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Memento Mori


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[This essay will appear in "Death," the Fall 2013 issue of . This slightly adapted version is posted at TomDispatch.com with the kind permission of that magazine.]

line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";color:#333333″>It’s not that I’m afraid to die, I just don’t want to be there when it happens. 0in;line-height:150%;background:white”>
 

 

font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";color:#333333″>I count it a lucky break to have been born in a day and age when answers to the question “Why do I have to die?” were still looked for in the experimental laboratories of art and literature as well as in the teachings of religion. The problem hadn’t yet been referred to the drug and weapons industries, to the cosmetic surgeons and the neuroscientists, and as a grammar-school boy in San Francisco during the Second World War, I was fortunate to be placed in the custody of Mr. Charles Mulholland. A history teacher trained in the philosophies of classical antiquity, Mr. Mulholland was fond of posting on his blackboard long lists of noteworthy last words, among them those of Socrates, Marcus Aurelius, Thomas More, and Stonewall Jackson.

font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";color:#333333″>Nor do I remember being horrified. Astonished, but not horrified. Here was death making routine rounds, not to be seen wearing a Halloween costume but clearly in attendance. The man in the next bed died on the first night, the woman to his left on the second. Apparently an old story, but before being admitted to the hospital as a corpse in all but name, it was not one that I had guessed was also my own. I hadn’t been planning any foreign travel, and yet here I was, waiting for my passport to be stamped at the once-in-a-lifetime tourist destination that doesn’t sell postcards and from whose museum galleries no traveler returns.

font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";color:#333333″>I had been outfitted with a modus vivendi but no string of words with which to account for it, and so for the next three years at college I searched out writers who had drawn from their looking into the face of death a line of poetry or the bulwark of a philosophy. I don’t now remember how accurately or in what sequence I first read, but I know that with several of them — Michel de Montaigne and Seneca the Younger, Plutarch, W.H. Auden, and John Donne — I’ve stayed in touch.

font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";color:#333333″>Old-Fashioned Death font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";color:#333333″>“Death… the most awful of evils,” says Epicurus, “is nothing to us, seeing that when we are, death is not yet, and when death comes, we are not.” My experience in the New Haven hospital demonstrated the worth of the hypothesis; the books I read in college formed the thought as precept; my paternal grandfather, Roger D. Lapham, taught the lesson by example.

font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";color:#333333″>The farmer’s wife nursed him back to life with soup and soap and Calvados, and by the time he was strong enough to walk, he had lost half his body weight and undergone a change in outlook. He had been born in 1883, descended from a family of New England Quakers, and before going to Europe in the spring of 1918 was said to have been almost solemnly conservative in both his thought and his behavior, shy in conversation, cautious in his dealings with money. He returned from France reconfigured in a character akin to Shakespeare’s Sir John Falstaff, extravagant in his consumption of wine and roses, passionate in his love of high-stakes gambling on the golf course and at the card table, persuaded that the object of life was nothing other than its fierce and close embrace.

font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";color:#333333″>A guest in his house on Jackson Street for three months before finding a room of my own, most mornings I sat with him while he presided over his breakfast (one scrambled egg, two scraps of Melba toast, pot of coffee, glass of Scotch) listening to him talk about what he had seen of a world in which he knew that all present (committee chairman, lettuce leaf, and Norfolk terrier) were granted a very short stay. Although beset by a good many biological systems failures, he regarded them as nuisances not worth mention in dispatches. He thought it inadvisable to quit drinking brandy, much less the whiskey, the rum punch, and the gin. At the bridge table he continued to think it unsporting to look at his cards before bidding the hand.

font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";color:#333333″>An Immortal Human Head in the Clouds font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";color:#333333″>About the presence of death and dying I don’t remember the society in the 1950s being so skittish as it has since become. People still died at home, among relatives and friends, often in the care of a family physician. Death was still to be seen sitting in the parlor, hanging in a butcher shop, sometimes lying in the street. By the generations antecedent to my own, survivors of the Great Depression or one of the nation’s foreign wars, it seemed to be more or less well understood, as it had been by Montaigne that one’s own death “was a part of the order of the universe… a part of the life of the world.”

