The Taboo Topic

Death is a taboo subject. We are not supposed talk about it, or even think about it. It is almost like if we did, death might take notice of us, and we can do without that kind of attention. If we want to be inconspicuous anywhere at all, it is in front of Death.

I have been watching Six Feet Under recently, which is probably behind these musings on death. I am curious though — why is the topic of death such a taboo, despite its natural inevitability? I don’t mean the superstitious kind of taboo (“No, no, no, you are not going to die any time soon, touchwood!”), but the intellectual kind. The kind of chill that comes about if you try holding a conversation about it over a beer or at a dinner table. Why is death such a taboo?

To say that we are just scared of death is a bit of an oversimplification. Sure we fear death, but we fear public speaking more, but we can still talk about the latter. We have to find the reason for the special tabooness of death elsewhere.

One thing special about death is that it is a great equalizer — a fact almost too obvious to appreciate. Everybody dies — regardless of whatever else they do in their lives. Perhaps this ultimate leveling of the field may be a bit distressing to the more competitive among us. However high we soar, or however low we sink, at the end of our days, the score is all reset and the slate is wiped clean.

This slate-wiping business also is troublesome for another reason. It is so damn permanent. Its permanence has an aspect never present in any other kind of pain and suffering we go through (including public speaking). One of my personal techniques to handle minor aches and pains (such as a root canal, or even deeper wounds like the loss of a loved one) is to make use of just this lack of permanence. I remind myself that it is going to pass, in time. (For some strange reason, I do this in French, “Ça va pas tarder,” although, to be correct, I think I should be telling myself, “Ça va pas durer.”) I even shared this technique with my son when he broke his arm and was in excruciating pain. I told him that the agony would soon abate. Well, I said it using different words, and I fancy the little fellow understood, although he kept screaming his head off.

We can handle any “normal” pain by just waiting it out, but not the pain of death, which lasts for ever. Ça va durer. Is this permanence behind our fear of it? Perhaps. With absolute permanence comes absolute imperviousness, as any Spiderman fan would appreciate. What lies beyond death is unknown. And unknowable. Despite all the religions of the world telling us various mystical things about what lies beyond (you know, like heaven and hell, Karma and reincarnation etc.), nobody really believes it. I know, I know, some may honestly insist that they really really do, but when push comes to shove, at an instinctive, gut level, nobody does. Not even the ones who are certain that they will end up in heaven. Why else would holy men have security details? In Of Human Bondage, Maugham caricatures this strange lack (or impossibility) of real faith vis-à-vis death in his portrayal of the last days of the Vicar of Blackstable.

To live with any sense of purpose, I think we have to ignore death. A finite span of existence is just absurd at multiple levels. It makes all our lofty goals and ideals absurd. It makes our sense of good and evil absurd. It makes whatever we think of as the purpose of life absurd. It even makes the modest purpose of life proposed in the DNA-based evolutionary explanation (that we just want to live a little longer) absurd, for any finite increment in our life span is essentially zero when compared to the infinity of time, as the nerdy ones among us would readily appreciate. In short, there is only one real problem with life, which is death. Since we cannot avoid dying and paying taxes, may be we can avoid thinking and talking about it — a plausible reason behind the taboo nature of the topic of death.