Writing Up Old Ideas III: Death
Well, this is perhaps the idea that came out of the virtual hat that I’m least excited to write about, so I figured I ought to get it out of the way early. I am tempted to take the easy way out and write about the band that invented death metal but I know that’s not what I meant when I wrote the Trello card, and isn’t really in the spirit of this series either. Given I already mentioned it yesterday, I think it makes sense to continue discussing it today.
Death is a taboo subject, and that’s why I’m reluctant to talk about it. It seems to be something that everyone around me is also reticent to bring up, only discussed in hushed tones by most. Bizarrely it seems to require the tragedy of somebody actually dying for many people to acknowledge the concept of death at all, which doesn’t help anyone be emotionally prepared for death when it comes. I certainly don’t feel prepared for the death of anybody around me, even after having experienced it before. I have no idea how I’m going to grieve or heal or any of it, which doesn’t seem especially helpful, but then again perhaps everybody deals with those situations differently, and there really is nothing to do apart from figure it out on my own, once it happens.
I’m currently reading Meditations and if there’s one thing Marcus Aurelius loves banging on about, it’s that everybody, no matter how wise, powerful or physically fit they might be, dies in the end. Every great person that came before you has already died, and every great person that stands beside you will die too. Perhaps in the future, scientists will figure immortality out, but right now, our eventual death is one of the few things that we share in common with every single human being on earth. In terms of how we personally think about our collective mortality, I think there’s two distinct sides of the coin to consider; our own death and the death of others.
When it comes to the deaths of others, the obvious ones to think about are the deaths of our loved ones. Seeing as my former housemate is an actuarial trainee, he loves a good death table, and I fished out the UK ones to crunch some very basic numbers. Using the data for 2017-2019, accounting for no factors other than gender, age, and domicile within the UK, I have just over an 8% chance of dying in the next 10 years. I have no underlying physical health issues, and my socio-economic status is definitely going to be a big factor in meaning I’m less likely than the average to die, but my chronic mental health issues could well cancel that out completely, so 8% seems reasonable. Let’s say I have a friend who is the same age as me and healthy, physically and mentally, as well as in a similar socio-economic situation to me. We’ll say their chance of dying in the next 10 years is just 5%. Now let’s say I have 14 friends (which is at least 10 too many) who are all in the same position. In ten years time, it’s statistically more likely that at least one of them will be dead than none of them will be. Obviously my figure of 5% is pulled out of a hat somewhat and might well be too high, but imagine if I move to London and make 10 new friends. I’m sure you get the idea.
And obviously, not everyone that I love is a healthy 26 year old. My parents are going to die, even if they wouldn’t like to acknowledge that, and even if reading this might make them uncomfortable. I know I’m going to have to deal with that at some point, and I really have no idea how I will handle it, I don’t feel equipped at all. When my father had a heart attack in late 2019 it threw into sharp reflection his own mortality, and how perhaps I ought to be thinking about this kind of thing more. I spent a lot of time thinking about what might happen if his operation wasn’t a success, for whatever reason. Crossing that bridge when I come to it is a hard sell for an event of the magnitude of the death of a parent. But I don’t particularly want to talk about it, and I don’t think they do either.
Then of course, there is the prospect of my own death, something which I’m confident I’ve spent more time meditating on than the average 26 year old. It’s been over ten years of seriously considering bringing it about myself, so safe to say I think I have quite a good grip on the concept of my personal demise. Even before Aurelius rammed it down my throat, I was already a devout believer in the saying memento mori (or, “remember that you will die” if you didn’t study Latin at a pretentious private school like me). In a way I feel like I’m living on borrowed time, like my life has already been extended repeatedly, and so of course I am doing everything I can to make the best of it. I am overwhelming grateful for my own life, because I am acutely aware of all the parallel universes in which I am already dead. And I know that an 8% chance of dying in the next ten years is absolutely huge, and I need to make the most of every moment I have (incidentally, one of the things I plan to do to make the most of my life is to get a tattoo of some variation on memento mori).
Normally I would close with some kind of throwaway half-joke to take the edge off, or something pseudo-profound to try and wrap everything up. But I don’t think either of those would be appropriate for this post. I hope that as a society we can make death less of a prohibited topic of conversation, and instead by allowing ourselves to talk about, also learn to talk about and celebrate all the things that we love about life. Perhaps I will have to embody the change I would like to see in the world, before I am able to see it.