Jenann Ismael
Columbia University
Denial of death We don’t like to think about our deaths, and there are cultural developments – social, technological, economic – that make it easier than ever before to live without constant reminders of our mortality. We hide the evidence of death. We live separately from our old people, and quarantine the dying in hospitals and hospices. It’s impolite to mention death in conversation. We view death not as natural and inevitable stage of life, but as a calamity, a mistake, an accident. This attitude towards death isn’t shared by all cultures, and it’s a relatively recent development even in the west. The result of it, however, is a diminished appreciation of the finitude of life. We spend our lives in the way a foolish man spends his fortune as though there will always be more where that came from, Tolstoy, in The Death of Ivan Ilyich, perhaps the most famous literary portrait of the psychology of a dying man, captures how very easy it is – although we all know in an intellectual sense that we all die - to meet our ends with the shock the foolish spender feels when the last dollar is spent. With a sort of desperate plea ‘Nobody told me it was going to end’. Ivan Ilyich (who has sustained a mortal injury in some stupid household chore… putting up a curtain rod) when he begins to acknowledge the signs of his impending death, thinks to himself..
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