After a wonderful week at the Ozark Sufi Dance Camp, it’s back to “real life.” Gratefully, I take with me the many conversations I had there with fascinating people who have pondered deeply the meaning of human existence and are engaged in significant projects of spiritual renewal and social revitalization in our culture. Among these, one that stands out is a gentle and loving man named Bodhi Be, who led a daily workshop on issues of death and dying. He is the originator of a very interesting project in his home area in Hawaii. The Death Store describes itself as an end-of-life community resource center. I encourage you to spend a bit of time at their website (thedeathstore.com) and perhaps get on their email newsletter list.
The conversations we had in that workshop reminded me of a message I received a couple months ago, and I thought perhaps excerpts from that correspondence might be of interest to Denial File readers as well. The message read, in part: Why is death so insulting in our culture? Why isn’t it acceptable to part with a friend like it is to part with a pet? I just wanted to ask for your opinion. Following, in part, is what I wrote in reply. Feel free to criticize and add to the discussion!
Dear friend, you pose a very important question, for which there is no easy answer. You ask why our culture is insulted by death, but I suggest it is not just our culture. Any viable culture, to one extent or another, makes implicit claims to having been founded on a supernatural basis. Therefore, by participating in its cultural pageant, following all the rules and being a good citizen, it offers to its people the opportunity to transcend and elevate mere earthly existence into an imitation or reflection of divine existence. With few exceptions, cultures that initially appear to be the most “death accepting” are exactly those cultures with the most elaborate transcendence ideology, and in which that ideology is strong, intact, and plausible (because everyone a person rubs shoulders with believes it as well.) The very function of culture is to buffer us against the deep anxiety about death we all have, an anxiety that results from simply being human, driven by the conflict between a strongly organismic survival disposition and the cognitive power to understand that death is inevitable.
What appears to make Western culture “stand out” among others is that, at least since the European Reformation and Enlightenment, we have honored as culturally heroic the pioneering spirit of inquiry, embodied especially in science and in iconoclastic and anticlerical” dissenting” religious views, which includes at the edges even agnosticism and atheism. Eventually, as we encourage the heroic spirit of “thinking for yourself,” and “questioning authority,” the eagle eye of iconoclastic inquiry focuses on the transcending mythology of the culture itself, resulting in scholarship and educational that tends to debunk the foundational stories and beliefs, making them seem childish and implausible.
Thus it is that a significant sector of our culture, the highly educated sector, gains its own sense of heroic transcendence (meaning and purpose) exactly by questioning, undermining and debunking the very foundational, mythological stories of our culture which neatly combine doctrines of supernatural religion with sentimental patriotism. But this cultural mythology is the very substance from which a much larger sector of the society continues to gain its own sense of transcending meaning and purpose. The conflict that arises between these sectors is what we have called the “culture wars,” with one side assuming what is needed is “more education,” while the other side is just as sure the problem lies with smugly subversive and vaguely un-American “elites” whose covert agenda is to dominate others and undermine what is most sacred to the majority (Sarah Palin’s “Real Americans.”) We end up with defensive and exaggerated affirmations of the cultural mythology on the one hand (“In God We Trust!” “One Nation, UNDER GOD!” ) and the corollary elevation and adoration of “substitute gods” on the other (the pantheon of rock, sports and movie stars, the superrich, even people famous just for being famous) who function to fill our need for identification with something, anything, beyond the “merely human.”
So now (three times around the barn to get to the house–sorry about that!) we come back to your question: Why isn’t it acceptable to part with a friend like it is to part with a pet? Of course, from a purely logical point of view, it would be, and there is a lot we could do to bring a more logical perspective into our end-of-life customs and activities. (Nota Bene: visit the website of The Death Store mentioned above.) But at the same time, we clearly see that cultural norms are neither formed in nor driven by logic, but rather the deeply emotional and psychological need for assurance of transcendence. The reason we cannot simply bury our friends and loved ones with the same equanimity we do our pets is exactly because, in direct confrontation with death, our knee jerk human response (even of the most secular among us) boils down to a five word cry: We are not just animals!
Addendum: Our particular cultural traditions have made a categorical distinction between humans and other species. Much of the culture warrior resistance and even revulsive disgust against “evolution,” or PETA philosophy, is rooted in the need to defend and maintain this distinction. We might speculate, however, that in a culture whose norms distinguish most highly between, say, plant species and animate species, it would be more acceptable to part with a friend as with a pet. We might further speculate that in our own culture, as the sacrosanct distinction between human and other species breaks down, at least one result is elevation of close pets to something parallel to other family members in relation to their parting–a fact suggested in the fast emerging commerce in pet mortuary services.