Death Notes by Seade Danu

Posted by on December 7, 2013

“The most important things are the hardest to say. They
are the things you get ashamed of, because words diminish
them—words shrink things that seemed limitless when they
were in your head to no more than living size when they’re
brought out. But it’s more than that, isn’t it? The most
important things lie too close to wherever your secret heart is
buried, like landmarks to a treasure your enemies would love to
steal away. And you may make revelations that cost you dearly
only to have people look at you in a funny way, not
understanding what you’ve said at all, or why you thought it
was so important that you almost cried while you were saying
it. That’s the worst, I think. When the secret stays locked within
not for want of a teller but for want of an understanding ear”

The word “death” alone is enough to conjure those emotions—conflicting
emotions that are deep and visceral, poignant, universal, and intensely
personal. Death: what does it mean? What does it entail? What does it suggest?
Death is known as the bogeyman behind every psyche— the final unknown—
and for some: peace. In its most simplistic and stark definition, Merriam-Webster
notes death as: “The action or fact of dying or being killed; the end of the life of
a person or organism. An instance of a person or an animal dying.”

Every school child knows that when something is dead, it stops breathing,
and it stops moving. In an anatomical sense, the brain itself begins to have
erratic electrical activity, and the heart begins to have arrhythmias (irregular
beats and rhythms). On the cellular level, the sodium and calcium channels
begin to shut down resulting in a temporary state of tetany—involuntary
hardening of the muscle—that we refer to as “rigor mortis.” This fully occurs,
however, some hours after the person has ceased to have any brain function.
In fact, rigor mortis means “death rigor.” Most muscles begin to stiffen 3-4
hours after death—with peak rigidity occurring at 12 hours—then gradually
dissipating over the next 48-60 hours. Dying cells are unable to exclude calcium,
and the calcium influx into muscle cells promotes the binding of myosin cross
bridges. Actin and myosin become cross linked irreversibly, producing the
stiffness of dead muscle. Rigor mortis disappears as muscle proteins break
down in the several hours after death. And, so, the school children are right in
that very basic sense—the body stops moving.

We find anatomically that the brain has ceased function as well. For all
intents and purposes, the person is “dead.” Where do we go from here? Death
being acknowledged as a cessation of moving or breathing is as descriptive as
calling a Picasso masterpiece a thoughtless doodle. Death is—to the human race
and to each individual—massive, complex, inevitable, and fraught with emotion.
It would serve to wonder how death itself—in a universal sense—is viewed
in different cultures. In the United States, we find that we are the only country
where death is not viewed as a cycle of life. In fact, we as a nation try our
hardest to stave death off to the last possible moment and then dress the
corpse up to appear as still living. Gutierrez lends a different perspective to this
argument, as noted in  Views on Death from across the Border :
“Dealing with death can be a difficult process. Even though
death and dying are inevitable, American society seems to be fearful
of death and avoids the topic whenever possible. According to
Philippe Ariès, in the Middle Ages, everyone (including children) was
familiar with death. Death was a public event where family and
friends were often present, and children were socialized about it
early on. Today, death has become taboo, usually avoided due to a
need for happiness, an attitude that was born in the United States at
the beginning of the 20 th century. We are so concerned with
collective happiness that we avoid any cause for sadness. As a
result, adults seem especially uncomfortable addressing death with
the young.

Contrary to American society’s attitude towards death,
Mexicans view death as an important part of their national identity.
Mexicans embrace death, something that is reflected through the
different rituals that are practiced when someone dies as well as the
celebrations that take place to commemorate Día de Muertos (Day of
the Dead). Taking place throughout the end of October and
beginning of November, it is probably the most important national
holiday in Mexico. This period of remembrance is used by Mexicans
to pay tribute to their loved ones who have died; it is a time when
relatives who have died can visit and spend time with the living.
Some of the most important elements of Día de Muertos include: the
ofrenda  (offering) that is set at the home, the visits to the cemetery,
and all the preparations that take place (e.g., purchasing aromatic
flowers, preparing elaborate dishes) before the main celebration on
November 2nd. Due to its importance, everyone is expected to
participate in this celebration, and children are no exception.
Mexican children are fully incorporated into all aspects of this
celebration and play a very active role throughout the festivities. Día
de Muertos probably provides children with one of the most relevant
experiences with death.”

