This article first appeared in the January/February 1996 issue.


I woke from a dream of death to day’s amazing death grass death rice death chairs death death sleep or awake
Ikkyu, 15th Century, translated from the Japanese by Stephen Berg


PART I: Facts

/. Life is absolutely wild unpredictable uncontrollable unfathomable. Anything can happen. For instance, in one generation the strongest and most secure nation in history can become a crippled collossus where millions are homeless, there is no job security, everyone is afraid of violence, divorce rates are more than 50 percent, and no one knows what to tell the children. But life expresses its anything-can-happen nature most relentlessly by its absolute insistence upon the only thing predictable about life, the common fate awaiting all: death.

2. Death transcends all categories, even the category we call “life.” Not only mammals, insects and plants, but rocks, seas, mountains, planets, stars, galaxies they all end, all die. Languages and civilizations; ideas, paintings, books; and if the physicists are right about black holes, even light all participate equally in death. (This would seem to indicate that death is not a judgment.)

3. You, in particular, are going to die. No matter how much money you have. No matter how much you know or how much you exercise or what you eat. No matter how useful or useless you’ve been. No matter how well or badly you loved. No matter which side you were on. (This would also seem to indicate that death is not a judgment.)

4. There is no way to predict when you will die. There is no way to control or predict when anyone else will die. Your children, and every man and woman you care about, are going to die as you are, and in no special order of age or virtue no matter what you do or don’t do for them, and no matter how much you love them.

This is worth emphasizing, since it constitutes much of what frightens us about death: it could happen tomorrow or 50 years from now or before you finish reading (or I finish writing) this paragraph. It could have just happened in the next room, or miles away, to someone you love. And beyond a few fragile precautions against death’s more senseless varieties, there’s nothing you can do about it.

5. Almost anything can cause death, if it happens in the right amount, at the right time, in the right place, to the right person. People die of sudden joy as well as sudden fear. People die of mysterious allergies that they never had before. People waste away of broken hearts. At the same time, diseases that kill almost everyone don’t kill every single one. Sometimes drug addicts, alcoholics and smokers live into old age. Sometimes health fanatics and athletes die suddenly of conditions that their quite competent physicians never guessed at. It is even well-documented that in some cultures people sometimes die when others stick pins into dolls (even though the victims didn’t know about it) and sometimes people don’t.

6. Some die peacefully, calmly. Most do not. Most die messily and painfully, or in fear, or suddenly, or all of the above. (It is worth remembering that this is true of every species of life, and thus seems endemic to the nature of death.)

7. It is impossible to predict from the way people have lived whether they are going to die peacefully (or at least calmly) or in fear and agony.

8. Virtually everyone, if they have time to think at all, is surprised when they realize that they are, in fact, dying. This is a little odd, since the inevitability of our own death is the only thing we can count on without disappointment.

9- A few people, a very few, don’t seem to fear death. Some of them are sages. Some of them are car-bomb suicide terrorists. This leads one to believe that “enlightenment,” or “individuation” or “psychological development” are not the only factors in conquering the fear of death.

10. Many people who fear death have nevertheless been known to sacrifice themselves, risk death and willingly die for otherseven for strangers or for an idea or a cause. Love, at least personal love, does not explain the range of this behavior. Nothing really does. In the face of the power and finality of such behavior, theories become quibbles. We only know that sometimes even death becomes an unimportant consideration.

A crucial but almost universally ignored piece of data about how death sometimes becomes unimportant is that this syndrome is not strictly human. It can be observed in all manner of mammals, birds and insects. This seems to indicate that, so far as defiance of death is concerned, something beyond human psychological factors is taking place. You cannot start talking about such things as “heroism” or “love” or “the transcendent power of a higher meaning that people are willing to die for,” when in circumstances like war, human beings and ants often defy death in identical ways. That stark similarity of behavior indicates that something else something transhuman, if you like is operable when death is defied in this manner. These correspondences in behavior have not, to my knowledge, begun to be investigated.

//. Some people, medically dead, have been brought back to medical life. A few of these people report seeing lights, visions or their deceased family and friends awaiting them. Most don’t see anything. No one knows what this means. (There are lots of theories. That’s different from knowledge.)

