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epicurus

What, me worry?
Epicurus of Samos, philosopher

The long habit of living indisposeth us to dying.
Thomas Browne, dead person

If you haven’t visited The Death Clock, you really must. Enter your date of birth, height, weight and Body Mass Index — a measure of fitness, or more to the point, fatness — and the Death Clock spits out the day and date on which you’ll hear the galloping hooves of the pale horse.

Mine is Tuesday, December 9, 2036.

Until that date I can step whistling into the paths of all manner of passenger and freight vehicles. I can season my steak with asbestos and press my vital organs against the microwave oven as it cooks.

Unless, here at midlife, I absorb the other, far more important, more honest and less entertaining message of the Death Clock. You’re probably not going to Die today, goes that message — but you are, most assuredly, on some actual date in the easily-conceivable future, going to Die.

The difference between death and ice cream — and yes, there is one

I am afraid to die. This puts me in the company of most sane people, Christians included. It’s something to leave off the résumé should I ever apply for a position as a suicide bomber, but aside from that, I don’t think it should count against me.

Reporters always (always) ask how, in the absence of religion, I intend to make the contemplation of death go down my children’s conceptual gullets like butter brickle ice cream on an August day. Or words to that effect. Depending on my mood, I either pretend that’s possible, or I don’t, since it isn’t. Death is hard to take, and it always will be. Darwin rather insists on it. And I like seeing a bit of the fear of death in my kids’ eyes now and again. Makes crossing the street so much easier.

And I can tell by the applause all around me — ancestors behind, descendants ahead — that “I don’t wanna die” is just the sort of thing that I, as the ziploc-baggie-of-the-moment for my family’s genetic material, am supposed to feel, for their sakes. I’m the keeper of the keys.

Wait a minute. Come to think of it, that’s no longer true. Between 1994 and 2000, I lent my wife the keys enough times to produce three new bags of DNA, then went under the knife to ensure that, genetically speaking, I would be of no further use. My shift is over. I can clock out any time.

As a result of having completed my sole genetic responsibility, my fear of death no longer serves any real purpose. Perhaps vasectomies will eventually engender a population-level selective response whereby the severing of the vas deferens leads the now-superfluous man to impale himself, thornbirdlike, on the surgeon’s waiting blade, thus relieving the tribe of thirty additional football seasons of pressure on the stocks of Cheetos and Michelob. Until then, boys, fear death and eat up.

Doubting (Dylan) Thomas

I do think there are ways to diminish the fear of death and dying, and a post last spring (Milk-Bones for the Immortally Challenged) included a tip or two from Epicurus, who has now had 2,277 years to test his hypotheses. (No word yet on how it’s going, which tends to support his point.) But there are others, and a recent conversation with my boy reminded me that I hadn’t blogged death in awhile.

I don’t remember how it came up, but Connor and I were talking about the last moments of life. Though I don’t want or expect my kids to ever find death yummy, I’d like to keep their concerns about it manageable, and I’ve always found understanding to be the best path away from fear. In this case, I was able to draw on another in my arsenal of death-softeners — the fact that most people, by all accounts, don’t go out kicking and/or screaming, but do, in spite of Dylan Thomas, go gentle into that good night.

Here’s another Thomas — doctor, biologist and essayist Lewis Thomas — writing in one of the most profoundly wonderful popular science books of the past century, Lives of a Cell:

In a nineteenth-century memoir on an expedition in Africa, there is a story by David Livingston about his own experience of near-death. He was caught by a lion, crushed across the chest in the animal’s great jaws, and saved in the instant by a lucky shot from a friend. Later, he remembered the episode in clear detail. He was so amazed by the extraordinary sense of peace, calm, and total painlessness associated with being killed that he constructed a theory that all creatures are provided with a protective physiologic mechanism, switched on at the verge of death, carrying them through in a haze of tranquillity.

I have seen agony in death only once, in a patient with rabies; he remained acutely aware of every stage in the process of his own disintegration over a twenty-four-hour period, right up to his final moment. It was as though, in the special neuropathology of rabies, the switch had been prevented from turning.

Lewis isn’t the only witness against Dylan. There are countless testimonies suggesting that the process of dying is more often a peaceful, tranquil one than not. And that’s some darn useful consolation — since Epicurus really (truly) cured me of the worst of my fears of death itself, only the fear of dying remains to be dealt with. For that, I’ll turn next time to my favorite little Frenchman.

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Dale McGowan is the author of Parenting Beyond Belief, Raising Freethinkers, and Atheism for Dummies. He holds a BA in evolutionary anthropology and a PhD in music.