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All death is necessary

Just as the coronavirus scare was kicking off in earnest in 2020, a favourite blogger of mine wrote a post about how the denial of death had become a feature of modern life, about how we’ve pushed it to the margins of our lives:

Illness has, for most of us, for most of our lives, been separated from death. Illness is an inconvenience to be ‘treated’ rather than a frightening herald of death itself. We have grown flippant about death. We like to laugh at it. Death in ‘The Seventh Seal’ was solemn and commanding. Bill and Ted reduced death to a clown.

David Malone, Golem XIV – Thoughts

The thought has stayed with me throughout the (non) pandemic, percolating throughout the months of hysteria, propaganda, lockdown and social distancing. While I agree with Mr Malone that death denialism is at, or pretty near, the root of the crisis which currentluy engulfs western society, I do not agree about Bill and Ted.

Not so frightening.

The film he’s referring to is Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey, in which the eponymous wannabee rock gods are killed by android versions of themselves (Evil Bill and Ted) which were sent back from the future to prevent the duo’s music and philosophy reshaping society into a peaceful utopia where everyone plays air guitar and all are “excellent to each other”.

Upon dying, the pair meet the grim reaper himself, who attempts to escort them off to the realms of the dead. But, in a scene which pays homage to the Seventh Seal, Bill and Ted manage to delay Death’s mission by besting him at a series of best-selling family board games.

What’s my point here? That Death’s portrayal in the movie is a rare example in modern media of a medieval-style treatment of death. One where Death is fully embodied and moves among us. Where he dances and cavorts amid living beings, being himself not separate from life but part of it. Death is not to be feared, but accepted as a reality. And, as Death reminds us in his finale speech (rap):

Whether you’re a king or a little street sweeper,

Sooner or later, you’ll dance with the reaper.

Death, Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey (1991)

Bill and Ted only manage to conquer death through their childlike exuberence, their joyous approach to life, their complete lack of the guile and knowing irony which typified the protagonists of most teen comedies of the time. (Not!)

Despite the presence of the late great George Carlin, Bogus Journey isn’t perfect – it’s too long, the closing song is awful and the movie’s vision of a future utopia looks even more boring than that of Star Trek – but it does invite the young viewer to think about Death, to explore the fear of Death and wonder about the qualities that transcend Death.

And Jesus called a little child unto him, and set him in the midst of them,

And said, Verily I say unto you, Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.

Whosoever therefore shall humble himself as this little child, the same is greatest in the kingdom of heaven.

Matthew 18:2-4, KJV

In 2020, the cult of death denialism entered into a new phase of development, swelling its ranks to number billions as it strained towards its apotheosis. Fear of a virus that is statistically non-existent drove hundreds of millions to cover their faces and remain indoors as they decried their governments’ lacklustre efforts to ‘control the spread’. Then, as venal politicians, blinkered bureaucrats and greedy corporations doubled-down on the lockdown-and-vaccinate strategy, hundreds of millions more became fearful of evil forces lurking behind the scenes and of the harms caused by experimental jabs (also statistically insignificant). From both camps came the cry that the other side was causing “unnecessary deaths”.

But all death is necessary. Each of us must die. Certainly and forever.

All the achievements of science and medicine, as far as death is concerned, amount to a postponement of the inevitable. Sooner or later, Death will extend his bony hand in our direction and invite us to dance.

Doesn’t look too bad, does it?

And that’s no bad thing!

We fear death because we are attached to our physical bodies, we identify with them. When childlike Bill and Ted realise that they’re dead, they barely give their dead bodies a second thought, but most of us find the idea horrifying. We think that we are our bodies. That consciousness arises from matter. We have been programmed to think this way by four hundred years of rationalist materialism. But it’s not the truth.

The body is beautiful, but it is not life itself. Life carries on after the death of the body. Life is the dance that death invites us to carry on. Life needs our bodies back. We are part of that life and as long as life continues, we can never die.

What matters while we are alive is not how and when we die, but how and why we live. We can celebrate life or we can deny death but we can’t do both, since death is an essential part of life. Both those who live in fear of the virus and those who live in fear of tyranny are suffering, and they will continue to suffer until they can let go of their fear of death.

Laughter in the face of death is, I think, a good place to start.

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