Saturday, April 12, 2014

Dying for an answer

An article in the “New Yorker” magazine last week is entitled “Final Forms:
What death certificates can tell us, and what they can’t.” What our death certificate can tell someone, unequivocally, is that we are, indeed, dead (not always a precondition for burial, in times gone by). What it cannot tell, with any finality, is why we die.
“Every dead body is a mystery,” says author Kathryn Schulz. “Death is an assassin with infinite aliases, and the question of what kills us is tremendously complex.” As with any other complex matter, we have developed a bureaucracy to address it – or to obfuscate it – and, by Schulz’s reckoning, “The atomic unit of that bureaucracy is the death certificate.” As a means to come to terms with our mortality, the death certificate is, in Schulz’s elegant phrase, “the saddest of diplomas, the most mysterious of passports.”
The death certificate stands for our notion that every death means something, and should be accounted for. It also represents our attempt to explain death, by documenting it.
Keeping track of the dead is a relatively new endeavor. The death certificate, as Schulz details, was an innovation of 16th-century England, in the form of a document known as a Bill of Mortality. “Early (earlier) states,” she points out, “had neither the means nor the motive to track individual deaths – or, for that matter, Individual anything.”   
The motive arose, Schulz says, in large part because of the Black Plague, which made death a public concern, and the means followed, as states began to mandate the recording of deaths.
With the rise of democracies, the death certificate took on the aspect of a personal ID. As Schulz notes, “The flip side of democracy is bureaucracy: if everyone counts, everyone must be counted.”
But the imperative to account for every death was marred, inevitably, by imprecision, where the cause of death was uncertain and those charged with the recording of deaths were overwhelmed or unqualified. Today, Schulz says, the task of filling out death certificates is often foisted on medical interns or residents, and she quotes one who compares it to “filling out your own taxes. Shouldn’t I be smart enough to know how to do this?” The comparison is an apt one: the official book on causes of mortality is as dreary and byzantine as the IRS tax manual, and lists over 8,000 ways to die.

Even when it is as accurate as mortal hands and minds can make it, the death certificate can still never answer the question, Why do we die? All we can do is guess, and say, as Schulz does, with cheerful resignation: “We die because we were born; because we are mortal; because that is, after all, life.”      

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Belief on the back burner

Can you deny that there are supernatural beings and not be an atheist?

The New York Times ran the transcript of an interview conducted for “The Stone” by Gary Gutting, a professor of philosophy at Notre Dame, with Howard Wettstein, his counterpart at the University of California. Wettstein is a practicing Jew who prays regularly, and he is proof, I suppose, that one can have a rich religious life without necessarily believing in God – or, in his words, taking “a theoretical stance on God’s existence.” As Wettstein sees it (I think), belief is irrelevant to faith, and even irrelevant altogether. To paraphrase another philosopher with a similar name (Wittgenstein), what we can’t put into words we must pass over in silence.

Wettstein takes an unhelpful detour at the beginning, comparing theorizing about God to theorizing about numbers. “Even an advanced and creative mathematician,” he says, “need not have views about, say, the metaphysical status of numbers.” He cites the physicist Richard Feynman, who was supposed to have said about himself that he “lived among the numbers,” but who was unconcerned with whether they “actually” existed. But when we think about numbers we are able to describe how they work, in the form of proofs.  No such thinking can be done about God to yield results that are anything but highly subjective and abstract.

Wettstein talks about a rabbi friend of his who held that “God’s reality went without saying,” but that “God’s reality as a supernatural being was quite another thing.” (Wettstein’s words.) To watch his friend praying was to be overwhelmed, he says, by the intimacy of the pray-er and the pray-ee: “God was almost tangible.”

Gutting asks, quite reasonably, how one can pray to something that doesn’t exist. Wettstein says that “’existence’ is, pro or con, the wrong idea for God.”    

