Sunday, May 29, 2016

Death by any other name

If you pay attention to the English language, it would appear that no one dies anymore; they "pass." In Western culture's attempt to remove all aspects of unpleasantness from life, "death" has become an insensitive, uncouth, unspeakable word. To me, "passing" sounds like another attempt to disguise the reality of the human condition. People don't die; they "pass."

When I was growing up in the '80s and '90s, "passed away" was in common usage. The preposition "away" suggests a movement outside of the body, but not anywhere in particular, in the sense that when someone's body dies, the person dissipates...away.

I kind of like that. When life ceases, the person scatters, in a manner of speaking. In Buddhist terms, when conditions no longer exist for life to continue, what we conventionally called the person, ceases. Dissolution occurs.

But the single-word "passing" implies a movement into some other ethereal realm, naturally inviting the notion of a soul that transmigrates to another plane. It's funny how adding or subtracting one word can change the meaning entirely.

These kinds of cultural euphemisms, in my opinion, are misleading and possibly even counterproductive. They attempt to couch the undesirable aspects of life--old age, sickness, death, taxes, Republicans--with soft, meaningless platitudes like "passed."

I understand that people avoid the word "death" to protect the feelings of the bereaved; however, tossing around this hollow euphemism could produce the exact opposite effect. Changing the name of death won't alleviate the pain that surviving family and loved ones feel.

People die. Pets die. We all die. There is nothing morbid this. It's a fundamental fact of existence: all that exists will perish.

Buddhism doesn't try to soften the whips and scorns of life; rather, it thrusts us right into the thick of the human condition, and insists that we take a long, hard look at what it means to be alive. We all have an expiration date. Nothing lasts forever, not even the sun. So how can the knowledge of our own mortality give us a more meaningful life? Who is the one that will die--or stated another way, who is the one that is alive? Who am I?

Facing death can awaken us to our own interconnection to other beings, for the deeper I peer into my co-called "self," the less solid I appear. Rather than a substantial entity, all that I see when I investigate myself are relationships.

We are the entire web of life and death. Why on earth would we want to conceal this rich fact, I have no idea.

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