How Do You Feel About Death?

From 1991 to 2009, images of flag-draped coffins of returning war dead were forbidden by the U.S. government

From 1991 to 2009, images of flag-draped coffins of returning war dead were forbidden by the U.S. government

b. traven

We talk a lot about war on this blog but we only talk about the deaths as numbers killed. We don’t talk about the intimate details of how a mother, a father, a spouse and children, and other relatives and loved ones can handle that horror. The government and the media like to play up those families who can say “We feel our son or daughter died proudly for ‘freedom.’” In front of the camera they say what is expected of them but they mourn alone in their quiet hours.

Is death a controversial enough subject that merits discussion on this contrarian blog? Here’s a test that can help to answer that question. In any setting in our country, be it a rough bar or a group of people sitting at a fancy soiree, try asking How do you feel about death? A stunned silence will greet you either at the bar or the soiree. Further than that, you will be disinvited for the next drink or chit chat.

That’s why George H.W. Bush (and later his son) got away with mandating that no photographs could be taken of the flag-draped coffins coming off the planes of those killed in America’s wars of choice. In fact it is like nobody dies in our wars – don’t Americans live forever? Hardly a cry of protest went up from our citizens when our government decreed that death had nothing to do with war. Death is a number not a wasted human life. It’s all about freedom and an eternal afterlife in heaven.

It was not always this way. During my war (World War II) one could walk down any residential street in our country and see many blue star flags hanging in the front window that said that they had someone in the military. My mother had one for me. Possibly in the next block you would see a gold star flag that said someone in their family had been killed. On many street corners above or below the street sign there would be a brass plaque upon which the name of the dead was inscribed. Death was recognized as a topic and a tragedy and that is why we wanted the war to end.

Let’s talk about death, not just about war dead but how all of our lives will end. At the age of 90 I think about this every day. In fact I have thought about death every day since I was 18 and faced going into my war. The dominant Western view of death is based on a moral code that directs one either to “heaven” or “hell.” It is based on your believing that there is both a God that makes this awesome decision about you and that you will be able to revel in heaven or roast in hell. Good luck on that one.

The other day I came across a small and obscure book, THE GREAT CHANGE written by “White Deer of Autumn.” In fourteen beautifully illustrated pages, White Deer shows that our native people have more sense of the reality of death than all of our Western religions.

To White Deer dying means returning to the earth and letting the good you have done during your life join the goodness of your dead loved ones. No heaven and no hell. What a close shave!

And in this small book of Native American wisdom this is how Grandma sees death.

Gazing up at the black sky, she saw Grandpa in the silver stars. Within her old body she sensed her own “special part” stirring restlessly and knew it would be soon that her goodness would join his in the Great Mystery …And she knew that the Circle of Life would remain for another generation–unbroken and strong.

11 thoughts on “How Do You Feel About Death?

  1. Greetings:

    I am viewing America from my Canadian perch and other than the observation that you are collectively insane, I find little corners like your blog that appeal to my sense of rightness and fairness and kindness. Of all the multiple thousands of words I have read, the majority from your country, is the denial about so many things and death is surely high on the list. Not only your own servicemen and women but also the deaths the actions of your government have caused around the world. Of course they are all bad people while Captain America would only kill bad people is self obvious to you and totally irrational to the rest of the world.

    Sadly your thoughts and deeds infect others and with deep regret I find my own country falling prey to your insanities. Like you, I have a few years under my belt and death is contemplated more often than in years gone by. Like most Canadians, at least I imagine for most Canadians, death is not from a drone, or bomber or from an American invasion, rather it is faced through the thought of illness or accident or hopefully he peaceful passing in sleep. So for us, death is very individual and personal and I think most of us arrive at a fairly calm approach to this inevitable end. We do not expect to die under torture, or starvation, or disease through lack of medical care or medicines.But like your observation, we also do not explore or talk about or face the inevitable event.

    There was a time not that many years ago when the women of our communities had to wash the dead bodies of their neighbours and family while the men had to dig the grave and death was very close to life. As it should be. Our modern societies of which you are at the forefront have moved death out of sight, out of conversation, out of reflection and made it a commercial venture. It is not! It is the most significant event of our lives and we should be much more aware of it than we allow ourselves to be


    Thomas Lunde

    • Thomas.. Thank you for your candid comments. With the successive drift rightwards in Canadian politics I thought that our northern neighbors had all become ‘poodles’ .
      Your comments are ‘right on’ about us. TCP (our blog) tries to capture that simmering human contrariness that still exists in this country in spite of the massive dysfunctionality in our society.
      I wrote this piece partly because I believe that our people feel that American Exceptionalism shelters them from the reality of their mortality and thus their ultimate personal responsibility for the actions of their society..

