On Death

Well, now, Death came knocking at my mother’s door,
He said, come on, Mother, are you ready to go?
Well, my mother bent down, began to buckle on her shoe,
And she handed up her cross and began to move,
And she move on down by the Jordan stream,
And she shouted “Hallelujah! I have been redeem!”
She cried, “Yes! My Lord!”
She cried, “Yes! Yes! Lord!”
She cried, “Done do my duty,
Got on my travelling shoes.”
— “Death”, as sung by the Dicey Doh Men

There’s a truth that currently seems to be in the process of being denied in the global media: everything that lives dies.

This is a truth that’s being discussed ad nauseam in the American media these days, with relation to the Terry Shiavo case. Now I don’t want to get into the ins and outs of that case, or to take any stand on it. Instead I want to think about what it tells us about the people who are making the fuss. Many of the same people who want to keep Shiavo alive — many of them born-again fundamentalist Christians — are the very same people who want to make sure that criminals die.

There was a discussion on a website that I frequent on this very subject. Someone who was not an American said that it seemed to him that Americans, and particularly those who profess fundamentalist Christianity, were very afraid of death. For them, he said, death was something that should only happen to bad people; good people, at any cost, should be protected from dying.

Now I don’t want to get bogged down in the politics of all of that. But what he said rang very true for me. For a group of people who should be unafraid of death — particularly when it affects good people (and having once been a fundamentalist myself, I know very well that what classifies as good has more to do with one’s heart, one’s commitment to Christ, than with one’s actions) — and for a group of people for whom death is a gateway to a better life, there seems to be a lot of fighting going on to keep people tethered to this life. No laying up of treasures in heaven here, apparently. The treasure that seems to count is firmly anchored to this everyday world.

In the words of the song, the good person — in Christian terms, the mother — is more than ready to die. Why, then, the fuss about fighting one’s time to go? The way in which many people are addressing the question of dying fits a whole lot more in with what happens to the sinner when Death comes calling, than with what happens to the mother:

Well, he wade in the water by the ankle deep
And the water came a-lapping up around his knee,
He say, “Go way Death! Please now let me be!”
And the water came a-lapping up around his thigh,
He say, “Go way Death! I don’t want to die!”
And the water came a-lapping up around his chest,
He say, “Go way Death! Please now let me rest!”
And the water came a-lapping up around his chin,
And along came Death and pushed him in,
He cry, “No!”
He cry, “Don’t want to go!”
He cry, “Ain’t done my duty,
Ain’t got no travelling shoes!”

But let’s get away from the religious side of this. Let’s say that we believe in no God at all (note to all hit men: this is a supposition, not a reality; let’s just suppose this). Even beyond that, we are faced with the fundamental truth of life: everything that lives dies. Indeed, without death, life has no meaning for anything. Plants, trees, animals, birds, fish, even amoeba and other germs — everything that is alive dies. Why should human beings be any different?

It is a particularly American malaise, I think, to believe that death can be cheated. It’s not something that we tend to suffer from very much here in The Bahamas at the moment; we are well aware that death is a part of living. We follow up our promises with “If God spare life” or “God willing”; we believe in burying the dead very well indeed, with a good funeral that sends them off in style. This is a very African thing. As long as individuals are alive, they keep the others who have passed over alive in memory and truth; it’s said that a person doesn’t really die until everyone who remembers him or her dies. We have retained much of our African heritage.

It’s a very healthy way of approaching life and death. Rather than pretending that death doesn’t happen — or that it should happen only to the evil, as it appears to be the belief further north — we recognize that it happens, we integrate it into our lives.

This is something that we should celebrate about ourselves. After all, death comes to us all. As the character in Winston Saunders’ I, Nehemiah, Remember When notes, very wisely: People dying today who en never die before. While we are appropriating many of the cultural manifestations of our American neighbours, we will do well to avoid their peculiar aversion to that which is the most natural thing of all — death.

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