12. Almost all people brought back from medical death report that even in their “dead” state, they were nevertheless aware, and were very, very calm felt no fear, felt no sense that they were being obliterated, and often felt no special desire to return to life. No one knows what this means, either.

13. It is well-documented that many people have known when their loved ones have died, even at great distances and when there was no explainable way to know. And no one knows what this means, as well.

14. There are many stories throughout the ages of visitations from the dead in various forms too many witnesses to discount. But they are only subjective stories, so they are equally difficult to count (as opposed to discount). To say it’s all hogwash or imagination is to say that millions of otherwise credible witnesses from every culture and level of intelligence are wrong. This is possible, but unlikely. On the other hand, it is not possible to verify these accounts in any way. Oh, well.

15. Most people in every culture known to history have believed in an “afterlife” a continuance of identity, in some form, after death. These people range from village idiots to Albert Einstein and Carl Jung. It is either a mass delusion or there’s something to it. No one knows.

16. Since the advent of modern science, increasing numbers of people have subscribed to the idea that “when you’re dead you’re dead, period.” It is the only scientifically respectable thing to believe, because thus far the only scientifically verifiable fact about death is that body functions stop and there’s nothing measurable left. But we don’t know if this has to do with the limitations of life or the limitations of our measurements. We really don’t.

17. Many people, even children, take their own lives. Many others, demographically “normal” in every way, admit they’ve seriously considered the taking of their own lives. In most cultures, this is both against the law and against the dominant religion and no one makes laws and taboos about acts people don’t want to do. Thus, there are states of mind in which death becomes preferable to life. It seems important not to take this for granted, nor to rationalize it with theories theories such as “this constitutes a failure of the life principle,” etc. These theories are biased, weighted (by the living, as is inevitable) toward life; the ones who’ve chosen death don’t get to argue back. Certainly suicide is an act that says there are times when death is attractive. This seems a terribly important fact about death.

18. Whole peoples have been wiped out, or at least decimated, by their fellow creatures at the rate of about once a decade for most of recorded history. Behavior so common and widespread (transcending all cultures) is, at least statistically, normal. Clearly, death exerts an enormous, often irresistible pull, and we create endless reasons to spread it all about.

19. All writing about death, no matter how profound it seems including and especially this modest effort is an attempt to domesticate the wild, fantastic fact of death. All writing dissolves into silliness before the overwhelming reality of death. No matter how sophisticated, sympathetic, empathetic, informed, clinical, factual, meaningful, all of it is an incantation of attempted meaning spun around the unknowable.

Arguably, that’s all words ever do spin prettily and perhaps uselessly around the unknowable.

But when the subject is death, words die.

This is a dilemma, because most comfort and counseling involving death is conveyed in words. The sound of the voice and presence of the speaker may indeed comfort and console, but it’s unlikely that the words themselves, or the assumptions they’re based on, matter much. In the presence of death, words die as they’re spoken, following the dead, following them into the unknowable, the wild, the uncontrollable, the unpredictable, the great, overwhelming fact that everything in existence equally shares.

At least in our language we have a fine word for it, a word with a sound that both soothes and menaces, both evokes what it speaks of and makes a small, temporary space between the speaker and the fact.

Say it over a few times. (Softly, would be preferable.)

Death. Death. Death.

PART II: Theories

Technological Death. Technology has killed death. (Death will one day return the favor.) More precisely, technology has killed our sense and knowledge of dying. In the technological society that has become contemporary America and is fast becoming the contemporary world, real death is hidden away while fantasized deaths are available for viewing in dizzying numbers and variety. This has skewed our vision and increased our fear.

Until the Second World War, when antibiotics became available and great advances were made in medical procedures, death was familiar to everyone. Most people died in their homes, not in hospitals or old-age facilities. Life-spans were shorter. (Before the sanitation of the 20th century, they were much shorter, roughly half what they are today.) By the time you reached adult age, you had inevitably seen people dying people who were part of the fabric of your life, people you knew, family (the death-rate of small children was very high), neighbors and co-workers. You had also seen animals die. There was no ASPCA where animals were “put to sleep.” You killed a sick or disabled animal yourself; or if you were a child, your parents did, and you knew about it. Death was as great a mystery as it is now, but dying was not. How people died, and how they faced death, was a common experience an experience in which a large spectrum of behavior was possible. Which is to say: dying was alive.