  2. Of course, it is not just Americans who deny death, but it is particularly a strong sentiment in the Western world. It is just too darn hard to make money on people dying – except in war

  3. It is not just the separation between our military and the vast majority of our citizens. I found it amazing that most Americans did not raise a ruckus when our military dead were basically hidden from sight. I think folks who did not have a loved one in the military just did not want to know. And, I rarely hear about the hundreds of thousands of dead Iraqi’s who “attoned” for 911 and the death of three thousand Americans.
    But I also think it is the growth of fundamental Christianity in this country over the past few decades. I was at a professional medical conference where the ethics of medical care with the dying was the subject. To the shock of most of us, the medical ethicist discussed how the more religiosity you claim, the more you want done when you are dying. When asked why, the overwhelming answer received is so “God has time to perform a miracle.” Amazing logic in my mind………………………………

    • Dottie.. As an RN you should know that there is a a very big line outside of God’s door waiting for a ‘miracle’. Then, there are those rich folks who are slipping money to their priests in order to get ‘special dispensation’ from God for their personal miracles. The poor benighted fundamentalist Christians know that God welcomes the rich first because they pay for their churches. So they are used to waiting in line to receive his benefits.
      The fundamentalists also know that since their Republican governor, whom they voted for, refused to extend Medicare and cut Obamacare, the only place they can go to for help in paying is God. That’s just how things work.

  4. Wow, where to begin with this topic?!? I will force myself to be concise: 1.) If you’ve drunk the kool-aid that Fortress Amerika is the beacon of light and freedom to the world, you are, in theory, overjoyed to give your son or daughter’s life in exchange for a flag that was draped on their coffin. “Kill a Commie [substitute jihadist these days] for Christ.” Truly a pitiful, utterly delusional belief system (in my humble opinion); 2.) I am a Buddhist…who does not accept the notion of karma literally, though I’ll use the term figuratively. If one lives by the code of The Eight-Fold Noble Path, one need not fear any unpleasantness after the death of the physical body. There are numerous schools of Buddhist thought, among which some teach that one should dwell on one’s own eventual death daily! Not my cup of tea, but I do not fear departing–just don’t want to do it prematurely!; 3.) Death–and the more grisly the better–is usually the lead story on any newscast. A “good” airplane wreck can lead for days on end. I quit patronizing prime time commercial TV programming ages ago, but rumor has it it still features innumerable homicides. The ads for these shows that I do get exposed to usually feature people with firearms in their hands. Hmmm. What does this tell us about our society?; 4.) Finally, some reading recommendations: “The Living End” (novel), by Stanley Elkin; most anything by Robert G. Ingersoll, great American orator of the 19th Century, debunker of religious quackery, shining knight of free thought. In his funeral oration for a loved one (possibly a brother, details escape me at the moment), he said simply that “he has gone to the void.” I have no fear of the void. I have no reason to place the least credulity in the notion of Hell. That concept was invented to ensure that the meek remain forever meek. It is way past time to consign such concepts to…the void!!

  5. My Dad (born in 1917) experienced the death of his younger sister of whooping cough in roughly 1922. He had a vivid recollection of her child’s casket. My Dad also witnessed death in the CCCs in the 1930s while fighting forest fires in Oregon. In those days, death was both more common and more immediate, and Americans dealt with it, I think, with the maturity that comes with experience.

    Nowadays, early deaths due to diseases and accidents are less common (which is good). But when death comes, Americans deploy a small army of grief therapists and counselors and funeral home directors and so on in an attempt to deflect, and perhaps even to deny, the reality of death. Well-meaning people say that the deceased is in heaven, suggesting that death is a path to eternal bliss, so why mourn?

    My father’s generation had it tougher, and I think it made them face facts squarely, without lots of treacle about romps in heaven or lots of intervention by therapists.

  6. Death may be the most important subject – period. Some philosophies hold that death is one’s best teacher, seeing it is inevitable and produces sobriety which increases one’s sense of urgency and intensity for real living (whatever one’s conception of that may be). For example, John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King and many other men and women through history were well aware that their positions and related actions could very well lead to great personal risk, yet continued going forward.
    Very profound personal accounts of men, women and children who’ve had near death experiences can be found at (Near Death Experience Research Foundation), and will certainly add a tremendous amount of context to this ultimately important writing.

  7. Only the Rocks and Mountains last forever…”Men must Die.” I always liked the Cheyenne belief of a “Great Spirit” (“Oh Grandfather”), and the idea “It’s a good day to die” — when faced with a mission that would probably cost them their lives.

    Even the end of the world itself, but not the end of everything. Merely a passing of one state to another, perhaps one of renewal. Accepting death for them was also an affirmation of Life… And in the end we will all join together in the “Great Circle” — I like that!

    • I hate to be a “physical sciences nitpicker,” but the mountains and rocks decidedly do NOT last forever!! EVERY THING CHANGES, except the persistence of the process of change.

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