Yesterday here I had a light meditation on how the living talk about the dead. Posting it, I was reminded of this heavier one, posted a few years ago—smack in the middle, as you’ll read, in the COVID summer of 2020. I figured: Time for an encore. —DM
Regis Philbin died at 88, and a Facebook friend described it as “heartbreaking.”
Why is that “heartbreaking”?
I guess you’ll have to ask the 26 people who shared the post, the 127 “Likes,” “Sads,” and “Wows,” and the ones who made comments like, “I am so shocked & sad :(“
I remember when Sis Daley died, the wife of longtime Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley, at 95.
A young public radio producer I knew ran to Studs Terkel’s house for a comment. “Studs! Sis Daley died, what do you have to say?!”
“That’s what old people do, Kid,” Terkel said. “What do you want me to say?”
By that time, Terkel had a lot to say about death. He was born 1912—”the year the Titanic went down, and I came up!” When he was a kid growing up in Chicago, people waked their dead not in funeral homes but in their front rooms. And people died all the time back then, from many causes and at all ages. Though were some verboten subjects, like sex—death wasn’t one of them. Death was everywhere, Studs said.
And then Studs lived long enough to see a society where all anyone ever talked about was sex—but nobody, it seemed, had any comfort talking about death, which is exactly one of the two most profound things that happens to a person.
I think of Studs a lot when I read hysterical wailing on Facebook about old musicians or other beloved luminaries who have died. “Not another one!” Yes, another one. What did you think was going to happen?
Once, early in my motorcycling career, my wife asked me if I die on the thing, could she tell people, “He died doing what he loved.” I told her she could tell them anything I wanted, but that as I sailed headfirst through the trees I’d probably be thinking, “What I actually loved was living,” and that motorcycling was only like Thing That I Loved About Living Number 17. Still, I’m planning another long ride for this very week.
When you never talk about a thing, you don’t think very well about that thing. When a whole society never talks about a thing, that whole society doesn’t behave very cohesively about that thing. And we have to think and behave more consistently about death these days—as individuals and as a society that’s weighing things like the risks and rewards of sending kids to school, and sending teachers there, too.
My wife is a teacher. She may be sent back to school this fall—not to face a class of 30 children, as most teachers do—but hundreds, because she’s the art teacher, and all the kids come through her room. She’s trying to raise $9,000 to buy kids individual art supplies so they don’t share with each other. And she’s scared. And so am I. I have told people, “You know, children and their teachers are going to start dying, and what are we going to think about that?” The sentence seems to hit them like a sledgehammer, like they’ve never heard it said so plainly before.
(When my daughter was about four, she said to me that our goldfish “passed away.” I said, “Honey, in this family, we don’t say ‘passed away.’ We say, ‘died.’” I realized she understood the concept the next morning as I lay on the couch. “What are you doing, Dad?” “I’m snoozing.” “Dad, in this house we don’t ‘snooze.’ We ‘sleep.’”)
I don’t know how to give us back our vocabulary for death—and I surely don’t have a Unifying Philosophy of Life and Death that I’d like everyone to share. I think I love life more than I fear death, but again, that might just be because I’ve never been through the woods head first.
I think accommodating neighbors is part of living a good human life, so if you and I have differing attitudes about risk and reward of personal practice and public policy, we need to work these differences out—as individuals, and as a society. By actually talking about them, with words.
At any rate, I do think it would be a sign of a healthy mutual understanding about death (and life) if we all were embarrassed to describe the demise of a talk show host, who apparently lived 88 happy and successful years, as “heartbreaking.”
I laughed the other day when my Facebook pal Cody Marley said Olivia de Havilland died at 104 “because she chose to drink and smoke.”
Similarly, Studs Terkel died even younger—at 96—because in addition to drinking and smoking cigars, he worked too hard and never went to the gym.