In those generations, you weren’t tested by death just once or twice; by the time you’d reached 25, you’d observed dying over and over again. The first several dyings you attended, you were guided by people you knew (not strangers) who’d seen it all their lives. You learned from them and in time became familiar with your own range of feelings and behaviors in such situations, and you learned to discipline those feelings and hone that behavior. But now we attend the dying and die ourselves as rank beginners, with all the trepidation and awkwardness of beginners.

How did this happen?

Before 1945, families usually lived within walking distance of each other, and people who worked together often lived in the same neighborhoods or villages and knew one another for years. In that environment, a whole community shared a death, absorbed its impact, helped with its chores, and said a communal goodbye. Suburban life, modern transportation and the dispersion of commercial centers have made this impossible. Families are spread all over the continent and co-workers rarely enter each other’s homes. A person who becomes seriously ill is separated even further. The sick, injured and infirm are taken to hospitals, where they die as though in a distant land, an alien environment where the staff speaks a jargon that might as well be a foreign language. Nobody is being cruel, nobody is trying to deny the suffering of the dying or the fact of their death. It is simply not economically feasible for enough family and friends to be on-hand to administer the round-the-clock care a deathly ill person requires.

Usually, it is also an economic impossibility for an entire family, much less the people one has worked beside, to gather around a deathbed together certainly not for enough time to experience the entire process (rather than just the last crisis of the process, which is what usually happens). So it’s not uncommon for middle-aged people today never to have seen anyone actually die. The first death they usually witness is the death of a parent (a fact that makes death all the more frightening, and can’t help but create an association between death and a child’s terror of abandonment).

It must be emphasized: Nobody decided to shunt death off into such a confined and inaccessible place. It was not done because people were heartless or in denial. It was done because we’ve willy-nilly chosen to earn our livings in such a way that family and friends are so scattered that they can’t share the care of the infirm and the dying, and it’s too much for only one or two individuals to manage. So a process of life that for thousands of years was handled by people who mattered to each other is now delegated to professionals strangers. Thus, the process itself has become estranged. Distant. Unknown. And because it is unknown, it is feared in ways that previous generations would not have imagined.

And our situation is made worse because our common “entertainment,” if you insist on calling it that, in large part consists of dramas in which people are killed. Scan your 50 or 100 cable channels at any time of the day or night, and you see actors pretending to be shot, stabbed, strangled, injured, maimed and killed. But these actors are miming these events with stylized and largely sentimental conventions. So the shock of seeing someone actually die is increased, because it’s nothing like the thousands of deaths we’ve seen on screens.

Even when our screens show us footage of people actually dying, the effect is very much like watching fiction. Starving peasants-of-color in far-off, parched lands, dying or dead, seem to live on another planet. We know they are real, but those people are so removed from any death that is likely to be ours (our poorest, even our homeless, are not as emaciated), and in seconds these dying people disappear from the screen and their places are taken by some well-fed person much like ourselves who’s trying to sell us something or make us laugh. Death has shown its face, but we cannot see ourselves in its mirror. Reality has become unreal, has been killed. For such is the power of death, that even reality can die.

Our disorientation, then, is complete.

There’s nowhere we can go for the experience that will enable us to encompass the stark magnitude of the event. In this sense, we are worse than beginners. Without being conscious of doing so, we’ve absorbed a false or diluted experience that undermines our ability to learn and adapt to the real. When we’re finally confronted with a dying loved one, how much time, how much heart- and mind-energy, is wasted while we simply get it through our heads that it’s actually happening in the way that it’s happening?

In such confusion, and with so little opportunity for experience, it is very difficult to reach into ourselves for what it takes to face another’s death, much less our own.

