The best any of us can hope for in life is a noble death.
I don’t know about you but I harbour heroic fantasies as to my ending, probably born from watching films in the mould of Short Circuit 2 too often. One of the tenets the Christian West was built upon is the notion of the Messiah, God’s son, sacrificing himself for our sins. While the story doesn’t hold up under scrutiny (are we absolved now? And just where did that sin come from the in the first place, hmm?) it’s a powerful idea and one repeated many times both in popular culture and recent history. Mahatma Gandhi wouldn’t be anywhere near as popular today if he hadn’t undergone the hardships he’d suffered. Would anyone remember JFK as fondly if he hadn’t been cut down in his prime? Would Martin Luther King Jr’s star still shine as brightly if he hadn’t been murdered for his cause?
We like to think war heroes receive the respect they deserve once they return from battle, but their days following active service are often lived out ignominiously: just look at the proliferation of homeless veterans–many of them mentally and physically injured and unable to return to work–who haunted American street corners in the wake of Viet Nam. The phrase “Only the good die young” seems all too accurate when regarding then young men and women who gave their lives for their country in final blazes of glory and who never suffered the indignity of doughy middle age.
Sometimes I wonder what would happen if I was confronted with similarly evil forces: with terrorist or muggers. The largest part of me hopes rather than being calm, compliant and cowardly I’d stand proudly forth as if bulletproof and do whatever it took to take the bastards down.
Once my brave thoughts have passed I worry about being unsuccessful, and the consequences that might be suffered by those still alive in the wake of my foolhardy actions.
And then, a superhero once more, I tell myself even in death I took the terrorists down, and all that remains for the onlookers is to mourn and praise my name.
What might they say about this mysterious stranger, who sacrificed his life for the good of mankind? Whatever it was, through that split-second reaction I’d be more fondly remembered than I would be here in the real world, when I eventually die unheroic.
I am a man of little worth, hoping for a death more noble than he deserves.
I can’t imagine people having anything nice to say once I’m gone. Too young, my nephew and nieces would forget their uncle Campfire; my in-laws would get on with their lives; my immediate family would be curiously sad to see me go, but since I’m hoping to go anyway–not to my grave but so far abroad I might as well be dead–my passing wouldn’t be as painful as they might have imagined. I’m not particularly useful to the point where my skills might be missed. The only person who’d truly miss me is my wife, and as time passes–as it does for all who outlive the dead–she’d learn to smile again, and learn to forget.
In the days following my death what might she say of me? What might she weep?
And everyone else, well, there’s only so much you can say of a person like myself: the mysterious stranger who played his hand close to his chest. It wouldn’t be long before any minor grief was supplanted by more regular thoughts: he was a weirdo who talked too often to himself, who said too little to us. And maybe it’s good that he didn’t say much because he made us feel uncomfortable–guilty even–for not caring enough when he gave us so little to care about.
The sudden see-sawing of his politics, his misanthropic ways that would crack often, displaying his neediness. By turns buoyant and arcing darkly, infuriatingly self-hating, a well of ill-feeling in which it was too easy to drown.
There aren’t many nice things to say.
If I might be so bold, I’d say even those a little more mentally stable than myself think these thoughts when contemplating their own demise.
There’s a line in Lars von Trier’s Melancholia:
“The Earth is evil, nobody will miss us when we’re gone.”
While most of you are more hopeful regarding the human spirit and your own self-worth, you probably do hope someone’s glad you’re alive and will mourn once you’re gone. None of us want to be spoken ill of once we’re dead–even those most adamant that there is no afterlife. We won’t be around to watch gossip flying any more than we’ll see the carrion crows that peck at our corpse; still, we don’t want it to happen. Even in death we want to be respected.
But this is something that so rarely happens. Celebrity deaths are a great indicator of the public mood–not regarding deceased pop singers but our opinions toward death in general. So long as it’s not happening to us or those we care for, it’s fair game to be made fun of. We’re jackals who’ve become so eager to mock the dead it’s almost as if we have jokes cued in advance, waiting for people to drop from their perches so we can crack them at work or on the Internet. The day after Steve Jobs’s death Twitter was a solemn place to be and those who cracked jokes were angrily deleted. A day later and the Internet was rife with memes and gags about his demise, some of them playful, others mean. By nightfall, exposés about Apple’s business practises and Jobs’s demeanour were appearing on tech blogs Internet-wide. The very same places that had mourned his loss thirty-six hours before were now quick to recant, adding a little salt where before there had only been sweetness. Jobs might have been a deity for the digital age but did you know that he didn’t donate to charity? That he belittled and verbally abused his employees? That he funded Chinese sweatshops?
These stories could have been told at any point in his life. Instead they were raked up along with the crematorium coals, while Jobs’s body was still crumbling to ash.
Not that they wouldn’t have been told while he was still alive, of course. Maybe he got off lightly, seeing that the publishing world knew how ill he was and didn’t want to stick the dagger in ‘til he could no longer feel it. Figuratively speaking, the rest of us aren’t so lucky.
Gossip drives our country. Today our thirst for salaciousness is fuelled by tabloid newspapers and ragazines, dishing the dirt on who’s getting fat and who’s getting divorced. There’s a hint of self-perpetuation here: celebrity cellulite appears in unflattering beach snaps while the celeb’s tumbling downhill, but three months later they’re on the cover of the same magazines that mocked them, talking about their miracle bikini diets and looking radiant. Old gossip is now tempered with a ghastly imitation of human interest–as if anyone really cares that Fern Britton has dropped three dress sizes.
Beyond the publishing world we all talk about each other while backs are turned. The gossip needn’t be malicious, but for all the good news we dole out, isn’t it fun to have a really good dig at someone who’s ticked us off?
Okay, maybe it isn’t for you, Little Miss Driven Snow, but I rarely have a good word to say about anyone. There’s a hypocritical streak running through Britain, wherein branding somebody as ‘fake’ is the most down and dirty thing you to can do to a fellow human being. All the while, two-faced we spread rumours while making nice to people we can’t stand. We do it for our own sanity, realising that though we might need to coexist with these people, we don’t need to enjoy it. Our despicable workmates must be tolerated daily from nine to five but once you get home the daggers come out.
Hell, we’re only human, and as much as we crave company there are some times when even our most beloved can tick us off. No mother wants to make her children cry but she does so many times over the course of their childhood. Nerves wear thin; we become frazzled and our angrier sides come out to play. In the workplace this practise is untenable unless you want to be job-searching forever. Likewise, if you want to keep your friends, when they tick you off the best thing to do is to bottle your venom up to be unstoppered at your leisure, in equally gossipy company.
It’s not ideal behaviour, but emotions have a way of interfering with cold, hard reason.
Speaking ill of the dead isn’t a defense mechanism. It’s not our way of dealing with loss and grief, and knowing though we’ve survived through today, our days are still numbered.
It’s meanness, plain and simple. It just happens to be a meanness we can’t quite overcome.