Some writers believe they control their fictional worlds, and nothing else; others that they are conduits for a story—words arrive, characters write themselves. (Few believe they have no control at all over what or how they write.) But even if one can imagine dying or being dead, one can’t represent it autobiographically. The impressions and scenes that can be imagined will have been nourished by others’ deaths—those witnessed, heard or read about. (Duchamp’s tombstone epitaph, “After all, it’s always the other one who dies,” means it’s always the other’s story, too.) The way being dead actually feels, a lack of all sensation, supposedly, can’t be described, depriving human beings of certainty about life’s afterlife; but, conversely, fomenting, with death’s partner sexual curiosity, a drive for knowledge.
Ones who know they are dying, those physiologically at death’s door, and also those who pathologically fear death, might want to rush life’s conclusion and kill themselves. Suicides, or self-murderers, as the Dutch put it, can select the method, day and hour, and direct the last narrative, up to a point. Despair, significantly and regularly, overrides choice and strips it of volition. And, how being dead feels will also elude a suicide’s capacity to know. (Virginia Woolf wrote in her diary that it was “the one experience I shall not describe.”)
When death progresses naturally, which can be slow-going, over days or months, unless from a high-impact, head-on car crash, when organs fail fast, depleted of blood and oxygen, there 226 comes a stunning withdrawal: people, like other animals, remove themselves psychically and physically from the known world. A person goes elsewhere, while the body works hard to shut itself down. One is “actively dying,” hospice workers say. Death is oxymoronic until it finishes its work.
On ordinary days, a depressive has her funeral to fantasize, an activity that reassures with sad, cozy comfort. When required in actuality, planning it will probably be discomforting. A dying person may type, scrawl or dictate a list of demands or wishes for a service or memorial, exerting a sort of posthumous control. (The list can also be a preemptive strike against the omissions or excesses of fond others). A funeral might be plain as a pine coffin or theatrical. One who is dying might have specified songs, musicians, speakers and kinds and colors of flowers, or, if possessed of minimalist inclinations, wanted no displays or eulogies, just a plaintively beautiful song. (Both may have designated worthy charities.)
For a writer’s funeral, words could seem superfluous, though there can never be enough, also. Selecting speakers raises unique problems. Most particularly, eulogizers script themselves. Some will mumble, overcome or shy, while others will improvise on humiliating episodes in the dead person’s life. All jokes will be on the dead. (Most people will speak primarily about themselves.) In fantasy, a depressive mourns herself and watches the abstract procession, loving the inconsolation of others; but soon her morbid pleasures are jolted by the awkwardness of social situations, pre-and post-death. Inclusions, exclusions, who speaks first, last? (Funeral rites survive, and have changed historically, for the living.) Planning an actual funeral might allay worry or generate more.
For writers and nonwriters, other kinds of writing than suicide notes can be left behind. A letter might confess secret loves and hates, with recuperative gestures of remorse and forgiveness. Or, it could be a screed against the living. A death essay could be an “avant-fin” manifesto, raving mad, or setting out rational principles for existence. (A treatise on melancholy risks mawkishness and unoriginality.) The essay could haltingly document one’s protracted departure (exquisitely incomplete).
Any of these compositions might supply a reason to live fully while dying, but inciting, for writers, a specific anxiety. The final text could cause a cascade of revisionist views of the individual and body of work, staining both, and lasting until everyone who knew the writer had died (considered in Buddhism an individual’s “second death”).
Most likely, one will have scant energy for planning and writing in the final stages of life. (There are exceptions, who prove the rule.) Meeting death, sometimes called “the maker,” though really the unmaker, is essentially debilitating, so its specific conditions dominate and alter the living. A dying person may have no ambition or desire to control anything during the process (in itself unburdening). One’s death, though, will likely be written about by someone else or, even more likely, no one. Most deaths go unremarked. So-called “ordinary people” get thousands of hits on YouTube, when killed by a usually docile lion on an ecological safari or pushed in front of a train. (The living identify with the pathos and meaninglessness of random, final endings like these.)
An ignominious death recasts an entire life as unintelligent and witless. A relatively healthy person moves an old, huge TV set or a five-drawer steel file cabinet, which, unbalanced, leans, starts falling, its weight unbelievable, gains velocity, collapses, and crushes one beneath it. (Domestic deaths invariably make foolish last impressions.) An ignominious end is beyond prediction. But the great majority of deaths will be common, following a predictable course indicated by one of several illnesses, resulting in complete organ failure. Sherwin Nuland, in his book, How We Die, refutes the contemporary delusion of living forever by defeating the ageing process. He insists, almost too vociferously, that human beings will die sooner or later, because of the wear and tear on the body, also known as old age, which is not a disease. But if one believes people are dying as soon as they are born, then living itself is an illness overcome only by dying.
Near to death, people usually don’t speak or have last words, hospice workers say, especially not those profound or pithy final utterances compiled in books.
Thomas Carlyle: “So this is Death—Well!”
Aleiester Crowley: “I’m perplexed.”
Ulysses S. Grant: “Water!”
Emily Dickinson: “Let us go in. The fog is rising.”
Goethe: “More light!”
Edgar Allan Poe: “Lord help my poor soul . . .”
Washington Irving: “Well, I must arrange my pillows for another weary night! When will this end?”
Gertrude Stein: “What is the question?”
Ludwig Wittgenstein: “Tell them I had a wonderful life.”
If a dying person had her wits about her and enough bodily function—swallowing becomes impossible—she might be able to come up with a line or two. But this also can’t be plotted. (Spoken and written communications not close to death are technically not deathbed statements.) Withdrawing from life for days or weeks, one is expected to be silent and uncommunicative, or will communicate but be misunderstood. (The writing of Ivan Ilych’s death, hospice workers say, is eerily close to how dying people feel; they wonder at Tolstoy’s prescience.)
Since what death feels like is unknowable, most people fear it, and dying, particularly in great pain. In this time, as no other before, unless wishing to suffer mentally and physically, a patient can receive palliative care and medicines that make the “transition,” a hospice term, from life to death painless or nearly painless. (Many believe hospice speeds death along, but often it prolongs what life is left.) Against all reason, which death conquers easily, a few want to feel pain, not to remain as lucid as possible and say their good-byes, but as self-punishment for past bad acts and guilty consciences.
Hardly anyone wishes “to die badly.” In the late Middle Ages, when the concept of “artes moriendi” was formulated, the ideal of “a beautiful death” emerged, and it thrived through the 19th century. “Dying well” has replaced “dying beautifully” and is rigorously enforced by post-mortem judgments. People aren’t supposed to struggle at the end, people should be “ready to go” and “accepting,” and opprobrium is cast on those who aren’t ready and willing, on those who “died badly.”
This ultimate indictment glosses and assesses a human being’s last trial. (To die smiling makes it easier for the living.) But in the matter of dying and death, mortal judgments, like most received wisdoms concocted of exasperating pieties and galling stupidity, should be eliminated. Only death’s uninitiated would espouse these moralisms.
Of death, mortals are absolutely ignorant. The dead, fortunately, are beyond caring.