You can have your body cremated and your ashes preserved in a golf bag. Etsy will personalize it with any final words of your choosing. We are at the point where a “Golfatorium,” to borrow the poet Thomas Lynch’s phrase, “seems, fetched only as far as, you will excuse, a nine iron” (The Undertaking). We seem unable to deal with death. When I was watching Jumanji: The Next Level (it is quarantine and there are only so many choices), I was enjoying the ride until the end. One of the main characters, an old man who is dying from some undefined sickness, decides to stay in the virtual reality world as a winged horse rather than return to earth, where he could live out his final days as a human being. Why do we not know how to die well?
Years ago, I read Muriel Spark’s Memento Mori, a humorous novel about octogenarians who each receive a phone call from an anonymous source that delivers the cryptic message, “Remember you must die.” The recipients assume the caller is a maniac, and the omnipotent narrator remains distant enough for the reader to absorb the comedy of the mystery. Only the Inspector seems to reach the right conclusion, “In my opinion the offender is Death himself.” Although such a suspect is impossible, the author offers no contrary evidence. Readers are left to contemplate their own memento mori, the inevitability of their own death.
If you describe the book to someone, I doubt they will hasten to their Amazon wish list, yet I found the book profoundly funny. I have not troubled over the thought of death since I was a child. I remember nightmares of the vastness of eternity. I would bring myself to tears trying to imagine immortality in the world beyond the veil, so to speak. But, as an adult, the thought of death is a great reminder to “measure our days,” as the Psalmist advises us.
When people make untoward choices, I have to choke back the exclamation, “Don’t you know you are going to die?” If one considers standing before her Creator as she justifies breast augmentation or regular intervals of “getting blitzed,” she might be persuaded to alter course. Yet, our inability to envision our immortal nature keeps death a distant and nebulous prospect.
In Liturgy of the Ordinary, Tish Harrison Warren wonders whether we have trouble sleeping enough or observing the Sabbath because “sleep serves as a daily memento mori.” She writes, “By embracing sleep each day, we submit to the humiliation of our creatureliness and fragility.” We do not want to rest or stop because those pauses remind us of our mortality.
What to do then to encourage us to think about this during the coronavirus quarantine? How to deal with this extended Sabbath where our jobs have been marginalized, our to-do lists dissolved, and our calendars erased for the foreseeable future? We are anxious to fill our days with itinerary, so that we do not have to remember that we must die.
For those of us who do not fear death, these breaks from our overloaded schedules are trying and testing but perhaps not moments of existential crisis. Yet, when the young Walker Percy, studying medicine at Columbia University, contracted tuberculosis and was forced to be quarantined at Trudeau Sanatorium, he came face to face with mortality. His brothers and his friend Shelby Foote wondered whether he would ever return home.
This hiatus from his life marked a significant change of course for him. He realized, “This life is much too much trouble, far too strange to arrive at the end of it and then to be asked what you make of it and to have to answer, ‘Scientific humanism.’ That won’t do.” Percy’s previous answers from his years of studying medicine fell flat before the question of life’s meaning. In “Questions They Never Asked Me,” Percy insists, “I take it as axiomatic that one should settle for nothing less than the infinite mystery and the infinite delight, i.e., God.”
Perhaps this is why The Good Place could not create a satisfactory ending for their show: the show’s creators omitted God from paradise. In the show’s version of paradise, each character pursues whatever pleasure she desires in an eternally unfettered version of the market. Unfortunately, endless pleasure becomes monotonous, so the characters choose to be eliminated into oblivion. Those who applauded this ending must not believe in God.
A review of the show critiqued “ancient notions of the afterlife” as “very flat, all-the-flavors-of-ice-cream, I-want-a-pony notion of heaven.” But this kind of pleasure limits it to earthly versions, human notions of pleasure, which will be transformed by the divine reality of pleasure. This is what G.K. Chesterton means when he quips, “Meaninglessness comes from being weary of pleasure.” Having everything you have ever wanted is meaningless. But, having everything you were ever meant for is not.
What these critiques miss is that pleasure does not exist apart from God, the creator and sustainer of all things. C.S. Lewis unveils as much truth when his demon-teacher in Screwtape Letters instructs his pupil, “Never forget that when we are dealing with any pleasure in its healthy and normal and satisfying form, we are, in a sense, on the Enemy’s ground.” While we may be tempted to overeat cheesecake, the pleasure of that bite of cheesecake has been provided by our Provider. He is the author of all good things. Only a graciously good God would provide nourishment that is not only nurturing but also delicious.
George Saunders glimpses this reality in Lincoln in the Bardo. One of his characters commits suicide only to:
Realize how unspeakably beautiful all of this was, how precisely engineered for our pleasure, and saw that I was on the brink of squandering a wondrous gift, the gift of being allowed, every day, to wander this vast sensual paradise, this grand marketplace lovingly stocked with every sublime thing.
As an ex-Catholic Buddhist, Saunders depicts the afterlife with hints of Judeo-Christian tradition, but the author refrains from identifying the “engineer” of pleasure. In fact, his characters, primarily deceased ghosts lurking in a cemetery, do not want to continue their journey into the afterlife because of how much they loved the pleasures of earth.
They fear the beyond, some of them for good reason, having witnessed the possibility of hell. But others will eventually emanate towards an ascendant light. As the character President Lincoln concludes, regarding the death of his son, “All over now. He is either in joy or nothingness.” This strikes me as a more worthwhile conclusion than monotonous earthly pleasures or immortality as a winged horse via virtual reality.
When we meditate on our deaths to come, great literature appears to me to be a better guide in forming our imaginations well. Our contemporary culture seems unable to offer us little more than heightened consumerism (monogrammed golf bag urns, for instance). With a host of lies about life, such as “You only live once,” “Be all you can be,” “Just do it,” or “You do you,” what might we expect from such a culture regarding their depiction of death? A society that praises hyper-productivity and demands a litany of experiences will have a very difficult time saying, “Rest in peace.”