My grandmother died a year ago, and at times I still have difficulty dealing with her loss. We were very close. She was lucky enough to have died a very peaceful death. She was not ill, she was in her home, and she had lived a long, rich life. These facts made her unexpected death both sad – “But she was in great health! What happened?” – and a relief “She wasn’t suffering, and she was in her own home“. That was the way she wanted to go. She would have hated a nursing home.
To use the old cliche, I’m not religious, but I’m spiritual. I don’t believe that death is the end, it’s just a transformation into an unknown realm. What this realm is, well, that is debatable. Religions address it, atheists deny it, and there are a whole lot of other ideas in between.
Intellectually, I accepted her death and transformation to this other place. Yet emotionally I was very sad. She’s not here anymore! Talk about confusing the senses.
I came to realize that, like many people, I never formed a solid idea about death, dying, and the meaning of life. It was simply too frightening. I just knew I didn’t want to die, and I didn’t want anyone I love to die. End of story.
So, in an attempt to come to terms with death, I looked for a book. Lo and behold, I come across Heidegger and a Hippo Walk Through Those Pearly Gates by Thomas Cathcart and Daniel Klein. This book immediately made me smile just looking at the cover. The premise? To use philosophy and jokes to explore the meaning of death, life, and the afterlife.
I am a firm believer in humor. Give me a comedy any day. Written in seven parts, Cathcart and Klein address the anxiety and delusion of death (Dead! Whatcha gonna do about it?); a definition of eternity (Eternity when you least expect it); immortality (Immortality the old-fashioned way on the soul train); near-death experiences (Post mortem life: postcards from the other side), suicide (Death as a lifestyle choice); and scientific breakthroughs (Biotechnology: Stop the presses!).
The authors explored philosophical movements, theology, and anthropology to talk about why we avoid dealing with death and our own mortality while weaving in jokes and humor to defuse our anxiety.
What I took away:
The idea of immortality was discussed. Since earth can only support a certain population, we would need to stop giving birth to more humans. This means that at a certain point, there would never be any children, no first loves, no real new ideas. And living forever has another downside: once you do everything, there will never be another new experience. Thus, resulting in an eternity of ennui (boredom).
Cloning and passing on your genetic information in other ways was taken into consideration, but ultimately that’s not really you either. Why? Well, the natural human clones “identical twins” are genetically the same, but are very different. This is because they experience life in a different way. Nature vs. nurture comes into play, making them two very different people.
I felt I had a better lease on life and death after this book. And I had a bunch of good jokes.
Well, all this talk about death reminded me of a documentary series I watched a few months ago called How Art Made the World. It’s a 5 disk collaboration between the BBC and Cambridge University.
The final DVD? To Death and Back. For centuries, artists have been creating images of death. These images are terrifying and, paradoxically, reassuring. These images remind us of our mortality help us to deal with the great unknown and the fact that the world will go on when we are no longer alive.
Pictures of ancestors and of generations gone by help us to overcome the idea of our own death. This is a unique issue. Human beings are the only life form that realizes mortality. Through art, we try to come to grips with our own death. Art takes the natural world and lets us have control over it. The psychological impetus for art is to bridge the gap between this knowledge and fear, and lets us feel comfortable with it.
To prove this theory, 2 psychologists, Solomon and Greenberg, conducted an experiment on 2 groups of students. They flashed a series of words: rose, sneaker, fajita, and flower. The catch? One group of students received these same words, but with the word dead flashed in between the transitions. Dead only appeared for a fraction of a second, but it was long enough to speak to the subconscious mind of the group members.
After the words were flashed on the screen, a series of images was presented to the student of prominent dead figures. Examples: Marilyn Monroe, George Washington. The students were able to look at these images freely. They could spend as much time looking at the images as they wanted. Each student was timed. The students who received the message with dead interspersed looked at the images for significantly longer amounts of time.
Interested? Watch the video here: How Art Made the World: To Death and Back
You can skip to minute 15 to see the interview – or you can watch the entire clip, too! :)
I also found another study by the same psychologists based on death and supporting people with similar values.
I’d like to conclude with a quote:
Through experimentation, psychologists discovered that groups of subjects who had been made to think about death wanted to look at pictures of the dead far longer than groups who hadn’t. It was as though seeing pictures of people who had died reassured them that they, in turn, would one day be remembered too. -How Art Made the World: To Death and Back
Hmm, maybe all along I have been dealing with death . . . and maybe all of us interested in art and design are coping the only way we know how.