Holding the Hands of the Dying. In a culture that has come to define virtually any intensity as trauma, events that were once looked at as the essences of life, events that were once faced as things to be lived and lived with, are now looked at as problems to be solved, dilemmas to be deciphered, wounds to be healed. In some ways, this seems to have been an advance, in some ways not.

The methods of solving, deciphering, comforting and healing are described in literally hundreds, if not thousands, of theories, each theory supposedly requiring difficult practices. But these practices are not really very different from one another. Broken down to essentials, there are basically three officially sanctioned methods:

1.: You talk to people (and hold their hands).

2.: You give them drugs.

3.: You give them drugs and talk.

In the face of death, all three are pretty lame, in and of themselves. At best, the drugs tranquilize and numb people too fragmented and panicked to deal with their own death, or the death of a loved one, in any other way. As for the talk as I said, when facing death, words die. The presence and sound of the speaker may be a concrete comfort, but that is hard to quantify. People sometimes go to therapists at such times because they can’t stand being alone with their feelings, and so it seems the essential element they’re seeking is company company that, unlike much of the company of family and friends, doesn’t add to the intensity and trauma.

There is nothing to be said against any of this. After all, both of the world’s oldest professions (the priesthood and prostitution) are based on the value of impersonal but gracious company in times of unbearable intensity that must, nevertheless, be borne. But to get grandiose about one’s theories in the process seems nothing but ego. Death kills theories, too.

Death has the uncanny ability to kill anything that would approach it with less than utter humility.

One of our greater ironies before death today is that even grief itself has become a kind of theory, and so has lost its humility. Our mythology of grief is based on a mythology of growth a kind of consumer’s attitude toward experience that holds that everything, even death, should help one “grow as a person.” Other cultures would find this unnatural and would counsel instead a surrender to the inevitable, an acceptance that nothing, not grief, not growth, not even memory, can wake the dead or make up for what’s been lost.

It has become a truism that it is best to cry one’s grief, speak one’s grief, talk one’s grief, and that unless one expresses grief, one is not grieving. Certainly, this makes for a more dramatic experience: something concrete and emotional happens, and in this there is supposedly a relief and release that makes grief easier to bear.

But it’s also fair to ask: does the expression of grief actually mitigate the pain of the loss? Or is it rather an artificially induced drama that substitutes for, and hides (or drives further into the subconscious), death’s grief? When the drama is done, is not the hole left by the dead still there? Are not all the unresolved issues, that can never now hope to be resolved, still present, still gnawing? Or is it best to recognize that tears are tears, grief is grief, but the dead are dead, and there’s nothing anyone can do but live on while the pain slowly subsides and life achieves a new balance, a balance that includes the absence of the dead?

I am told that the Navajo, and many other tribal peoples, never mention their dead. Their belief is that the spirits of the dead now have no place in life; and that tears, if cried, should be cried in private. This belief, so different from what is prevalent among us now, worked for them for centuries. That doesn’t mean they’re “right” or we are “wrong.” It simply begs the question whether it is always good to substitute a smaller, manageable drama for the great unmanageable fact of death?

Are we, with our new mythology of grief, simply trying to bring death to life? To, in effect, wake the dead? When the most fruitful posture, in the long run, might simply be to honor death? To accept that life is strong but death is stronger, because life changes and death (to our knowledge) does not? It may be best to accept that no expression of grief can help but be dwarfed by the immense mystery that our loved one has become a part of: death.

Of course, all this changes if one believes in an afterlife. But in Euro-American culture today, belief in an afterlife usually means belief in “Heaven and Hell.” Few think they’re worthy of Heaven, so among us belief in an afterlife is often experienced as a fear of Hell, a fear of God’s judgment. This increases fear of death immeasurably. Even those who have left their childhood religious beliefs behind can be possessed by those beliefs again in their last days or hours. And what is one to say to them? For these poor people, death has taken on the mask of “Hell,” and we watch that Hell in their eyes as they leave us.

