In Tolstoy’s Calendar of Wisdom, he says that a “man” does not fear death. “Fear of death is our animal nature,” he claims.
I don’t know that any part of that is accurate. To be sure, we have a very unhealthy relationship to death. We tell ourselves stories of our mastery of death, of death’s defeat, of our eternity on the other side of the demise of the body. (Whatever that means.) We create all manner of lies and deceit to deny its existence, or at least to deny that humans die like all other beings. We erect similar webs of denial for all endings, for change, for time itself. We tell ourselves we are no subjects to time, that singularly in the universe as we know it, we escape its strictures.
But I’m not sure we fear death. It’s hard to fear something you don’t believe in. I rather think we don’t fear it enough. We do not respect finality. We don’t acknowledge that all things have an ending. We don’t live with the proper regard for our transience, believing that we have eternity to make up for whatever is lacking in this life, and so we waste lives. We waste time. We waste ourselves.
I think this all is rooted not so much in a denial of death as in a denial that this is our only life. We are not living. We are enduring. Most of us only barely. And not because, as Thoreau implies, we choose lives of “quiet desperation”. We are handed that desperation with no choice in the matter at all. We don’t live because we don’t have the chance. We desperately need that chance, a chance for something better, a horizon of infinite possibility. We need an escape from ourselves. We disrespect our lives as much or more than we disrespect death. We are at least somewhat wary of hastening death. We do not give any thought at all to tossing days, years, decades of living on the dung heap of our economic systems.
We are, however, one of very few species that will choose to end life purely from despair.
Though our domesticated — dominated— animal subjects tend to be the same. They too are not living a life that they want. Sheep in particular seem to want to die. We’ve beaten down a fiercely wild and playful being into a mockery, a wooly ball of anxiety and fear. Sheep can die from pure fretting. Like us, they exist from one day of despair to the next. There are many sheep ploys to end this misery, as any farmer knows. They certainly do not fear death, not as much as they shrink from living in captivity. And as far as we know, they don’t have tales of sheep heaven. They aren’t escaping to a better place. They’re just choosing to hasten along their termination and end this welter of despair that we create for them.
This is why I don’t think animals fear death. They don’t prolong living just to exist like humans will. Also, most other beings are likely smart enough to recognize that an afterlife populated by the same beings as this life is likely to include all the same miseries as this life… One of the reasons I questioned the whole desert monotheistic faith system was antipathy toward spending eternity with the same people that make this world so wretched. A heaven populated by bigots is not likely to be all that heavenly… Compound that with infinity and there you have a valid reason to fear your earthly end.
Now, most animals do not like death. Perhaps no being likes the end of itself. No being but those who are most closely associated with humans wants to leave this world. There’s too much going on, too much relationship, too much beauty. They like living. No being wants pleasure to end. But they respect death. Just as they respect life.
Death is as essential to life as birth. There is no existence possible if any part of it continues infinitely. An infinite existence uses an infinite number of resources… and there is no such infinity, neither of materials nor of the space to hold it all. There is no indication in anything we understand about the universe that points to the possibility of infinity. The universe itself has a known beginning; and physically, logically, mathematically we can see that it has an end. This is not an assumption; it is the only way anything we know to be real and true can be real and true. Of course, we could be wrong… there’s quite a lot of unknown unknowns riddling the best of our theories… But if the universe dies, then we can infer that everything in it dies as well. And I think that’s a safe assumption given our experience in this world. So far not one being has lived forever.
In any case, death is the conservation of life. It is the recycling and reordering necessary to have new beings in a finite system. And so death deserves respect. Each one is the sacrifice that perpetuates new life. When we live as though we escape recycling, our death becomes unholy. We are not giving our material selves, our space and our time and our matter, to enliven the future. We are stealing ourselves from that future. We are stealing potential and possibility. We are stealing life. We can’t respect life or death if we don’t acknowledge time’s hold.
We can’t even grieve properly.
