in the reluctance to give up life...to imagine the world going on without me, and most specifically the thought of all the wonderful things I will never get to see or do once I am dead: all of which is counterbalanced by the simple fact that once I'm dead, I won't be aware of what I'm missing. I've never considered this to be morbid; quite the contrary. There is a wonderfully calming sense of peace in wandering through a cemetery, reading tombstones and thinking of those who lie beneath them. Try it sometime, if you don't already understand what I'm saying.
I am firmly convinced that organized religion came about as a cultural reaction to our fear of death. The idea of a heaven and a hell (the latter created largely to keep the living in line) and the concept of an afterlife ("Oh, don't worry: when you die you will move on through the Pearly Gates and live forever.") may be comforting in theory, but crumble like a waters-edge sand castles at high tide. Far, far, too many questions and far, far too few answers. Logic, so vital to our culture, civilization, and human existence, utterly vanishes.
And it has always struck me as wonderfully...well, perverse...that those who so strongly proclaim the glories of heaven very seldom seem to be in any hurry to get there.
As a total romantic, I would, truly and with every fiber of my being, love to believe that there is a heaven. I would also truly like to believe in a hell, for there are a large number of hate-mongers and bigots I sincerely believe richly deserve to suffer the flames of hell throughout eternity for their cruelty to their fellow humans. But I simply cannot believe, no matter how hard I try.
I always remember a discussion I had with a friend on the subject many years ago. As to heaven and hell, he said, "I believe that if, at the moment of death, you can look back on a good life, that is heaven. If you can't, that is hell.”
But for right now, I am truly thankful for being alive.
Dorien's blogs are posted by 10 a.m. Central time every Monday and Thursday. Please take a moment to visit his website (http://www.doriengrey.com) and, if you enjoy these blogs, you might want to check out Short Circuits: a Life in Blogs (http://bit.ly/m8CSO1), which is also available as an audiobook (http://www.audible.com/pd/ref=sr_1_1?asin=B00DJAJYCS&qid=1372629062&sr=1-1).