It is significant to remember that death itself rarely stands alone as a
human experience; nearly every culture defines death in terms of a religious
viewpoint. Needless to say, every religious viewpoint varies, and one can be left
with a bewildering hodgepodge mix of the soul, the spirit, rituals for the burial
of the dead, and the afterlife. (It is interesting to note that among at least one
tribe of Aborigines, when asked, “What happens to the soul after death?”, the
elders were noted to respond with incredulity, and, “ We don’t know!” This is a
refreshing wisdom.)
Within it all, however, Kubler-Ross still stands as a beacon of reason with
her 1969 classic,  On death and dying. In this, she refers to the typical stages of
grief that human beings tend to follow when confronted with the inevitability of
death—all human beings, regardless of culture or religious affiliation: (1) denial;
(2) anger; (3) bargaining; (4) depression; and (5) acceptance. This allows us
the perspective of viewing life within the context of death. Knowing that, in a
human experience, acceptance will be the final step and one may begin their
journey unencumbered.

We may begin to realize that the way we view death is far less important
as the way we live it. Death may be a cessation of the body, but most human
beings—in some form or another—believe that the spirit survives, and moves
on. In the Wiccan tradition, death is viewed as a cycle of life—a microcosm of
the macrocosmic world around us. As each living thing dies and is reborn in
some fashion or another—as minute as the grass and as large as the seasons—
so we, too, feel our bodies die but to only regain life. Death ceases to become
that which should be feared; instead, death can be integrated into that which is
simply a cycle.

It should be mentioned, no matter how briefly, that one of the
fundamental reasons people fear death is because of the question: “What
happens to the body?” From the fear of being buried alive (Taphophobia) to
cremation, to the now-fading Promessa promise of being dipped in liquid
nitrogen and scattered to plants, there remains a lingering fear of somehow still
being connected to the body after death. In most belief systems, there is an
assurance that this isn’t the case; yet in the dark shadows of the human mind, it
becomes difficult—if not impossible—to separate the “essential self” of the
person from the housing that encased it for the span of its life.
In this, as previously stated, it is helpful to remember the cycle of life,
death, and rebirth. When one is able to view death in the light of a crowning to
life and a herald to a new beginning, it loses some of its stigma and can hold
the promise of achievement. Psychologist Carl Jung had his distinct views as
well, as noted by Springer:
“Jung viewed death as a fulfillment, rather than a negation, of life.
‘As a doctor,’ he wrote in his 1930 essay,  The stages of Life, ‘ I am
convinced that it is hygienic—if I may use the word—to discover in
death a goal toward which one can strive, and that shrinking away
from it is something unhealthy and abnormal which robs the second
half of life of its purpose.’”

As human beings, we are told we share nothing in common to all except
birth and death. We will—and do—age: our eyesight dims; our step is less
certain; and we realize with occasional awe-filled clarity that someday—what we
acknowledge as our very existence—will cease, and we are stilled with the
thought. We should, however, remember that as humans, we actually share
three things: birth, life , and death. We can draw from that very unity a comfort,
and know that regardless of the individual or cultural beliefs, we do not go
where our ancestors have not gone before—we merely follow in their steps.
The Great Wheel turns, and we—like all the living—will be among those
cast with Fate. What certainty can we hold? In the world around us, we are
shown that life will continue through death in its tenacious way. As Crichton
noted, “Life will find a way,” and in this, we may draw comfort. Death will never
be the final eulogy of the human race—nor of any race;  life will be its final
word, its ultimate Aria, its grandest epic—and you can bet your death on it.

Last modified on December 7, 2013

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