I think there is good evidence that many if not all other beings understand the essentiality of death. Most other species — animal, plant, and for all we know all the many who don’t fit in our boxes — truly honor the dead. They do not erect mausoleums and ossuaries — an odd human relic trait left from the days when our ancestors did, in fact, respect the sacrifice of death — but they do not deny the dead. They grieve. They manage loss through continuing relationship in memory for at least as long as the pain is fresh. Some never seem to end those relationships as long as they live.
Elephants gather in their graveyards, caressing the desiccated bones of their long dead. Trees love their mothers so much they will feed and preserve a dead stump for decades, perhaps centuries. Many mammal mothers will carry around a dead infant for weeks, visibly distraught. And any dairy farmer will tell you that the most heart-rending day of the year is when the calf is pulled from her mother. Many farmers will choose to forego the milk that the infant takes from the udder — milk that is intended to feed that infant, mind you, not us — rather than listen to the cries of a desolate cow.
And cows don’t have a lot to live for…
Our denial of death and disrespect for life carries consequences that reach far beyond philosophy and social engineering. We do not grieve. We do not believe that there is an eternal separation, and so we do not allow for recovering from the loss. I have even heard that we should not grieve, that it shows a lack of faith. I’m not sure how common that sentiment is, but it is certainly uncommon in this culture to give the time necessary to heal from fresh loss or to remember those who have gone long before. We do not honor death and so we do not honor our dead. And this bleeds into all relationship.
Mammals invest bodily resources into a few young. They do not produce a large number of offspring, trusting the continuation of their species to probability. Mammals put much time and effort into each of the few infants they produce. They do not rely on chance. They rely on nurture and care to see their bloodline continued.
This has the odd effect of creating gendered relationship with future generations. Females adhere strictly to nurture. They do not benefit from the numbers game. The more babies they produce, the more likely that they will die before they can successfully raise any of their children to adulthood. However, males that want to perpetuate their own genes can play the game of chance. Their bodies are not taxed in producing children. They benefit from fathering as many as possible. (In many ways… ) However, individually, they do not benefit from nurturing young that come from other bloodlines. Children of other fathers are competition for the scarce resources — and time — needed for their own children to reach adulthood. So males of many mammal species will kill infants that are not unquestionably their own offspring.
I do not feel that this is a savory trait, but it is rational. However, humans have made it monstrous. When men deny death, then there is no need to perpetuate the bloodline. Children represent competition not with a man’s genes, but with the man himself. He will kill his own offspring as readily as any others. In fact, statistically, men kill their own children more often than any others. And men have created whole industries to eliminate the competition of young people. What is war but a toolkit for disposing of young bodies so that old men might have more of life for themselves?
This is one of the many legacies of eternity. If we truly believe in our eternity, whether in this world or in some better place, then there is no life beyond ours. There is no future generation. Or at least there is no need for a future generation. A future generation represents nothing but competition to those who believe that they will live forever. When we deny death of ourselves, we also deny life to others. I think this is seen best in our culture’s disregard for children — and for all relationships of care and interdependence.
A denial of death is the enshrining not of the genetic line, much less of a species or life generally, but of an individual. Children suffer from our sense of infinity most of all, but we also lose our ability to perceive childhood dependence. Or really any change. The individual that is perpetuated is the man in his prime adulthood, not the infant at his mother’s breast. That infant does not exist when time is disregarded. That infant’s mother does not exist. That relationship and that change are not in alignment with an eternal man.
Do you see how this belief corrodes all relationship? The future does not exist. The present is competition. And the past is irrelevant. We do not honor anything but the self. And the only thing we fear is the end of that self.
This is not animal nature. This is human. More precisely, this is the small subset of perverted humanity that believes itself to be eternal, masters of death, lords of infinite time. Which is to say stasis…
Men have created intricate, self-referential loops of their own logic to explain eternity. What they have never done is shown how eternity as an individual is, in fact, eternal life. Life is change and relationship. It is cycling. It is time organized into matter. It is not the frozen preservation of one static thing. That is not even death. That is just… no thing.