“My relation to God has come to be a pillar of my life, in prayer, in experience of the wonders and the awfulness of our world,” Wettstein says. “And concepts like the supernatural and transcendence have application here. But (speaking in a theoretical mode) I understand such terms as directing attention to the sublime rather than referring to some nonphysical domain. To see God as existing in such a domain is to speak as if he had substance, just not a natural or physical substance. As if he were composed of the stuff of spirit, as are, perhaps, human souls. Such talk is unintelligible to me. I don’t get it.”
In other words, we can’t talk about whether God exists, we can only talk about what His existence means to us. An argument like this gives sophistry a good name.

“So what is the real question?” Gutting asks, a little wearily it seems.

“The real question is one’s relation to God, the role God plays in one’s life, the character of one’s spiritual life,” Wettstein answers. These aren’t questions, they are sidestepping the question.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Death: DIY

My great idea is finally catching on, and as usual I don’t get any credit for it. Maybe because I kept it to myself. “Selfie obits” are now to die for, as reported in “USA Today.”
Writing your own obituary was a brainstorm that came to me six or seven years ago, when my former best friend died and no one had much to say at his funeral. My pal had been brilliant and creative and eloquent, as well as never shy about self-promotion, and a self-crafted obit would have been right down his alley. As it was, his family/friends could barely muster the resources to run even a small notice of his death in the newspaper.
Look what Grandma did!
It is just such cruel happenstances of fate that we can take arms against with an “auto-obituary.” Why leave it to someone else to sum up your life, even a loved one? Or particularly a loved one, who may be prostrate with grief, preoccupied with other details of your final disposition, or otherwise without the wherewithal to give you a proper written send-off?
To paraphrase Big Daddy in “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” most people don’t get in the paper until they die. When they do, it’s often, well, disappointing. One or two lines about the deceased, who more than likely never met a stranger, and the rest of the space given over to a listing of the survivors. Composing your own obituary just might reassure you that you’ll escape a fate worse than death: Irrelevance.
The “USA” article references Susan Soper of Atlanta, who offers the “Obitkit” as a guide to help people take control of their deaths, including writing their own obituaries. Just perusing her site, it seems to me there’s one major element lacking: Obitwit.

Since death can come at any time, it’s never too early to start working on your obit. (You can always update it, like your resume.) Give it enough thought and effort, and who knows, maybe you’ll help contribute to a whole new genre: Obitlit.     

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Plan ahead for best results

Quit stalling
Twice in the last two days, now, I’ve received in the mail two separate letters about pre-planning for my demise. Is the Grim Reaper lurking outside my house, or is it simply my demographic profile?
You’re sixty-four. High time to face facts: Unless you take the bull by the horns, you can’t afford to die.  
The tone of both letters is solicitous but implicitly scolding: Of course you don’t want to think about death, you schmuck, but do you really want to compromise your family?
“Dear Friend,” begins the first letter. (“Friend” is appropriate, I assume, given that we’re all in the same boat, the one bound for oblivion.) “We need your help…In order to assist with sensitive, caring and professional help when people are in need, we need to know the real thoughts and feelings of individuals just like you.” Individuals just like me, meaning those who will die some day?
To better to plumb my real thoughts and feelings, they’ve put together a survey, simple (all Yes or No or multiple-choice answers) and to-the-point:
“If you have given thought to this subject, which of the following would you choose for yourself?  Burial, or Cremation.” (And if you haven’t given thought to it, start now, ya big ox!)
“How important to you personally is the location (proximity) of a Cemetery?” About as important, I’d say, as the location of a lunatic asylum: Not in my neighborhood. In truth, the location won’t concern me if I’m the one buried there, which is probably not what they’re getting at.
I’m completing the survey and sending it back, as they’ve promised me an “absolutely free” Final Wishes Organizer to be delivered in return. Maybe now I can get organized, at last.

My other letter goes the first one better, offering two “absolutely free” books, a “10 Things Everyone Should Know” guide, plus one called “Imagine.” The sender is in California but has three convenient local affiliates here. This one doesn’t bother with a survey, but just assumes that I’m not so inconsiderate as to leave my family in the lurch. Their FREE information will put me “in control,” and also show me how to “add personality to (my) service and make it a real celebration of life,” one I won’t be able to attend. Leave ‘em laughing, in other words.