And what does one say to people who believe that their loved ones are going to Hell? Undermine their belief in Hell, and you risk undermining a belief system they’ve structured their lives around. The aftereffects of this could be severe. Go along with their belief, and you reinforce the horror that their loved one will be tortured for eternity. We may think they are wrong, but we have no proof. We don’t know they are wrong, and they know we don’t know, so there’s very little that can be said. Here, death asserts itself as the one fact that cannot be gotten around, cannot be rationalized. What can we do but, in all humility, allow others to suffer the death they believe in?

The question of grief is further complicated by nonbelievers in a Judeo-Christian culture who have substituted rewards in this life for rewards in an afterlife who, in effect, consciously or unconsciously consider their affluence a reward for virtue. They know, as they’re dying, that their affluence (their virtue) is going to be stripped from them. This has its own terrors. Such people, when dying, may look back on a lifetime of acquisition as meaningless, when in reality, their preoccupations with affluence, like a religion, merely structured the emotional, intellectual and spiritual concerns of their lives. No structure is entirely meaningless.

At least, for these people, there is an obvious strategy of comfort: aiding the remembrance of whatever emotional and social experience gave the dying person a sense of life. As strategies go, it is at least concrete, which is more than can usually be offered in the face of death.

Or does it all come down to what passes through our hands as we clasp theirs? As always with death, there are no answers (for death kills answers). There are merely attempts. And every attempt is undermined by the knowledge that our comfort and love cannot, as far as anyone knows, follow the dying into death.

Sex and Death. Most Westerners buy into Freud’s connection between sex and death. In fact, this has become a truism in our civilization, and it colors much about what we feel about death. Could it be that we have accepted the sex-death duality because we are so afraid of sex? Could it be that we relate sex and death to each other only because we fear both equally? If our sex-death duality is just another construct, then have we burdened death with sex, and sex with death, out of all proportion? For sex does not create death, it creates life. And life, as we have seen, is not the only thing that dies. Everything dies, everything ends, whether it was created sexually or not. There is no relation between sex and death when we speak of the death of mountains or stars or ideas. It may be that the Western link between sex and death is nothing but another way to try to wake the dead, to bring death to life to bring what is beyond human experience into the human realm.

The Denial of Death. Ernest Becker made the phrase “The Denial of Death” indelible in his famous book of that title, published in 1973. Since then, thanks to Alcoholics Anonymous and Oprah Winfrey, you can hear the phrase “in denial” in every bar, beauty parlor and laundromat. In this sense, Becker’s basic thought about death has been absorbed into the culture almost as completely as Freud’s. To crudely simplify the idea from which Becker takes his title: he agrees with many sages who say that much fear in life is symptomatic of a fearful denial of death.

But is it possible that people are frightened of life not because they are denying death, but because life is frightening?

This “denial of death” thinking equates death with every sort of possible change and that is a stretch, isn’t it? I mean, change is change, but death is death. There’s a difference, isn’t there? Unless, of course, you say every change is a kind of death and evokes death. But life is change, so by saying this you’re making all of life into death, aren’t you?

For when you assume that if I’m scared of losing my job or my honor or my love or my purpose, in that moment, I’m really afraid of dying then you denigrate work, honor, love, purpose, as things in themselves, things hard to sustain and painful to lose. When you see life that way, you’re looking at all of life through the eye of death. Which is a denial of life. Isn’t that as debilitating, as bad for you, as bad for your culture, as a denial of death?

Life doesn’t need death to be frightening. It’s scary enough all on its own. To reduce all fears to the “denial” and fear of death is to discount the validity of those fears in and of themselves. Fear of failure, fear of hunger, fear of helplessness, fear of cold, fear of falling, fear of discomfort, fear of blindness, fear of success, fear of ugliness, fear of hate, fear of stupidity, fear of crowds, fear of coarseness, fear of insult, fear of having no money, fear of losing your homework and having no excuse some may be steps toward death, but some clearly aren’t, and each is distinct in itself. To see it all in the light of death is not to delve into, and honor, the complexity of life.

What if we say instead:

Life is movement. Death is stillness.

For one of the things we know about life is that it’s always moving, never still. In fact, the medical definition of death amounts to nothing more than just how still a body gets (in terms of heartbeat, brain waves, etc.). If you’re still enough, you’re legally dead.