And so to today… In ancient cultures — those that are more advanced than our infantile EuroWestern modern society — this time of the year is when we honor the dead. We in the Northern Hemisphere can see endings all around us. The death of annual species. The dormancy of perennials who do not wish to use resources in the months of cold, dry dearth. Leaves fall from trees. Insects and mammals bed down in elaborate dens. The hearts of frogs slow their record of time almost to stasis… almost. We cull our herds of domesticated animals so that none will starve in the winter. We ourselves fall prey to disease and injury as our environment becomes colder, hungrier, less salubrious, more taxing on our bodies. These are the days that Death claims her due. And healthy cultures respect that.
I do not believe in an afterlife though I also do not actively disbelieve. I remain firmly agnostic about that which we have no experiential data. There may be something that is perpetuated of any given “I am” for at least a while. There is, in any case, memory, which is the preservation of the past and my continuing relationship with what has come before me. I honor the past. All my ancestors — human and otherwise, genetic and geographic, mental and material — all created me. They ended so that I might begin. That is worthy of respect.
I do not pour libations or offer human foods to discorporate entities. I re-member them. I make them real in my memory and thus real in my life. I think deeply on the line of dependence that led to me and that will carry on from me into the future. I have great responsibility to honor the sacrifice of past lives and to contribute what I can to the future of living. To sanctify death by nurturing life. I am a small arc in the round of time, and it is my privilege and my duty to see that cycle continue. That is what I do with my time here, and with this day in the annual round most of all.
It is the Day of the Dead. It is the end of yet another season of growth and the beginning of another season of decay. The spiral is turning… It is time to honor our debts to time. Without fear…
From the Book Cellar
One of the ways we can repair our relationship with the past is to teach our children. There are many good books on the Day of the Dead. I’ve pictured my favorites below. But the best book on talking about the dead is The Spirit of Tío Fernando by Janice Levy (illustrated by Morella Fuenmayor, published 1995 by Albert Whitman and Company).
And honestly, the movie Coco is just outstanding! (Never thought I’d recommend a Disney flick for something as consequential as the Day of the Dead…)
For those who would like to create their own family celebrations, here are some books on crafting the Day of the Dead.
Day of the Dead by Kitty Williams and Stevie Mack (2011, Gibbs Smith). This is somewhere between a picture book and a book on the culture and significance of the holiday.
Day of the Dead Crafts by Kerry Arquette, Andrea Zocchi and Jerry Vigil (2008, Wiley). Exactly what the title says. With exposition.
The Skeleton at the Feast: The Day of the Dead in Mexico by Elizabeth Carmichael and Chloë Sayer (1991, University of Texas Press). Excellent illustrated history and anthropology. Written for adults but at a mid-grade comprehension level.
More fantastic books about the Day of the Dead
Book on Death for Kids
Of course, the Day of the Dead is tied to one culture, but kids everywhere have to learn about dying and death. The book I recommend to all is Badger’s Parting Gifts by Susan Varley (1984, HarperCollins). I wish every child could have a Badger in their lives.
More exceptional books on death and dying for kids
Books on Winter for Kids
To teach kids about the resting time within our lifetimes, I have four books that I’d like to recommend.
Bear Has a Story to Tell by Philip and Erin Stead (2012, Roaring Brook Press). No doom or gloom, just a lot of yawning.
Wild Child by Lynn Plourde, illustrated by Greg Couch (1999, Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing). Lavish illustrations show Nature in autumn, imagined as a toddler, getting ready for bed.
In November by Cynthia Rylant, illustrated by Jill Kastner (2000, Voyager Books). Does double duty as a Thanksgiving book, but mostly looks at the month through a more-than-human lens.
Little Tree by Loren Long (2015, Philomel). A perfect book on the pain of letting go and moving on.
©Elizabeth Anker 2022