A group of old friends, teachers and professors, who have known each other since they were young and saw each other often before the pandemic, have decided to meet again after a few years without seeing each other. A few days before the meeting, the partner of one of the members of the group tells them that Almudena, unfortunately, will not attend the meeting. Bone cancer has taken her life away from her at just 50 years old. Her male and female companions, suddenly shocked and devastated by her, resolve to get over it, keep her appointment, remember her alive and, when the time comes, toast to her. Raising their glasses and barely holding back their tears, they express her willingness not to forget her. How revealing conventions are sometimes! The traditional object of the toast is usually shared joy, sentimental expansion, as happens in the toast of The Traviata, but, in the case of what is done for those who are definitively absent, what we share is the opposite: sadness, loss, momentarily postponed oblivion. Isn’t this, and not that, the authentically human toast, the one that nails and exhibits our true condition, as if it were the desiccated corpse of an insect in the entomologist’s box?
We know that the inevitable awaits us at the end of the road, or perhaps around the next corner, but we pretend it isn’t, or worse, we pretend it isn’t with us. It is a big mistake. If there is something that really goes with us, like an inescapable shadow, it is our mortal nature. For this reason, we should think more about death, do everything possible to appropriate it symbolically before it takes us away materially, admit it as the fundamental limitation capable of crushing any form of pride. There was no other meaning memento mori, that custom of ancient Rome that consisted of a slave whispering to the victorious general, precisely on the day of his triumphant return to the capital of the empire, to remember that he was mortal. This practice used to have a political meaning: it was about convincing the military cheered by the masses of the transience of his triumph -of any triumph, in fact-, pushing him to respect the laws and dissuading him from all kinds of political adventures.
But what is our attitude towards death? In other words, how do men and women who live in a secularized world face it, a world that knows that it is alien to gods and demons, a consequence of that process of rationalization that Max Weber called dismissal of the supersensible? Weber himself suggests a key. A society progressively rationalized and open towards the future places human life in a kind of endless search, in a kind of constitutive avidity, which gives no respite. The men of the past could die tired of living and reconciled with their destiny by virtue of deep religious beliefs, but “civilized man, immersed in a world that is constantly enriched with new knowledge, ideas and problems, can feel “tired of living” , but not “satiated”. And, since death has no meaning, according to Weber, neither does the culture that, with its constant progressiveness, deprives death of the meaning it once had.
The modern experience of death is that of the absolute end, without the consolation of a spiritual extension, without heaven or hell, a displacement towards Nothingness, that authentic and mysterious castle of you will go and you will not return. His image is usually that of a vertiginous transit with no return towards an unknown destination: The last tripas Machado wrote; the diligence of the abyss, as Pessoa characterized it. Now, the process of rationalization and the perspective of disenchantment, whose conceptual structures only attend to practical utility, to the what for of any gesture or action, they are incapable of assuming the short circuit that death entails.
It is the forms of this mentality that have led us to the belief that death is an absurd fact, despite being indisputably real; an unmanageable phenomenon, despite the fact that it is crossed by administrative procedures of all kinds; the ultimate setback, despite the fact that it constantly occurs around us; access to the supernatural in its most overwhelming form, despite being a process as natural as the very genesis of life. But if death is a real and indisputable event, if its arrival forces us to all kinds of administrative steps, if its recurrence is constant, if it is strictly natural, in short, if it is an absolutely normal event in the course of daily life , how is it possible that our persistent attitudes towards it are those of bewilderment, terror, despair or mere difficulty in assuming it? The answer may be that, unlike men of the past, we have lost our familiarity with death.
Indeed, the contrast with ancient experience is sharp and startling. Historiographical research has shown that most of our ancestors, integrated into non-urban societies, whose reproduction was linked to natural cycles, maintained a different relationship with death, closer, open and frank, which made it possible that, at the time crucial, they could exercise a healthy and conscious self-control. Perhaps we should learn something from them. In his magnificent monograph, death in the west, the historian Philippe Ariès collects real testimonies and literary recreations that point out the particularity of this relationship. The protagonists of these stories not only knew when death was haunting them, but also at what precise moment they had received the fatal kiss. This allowed those who were about to die to have time to say goodbye to all those close to them. In general terms, death, Ariès argues, was socially trained: people died in bed, usually from illness; she did so surrounded by relatives and neighbors in what was undoubtedly a public act; and he faced the last moment with simplicity, while the bystanders received the fact in correspondence, apart from excessive drama, without fuss.
One of the most remembered expressions of the philosopher Martin Heidegger is his characterization of man as a being for death (Sein zum Tode). Heidegger argued that being-unto-death was one of the fundamental features of the human experience of being in the world. Now, the question that opens up to us at this point is whether the awareness of this constitutive feature forces us to give ourselves body and soul, that is, whether our life should be guided by the fact of its completion, or whether, having this present, there is the possibility of living with that consciousness and making it count for a useful, meaningful, even happy life. The awareness of the end should be an opportunity to unfold a meaningful life. If we are not convinced, let us approach the matter counterfactually. If we were immortal, would we encourage and close projects? Would we pursue good? Would we strive to make this world a better place? Would we harbor the desire to have offspring? We’ll never know for sure, but we have a powerful feeling that we wouldn’t do any of these things.
Since imitating the attitudes of the past without authentic conviction is not an option, how could we recover a portion of that ancient presence of mind, that enviable dignity of the ancients? Elizabeth Kubler-Ross once reflected on the fact that those who learned to know death, instead of fearing it and fighting it, became our teachers about life. In this line, a response could go through a double educational front in any case connected with ethical reflection. On the one hand, the introduction of a pedagogy of death, associated with the ethical and legal theme of the right to a dignified death, among the youngest, high school students. In this case, it would be a matter of stimulating the awareness of finitude in those who, vitally, feel more alien to it. On the other hand, the encouragement, both from regulated education and from civil society, of a reflection that highlights how our mortality can be a condition for the moral development of citizens, that is, that between mortality and morality there is a relationship more complex than that suggested by the graphic proximity of the words. Through both paths, the foundations could be laid for a future and socially healthier understanding of death in everyday experience.
The difficulties facing these strategies are serious, structural, almost insurmountable. As a result of the rationalization process, contemporary technoscience promotes the idea of an infinite present through an impressive repertoire of technological solutions. Capitalism operates under the assumption that there are no technical, human, or ecological limits to expanded surplus value extraction. For the rest, death has been trivialized and spectacularized in equal parts in the media and on all kinds of platforms. No wonder the humble ethic of finitude, along with its awareness of our fundamental limitation, pales into a corner and, like so many other essentials in life, is missed only when it’s too late. However, the price of not assuming it will continue to be an anomalous experience of our human condition. Let’s not allow the last toast to be made by thanatophobia.