If we say that life is movement and death is stillness, then all those fears become a part of life, not simply the denial of death. A part of the movement of life. The dance of life. Death, then, becomes the inevitable and final movement of the dance the step after which there can be no more movement, only stillness. And the dancer disappears.

In this vision, the appropriate response is applause.

Tearful applause, perhaps applause filled with grief at the loss of the dancer, applause that recognizes without flinching that the dancer has gone, has died, but the dance has not. For what is applause but the continuation of the dance now that the dancer is still?


FOR A CIVILIZATION THAT LIKES TO think it’s all grown up, and prides it- self on its knowledge, we understand very little about the basic building blocks of existence. We can measure, to some extent, what gravity and light do, and we certainly know their importance, but nobody can say with certainty what they are. Theories about how the universe began change every decade sometimes more than once. Theories about how life on earth emerged are plentiful, but none are sure and they, too, change with staccato frequency. When did human beings first walk the planet? Someone comes across a bone somewhere and the whole story changes. There are even great gaps in the geological record: layers of sediment in Nevada and Arizona, for instance, inexplicably skip more than a billion years (almost one-fourth of the history of the earth), and no geologist alive can tell you why or rather, 10 geologists can tell you why, but they all say something different. I have a layman’s book on rocks, just plain old rocks, and it’s prefaced with a note saying that assumptions about rocks have changed so much in the last decade that a completely new edition has become necessary.

For years now, it’s been a scientific dictum in many circles that DNA determines behavior; but new studies are indicating that behavior may, in turn, influence DNA. Space was thought to be a vacuum; now it’s thought to be filled with gases and particles and what-not. (Mostly what-not.) And if you try to follow the state-of-the-art savvy on the relation of exercise and cholesterol to the heart well, it can be a dizzying pastime, because the major studies contradict each other right and left.

Then, in case we’re not dizzy enough, the physicists tell us that we perceive only three or four of at least 10 dimensions. They even tell us that time, as we perceive it, does not actually exist that our linear convictions are purely a function of our limited sensory capacity to perceive the dimensions.

Knowledge is a delicate and changeable thing, it seems. This year’s knowledge and this century’s assumptions can’t be expected to hold up for long. That, in fact, is the only consistent element in the history of knowledge.

When one approaches the study or contemplation of death, much less the fact of death, these uncertainties are compounded to an extent that beggars the imagination. It is not enough to say we don’t know. That’s too easy. Nothing seems enough, and certainly nothing seems accurate but to insist on death’s wildness and mystery and how death reveals the wildness and mystery of life. We are living a story that can end suddenly and absolutely for ourselves, while at the same time it goes on for everything and everyone else until it ends for them as it has for us, and then . . . the ultimate question becomes:

Does death die?

Say that life is movement and death is stillness. Say that the dialectic of the universe, if you like, is between movement and stillness, back and forth then isn’t some movement always bound to occur after the stillness, in some way, and doesn’t that mean that death too dies? Even death?

Which is a way of saying what some sages have always said:

There is no death.

For the stillness always, in some way, moves again.

Even what we think of as the ultimate mystery is helpless before a still greater mystery: that something will always move . . . that movement is continual . . . that existence itself does not, cannot, stop. So there is no death.

Every stillness can’t help but create new movement.

This isn’t an abstract thought; it’s what we see all around us, and it’s the heart of every scientific study about everything science has ever studied. Everywhere science looks, it has found everything but emptiness that remains empty and stillness that stops forever.

When a human being dies, there is the movement of memory; there is the movement of the effect on the survivors; there is the movement of the elements as they decompose; and since, as we have seen, science is still young, its measurements still crude, its reference-points still unfixed there may be movements we cannot yet measure or imagine. Ten dimensions, remember? (And a competing theory says there are 26.) Those are physicists talking, not mystics. Ten dimensions, so far, and each just as real as the other and all of them apparently connected.

So that finally, amid all the things we do not know, we do not really know that there is such a thing as death. We know that our loved ones get very still, and we know that we, too, one day, will become very, very still. In this dimension.

And that’s all we know.

Michael Ventura

Michael Venturas biweekly column appears in the Austin Chronicle.