font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";color:#333333″>Military and economic command on the world stage fostered the belief that America was therefore exempt from the laws of nature, held harmless against the evils, death chief among them, inflicted on the lesser peoples of the Earth. The wonders of medical science raked from the ashes of the war gave notice of the likelihood that soon, maybe next month but probably no later than next year, death would be reclassified as a preventable disease.

font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";color:#333333″>The substituting of the promise of technology for the consolations of philosophy had been foreseen by John Stuart Mill as the inevitable consequence of the nineteenth century’s marching ever upward on the roads of social and political reform. Suffering in 1854 from a severe pulmonary disease, Mill noted in his diary on April 15, “The remedies for all our diseases will be discovered long after we are dead, and the world will be made a fit place to live in after the death of most of those by whose exertions have been made so.”

font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";color:#333333″>The question “Why must I die?” and its implied follow-up, “How then do I live my life?,” both admit of an answer by and for and of oneself. Learning how to die, as Montaigne goes on to rightly say, is unlearning how to be a slave. The question “Why can’t I live forever?” assigns the custody of one’s death to powers that make it their business to promote and instill the fear of it — to church or state, to an alchemist or an engineer.

font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";color:#333333″>The settled opinion that Americans don’t deserve to die — not their kind of thing — protects the profits of the insurance, healthcare, pharmaceutical, and media industries, puts the money on the table for the cruise missile, the personal trainer, and the American Express card that nobody can afford to leave home without.

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font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";color:#333333″>He had earned his living as the president of a steamship company and the vice chairman of a bank; he had devoted his leisure to the study of history and the reading of literature. He didn’t believe in miracles or magicians, as wary of divine revelation as he was of economic forecasts and predictions.

font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";color:#333333″>During the last three years of his life, my father began to show signs of bodily malfunction (arthritis in his hands, forgetting where he put a letter or his hat), but on the weekends when I drove up from New York to his home in Connecticut, he never once complained of his afflictions. He spent his time planting the property with the seedlings of white oak and red maple trees and rereading the authors who had been his lifelong boon companions, many of them the ones whom I had met in college.

font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";color:#333333″>I strove with none for none was worth my strife.
Nature I loved, and next to nature, art;
I warmed both hands before the fire of life.
It sinks, and I am ready to depart.

font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";color:#333333″>I neither hope nor expect to be among the chosen few who make good their escape from the wheel of fortune and the teeth of time. Or that having been granted a 60-year extension on the deadline for a last noteworthy thought or phrase I’ll have reached the serenity of soul to which Thomas More gave a last and living proof while mounting the scaffold to his execution and saying to the headsman with the axe, “See me safe up, and for my coming down let me shift for myself.”

font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";color:#333333″>Lewis H. Lapham is editor of Lapham’s Quarterly and a TomDispatch regular. Formerly editor of Harper’s Magazine, he is the author of numerous books, including Money and Class in America, Theater of War, Gag Rule, and, most recently, Pretensions to Empire. The New York Times has likened him to H.L. Mencken; Vanity Fair has suggested a strong resemblance to Mark Twain; and Tom Wolfe has compared him to Montaigne. This essay, slightly adapted for TomDispatch, introduces "Death," the Fall 2013 issue of Lapham’s Quarterly, soon to be released at that website. line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";color:black;background:
white”>This article first appeared on TomDispatch.com, a weblog of the Nation Institute, which offers a steady flow of alternate sources, news, and opinion from Tom Engelhardt, long time editor in publishing, co-founder of the American Empire Project, author of The End of Victory Culture, as of a novel, The Last Days of Publishing. His latest book is The American Way of War: How Bush's Wars Became Obama's (Haymarket Books).

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