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OF DEATH

an essay by James Vila Blake

Death lieth still in the way of life,
Like as a stone in the way of a brook;
I will sing against thee, Death, as the brook does,
I will make thee into music which does not die.

--SIDNEY LANIER

ALBEIT my interest in death is wholly from the spiritual side, having no elemental or physiological knowledge of it, yet I may divide discourse of it into two parts, one of which will have regard to the body. I will treat first of death as a physical fact, and secondly of some moral thoughts clustering around it. In the first part I will speak of the fear of death, the ease, the simplicity of it, and its aspect as a function of life; and in the second part will follow the thoughts of the possible vicinity of the dead, the democracy of death, and the look of dead faces.

The fear of death has been raised too much and set up on high, especially by preachers, like the brazen serpent in the wilderness over the heads of the Israelites; but not with so good excuse as that symbol had, for this fear has not been curative, I think, nor made into pleasant or graceful shape, but rather a horrid spectacle, to affright people. For that men can be frightened into piety has been one of the legacies of religion which barbarous ages have bequeathed us plentifully. I think if the priests spoke not of death in order to make the fear of it the greater, the healthy human heart would take less note of it. Notwithstanding, the fear of it belongs to the nature of the bodily life; for the body has an instinctive recoil from danger, injury, destruction; which is no more than to say, in another way, that it is living. Wherefore this recoil is so much the greater as health and vitality are stronger; and yet health, which is only an exuberant sense of life bounding and abundant, will make death less present or habitual to thought; so that the force of life which recoils from death is that very thing which shuts it out from imagination.

When death lodges in the mind, the foreboding springs, if I have counted all, from three classes of feeling, which may work separately or all together, according to individual experiences. These are, first, uncertainty or terror as to what may come after the change, which the familiar words of Hamlet set forth:

The dread of something after death
The undiscovered country from whose bourn
No traveler returns, puzzles the will.

Secondly, attachments to a happy life, to surrounding pleasures, and especially to dear and sacred loves; and this sometimes takes the form of intense curiosity as to events forthcoming, especially if one's lot be cast in moving epochs and great exigencies, which incite the ardent soul to a mighty grip and desire of life, until the issue of great events shall become clear. Thirdly, the painful conditions which attend death sometimes, and to the mind or the fear of many persons always; for even if none be visibly, many fear an obscure and unpresented agony in the rending of life from the body; which terror springs from unnatural, and thence constrained, unsightly, and painful dissolutions, especially by violent diseases; for these once witnessed, or even described, will make strong impress on imagination. Nevertheless, nature has her ways of death, as shortly I shall say, which are sightly and kind; and it is well if the imagination lay hold of these, as Browning does when he speaks of death as "half a pang, and all a rapture."

The fear of death is slighter in youth, because youth reflects less and especially of the future, and also, perhaps, as finely has been said, because it is the time of life "before the habit of living has been very firmly established." The fear is greatest in mid-age, because then the mind ponders much, and because life, wherein it is affected by the body, then is at its highest, memory being then most vivid, present enjoyment keenest, and the future most hopeful. The fear is least in old age, because desire and strength have been satisfied; which a poet thus figures:

Just as a child, that at its mother's breast
Has drunk its fill so eagerly, that now
Its eyes stand staring open, and its lips
Tremble, like those of a worn out old man;
And both of them sink down in one sweet sleep.

I find the fear of death rises and falls, being greater at one time and less at others, or falling indeed to nothing. This observation I have made in myself. Whence I conclude that the foreboding varies with health, bodily and mental; if which be true, it is plain that death causes not wholly and substantially the fear of it, which it would do if truly and in itself it were a fearful thing (as it cannot be rationally, since it is natural), but that the fear springs from affections which come between us and death like a distorting vapor. For I have found the fear of death less as the soul is elastic, joyful, healthful, in good morality and at peace; wherefore Bacon's saying falls true in a very noble sense, that "death is no such terrible enemy, when a man hath so many attendants about him that can win the combat of him."

It is my observation that fear of death is not much present to life's occupations and pleasures; this is right and natural, for wisdom has always its hands full with the moment which is. Therefore, _memento mori_ is a needless maxim, and rather to be ascribed to the priests, as I have said, than to healthy sense; and, as Bacon says on this point, "in religious meditation there is sometimes a mixture of vanity and superstition." _Memento vivere_ were better, wise and salutary, as Aurelius says thus: "If thou shalt be afraid, not because thou must some time cease to live, but if thou shalt fear never to have begun to live according to nature, then thou wilt be a man worthy of the universe which has produced thee."

The ease and simplicity of death has been remarked very often; yet it is not pondered as it should be perhaps, so admirable and beautiful is it. Animals show terror of destruction, but I think never any fear of dying; and this not because of their ignorance, but because death is so soft and gentle a passage. Our dumb fellow creatures recognize in some sense the advent of the change, and go apart from their fellows, even sometimes into very secluded and hidden places; so that I have read that the dead of some of the wiser of the creatures never have been found. This they do, quietly and even in confinement; as, in gardens of natural history, high creatures like intelligent apes have been seen to lie down for death with a very clear look of comprehension in the eye. Man, who can utter his sensations, has witnessed to the ease of death very often. When the physician told Anquetil his end was near, he said: "My friend, you behold a man dying full of life." William Hunter said: "If I had strength to hold a pen I would write how easy and delightful it is to die." Fontenelle, being asked if he suffered, answered, "I only feel a difficulty of existing." Haller kept his expert touch on his own pulse and said calmly at last to a brother physician, "My friend, the artery beats no longer." I have read that an officer wounded in a naval battle said, as life ebbed, "I had no idea it was so pleasant a thing to die:" and that Solander, having nearly perished in the snow with cold, was so pleased with the sensations that he resented his rescue; and that a man who was nearly drowned resisted resuscitation with all his power, because the sinking away of his senses he found so delightful. Florence Nightingale has reported that indifference is the usual state, but that diverse diseases have diverse effects; so that in some the dying show a peculiar peace, even joyfulness, which sometimes is rapturous; but in others terror or despair appears. The like observations have been made on death mechanically enforced, the face being distorted when a shot wound has inflicted it, but calm when a sword has cut the life-thread. Whence is it not to be concluded plainly that it is not death that is affrighting or an evil, for this is the same fact in all conditions; but the different states or incidents of the body that take death differently? And so, too, they might take heat, cold, food, sleep differently, and sometimes painfully, though these be all natural and delightful. Higginson narrates that an eminent physician assured him that in all his medical experience he never met a dying person who was afraid of dying. These tributes to the softness and the ease of death, the delightfulness of the approach of the great change, are very plentiful, and will affect the mind deeply if reason dwell on them. It is a truth which seems to have repeated itself in all ages, for mythologies give a domestic and peaceable turn to death, as in a beautiful fable of ancient India that the death messenger is the soul of the first man, who thus perpetually comes back to call patriarchally each of his descendants to follow him.

"Of Death" is reprinted from Essays. James Vila Blake. Chicago: Charles H. Kerr & Company, 1887.

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