During our time scattered amongst the living, we are frequently on the receiving end of advice to the effect that death is the event we should fear the most—a reflex that has always bewildered me. On a purely pragmatic level, why fear an impending event if the probability of sidestepping that occurrence by way of sufficiently preparing for it remains exactly zero? It’s not as if taking preventive action is going to make much difference, except insofar as fighting to hang on to life with every bit of one’s energy is a good way to ensure that although the inevitable still takes place, it follows a more circuitous route to get there.
Another reason it never made much sense to fear death is that without death, life really would have no deep meaning, since isn’t it the inevitably of death that infuses life with that piquant sense of hastiness, as if needing to get inside the house before the rain starts to fall? As a thought exercise, try to imagine for a moment a world in which none of us ever really died, but we did keep on making more of ourselves, since that’s something we excel at. But since we’d never grow decrepit and collapse, or expire from disease, but would, presumably, advance just enough beyond child-rearing years to cut the next generation a little slack, I suppose we’d all wander earth for eternity, stuck forever at some indeterminate late middle age, with great-great-great-grandchildren hanging out at the mall with their great-great-great-grandparents, who all just happen to look like they went to high school together. If that’s not what never dying look like, then what is?
But then, it’s not everybody else’s death that one is likely to find so deeply problematic, but that one particular death in which the predicate “I,” the organizing self and consciousness at the heart of all subjective experience, ceases to exist. It’s as if, quoting Gertrude Stein on Oakland, there’s no “there” there. Which brings up the third objection to the fear of death: if you won’t be around to experience the universe without you in it, why do you care?
Organizing David Wojnarowicz’s 1999 retrospective at the New Museum, I was repeatedly and deeply shaken by the concerted effort he made to prepare for his own death. His searing words, mingled with images of himself as a boy or as a face buried in the sand, were Wojnarowicz saying, “I might be leaving here, but not without a fight.” His cold fury wasn’t directed toward death itself, but was put to the task of exposing those dark forces of societal homophobia that discounted the premature, agonizing deaths of countless victims of HIV/AIDS, and perpetuated the cruel forms of discrimination faced by those afflicted. In so doing, Wojnarowicz continues helping the rest of us come to terms with powerful feelings of injustice and unfairness that often characterize a person’s departure from their mortal coils.
It's the thought of ourselves and those we love in the midst of dying, whether quick or slow, and not some relatively abstract condition of death, that forms the cataclysm for most of us. But because we don't talk enough about it, fear of death is too often used as shorthand for the unknown circumstances of our own particular death, which isn't quite the same.
As someone who lived through the AIDS era and the deaths of parents, loved ones and friends, those deaths that I experienced directly and indirectly are enough to make me suspect that as cool as I might seem about it now, I’m a likely candidate to start raging like a howling banshee when it’s my turn to go. On the other hand, someone whom I knew died sitting on a cushioned settee while waiting to leave the house for a dinner party, and someone else who died walking from her sink to the refrigerator. If your papers are all in order, so to speak, is there a more luxurious way to exit the stage?
Collaborating over the years on curatorial endeavors with the Thai artist Araya Rasdjarmrearnsook has provided unique insight into how questions of death can be articulated through art. In keeping with Buddhist beliefs concerning the voyage of the human soul into eternity, the person who really matters in the period following death is the one who’s no longer there. Accompanying that person’s transition, which Rasjarmrearnsook undertook by reading her poetry to unclaimed corpses at a Bangkok morgue, requires contemplation of the ambiguous nature of the soul’s journey from a mortal state to something mysterious and unknowable.
When the musician Glen Campbell, whose songs had been deeply moving to me as a boy, announced his final tour, I had to go. He was in late stages of Alzheimer’s but still performed reliably, and in fact played his guitar on those farewell shows just like the whiz kid he’d been a half-century earlier. Most striking was that Campbell, whose best-known songs address the bittersweet and melancholy side of love, confronted the paradox of losing both his memory and his sense of time, itself a form of annihilation: the title of his final song was “I’m Not Gonna Miss You.”