Will Consciousness of Death Remind Americans to Value Life?

May 1 celebrations used to be about the renewal of life, replete with beribboned poles and spring dances, long before the Soviet and Chinese communists appropriated those joyous rituals—replacing flowers with tanks. May Day parades, ostensibly for the purpose of commemorating International Workers Day and instilling pride in the motherland, were meant also to intimidate adversaries at home and abroad.

As much of our country may be set to return to work on May 1 after what has been a nearly three-month confinement, the way in which COVID-19 compelled us to live exposes cultural paradoxes overdue for examination. In the 103 years since the last comparable pandemic, our cultural relationship with life and death has changed.

How will we remember this period of time?

Task Force member Dr. Anthony Fauci asserts that COVID-19 will be with us for some time, and thus, long-accepted societal practices must change to keep infection rates at a minimum. Fauci ignited controversy by suggesting that the widespread social ritual of shaking hands should be discontinued in our new world. “We don’t need to shake hands. We’ve got to break that custom.” His admonition, initially shocking to many, has been quietly accepted by many others as the death toll mounts in places like New York. Other, more informal public displays of affection are likewise being forsaken in the small family gatherings still left to us.

Caitlin Doughty is a mortician and self-described “funeral industry rabble-rouser” popular on YouTube. In 2011, she founded The Order of the Good Death, whose mission is “about making death a part of your life. Staring down your death fears—whether it be your own death, the death of those you love, the pain of dying, the afterlife (or lack thereof), grief, corpses, bodily decomposition, or all of the above. Accepting that death itself is natural, but the death anxiety of modern culture is not.”

In her book, Smoke Gets In Your Eyes and Other Lessons from the Crematory (2018), she graphically describes how the American fear of death results in a terrible disassociation with reality. Doughty’s goal is to reintroduce a cultural affirmation of, and comfort with, death in our lives—as opposed to the antiseptic and expensive service that the modern funeral industry currently offers us. Doughty has argued that Americans tend to deny death and decay:

Looking at the body you understand the person is gone, no longer a player in the game of life. Looking at the body you see yourself, and you know that you, too, will die. The visual is a call to self-awareness. It is the beginning of wisdom.

Doughty frequently takes the funeral industry to task for not offering a more personal, holistic mourning and burial experience like those from earlier times in our country’s history. She tells viewers that the family, usually the older women, would wash and dress their loved one’s body, carefully arrange the body on a couch or bed, and the community would come together and mourn. A black ribbon wreath on the front door notified visitors and bypassers of a family in mourning. Funeral homes, fixtures in communities today, were unknown until the mid-1920s.

During the Spanish Flu epidemic in 1918, life did not shut down. Large and small businesses continued to operate. Concessions to safety like gauze masks were made, and a substantial public service campaign to cover coughs and sneezes was launched largely with help of volunteers like the Boy Scouts.

Historian Catharine Arnold documented the outbreak in Pandemic 1918: Eyewitness Accounts from the Greatest Medical Holocaust in Modern History. She exposed the vulnerability which the experience of survival amid mass casualties can leave in its wake. She includes an account by author John Steinbeck, who had been an adolescent during the height of the pandemic. Steinbeck had recovered after a lengthy convalescence but carried on with lasting physical and mental repercussions. “The experience bestowed a strange psychological legacy, leaving Steinbeck with a profound sense of vulnerability which shaped him as a writer.”

Both Doughty and Arnold make salient points about the cultural treatment of death. Doughty is not wrong to call out abuses and scandals in the funeral industry, but she overplays the role of the industry in shaping our now-ingrained abjuration of death’s reality. “Burial,” she explains’ “means an embalmed body in a heavy-duty casket with a vault built over it so that the ground doesn’t settle. That body is encased in many layers of denial.” However, our current funeral practices are not only the cause of the cultural shift in attitudes towards mortality.

While no one would deny that there are funeral directors who prey on grieving families and abuse their own indispensability for financial gain, Doughty misses some concurrent changes in social mores that are even more directly responsible than the funeral industry. Other corporate ventures have come to trivialize the experience of death in the same measure that funeral directors are said to capitalize on our fear of death. Video games, in their quest to enhance and prolong the period of play, enable their characters to come to gory ends and then respawn with even greater powers—a potentially hazardous twist on cultural archetypes of death and resurrection.

There are scholars who have warned us. John Paul II is often described as the philosopher’s pope. There is little doubt he was influenced by Israeli thinker Martin Buber. The purpose of his 1995 encyclical Evangelium Vitae was to clarify and expand Pope Paul VI’s Humana Vitae, updating it to include new threats from technical innovation and mediated by governments, social activists, and media. The net result of those changes has been to diminish the inherent value of human life as an essential truth. The encyclical reaffirmed the Church’s stance on contraception, abortion, and euthenasia:

…[in the]present social context, marked by a dramatic struggle between the “culture of life” and the “culture of death,” there is an urgent need to develop a deep critical sense, capable of discerning true values and authentic needs.

When governments at the behest of society provide access to these “social” services, they promote a self-centered efficiency at the expense of, and furthering the depreciation of, life itself as a value.

Buber’s 1952 book, Eclipse of God, foreshadowed how nothing good could come from the rapidly fading primacy of metaphysical truths: “Eclipse of the light of heaven, eclipse of the light of God—such indeed is the character of the historic hour through which the world is now passing.” Buber was writing in the aftermath of World War II amid the ethical chaos wrought by the devout atheism of National Socialism as well as the postmodern secular philosophy of Jean-Paul Sartre and other postwar existentialists. Buber also remained acutely aware of false piety, and he did not hesitate to call out devout supposedly moral individuals who collaborated with Nazis:

I do not mean to imply that the evil are anything other than a small minority among the religious or that the religious motives of most people are in any way spurious. I mean only that evil people tend to gravitate toward piety for the disguise and concealment it can offer them.

Echoing Buber, John Paul II wrote:

. . . the eclipse of God and man, typical of a social and cultural climate typically dominated by secularism, which, with its ubiquitous tentacles…those who allow themselves to be influenced by this climate fall into a sad vicious circle: When the sense of God is lost, there is also a tendency to lose the sense of man, or his dignity and his life . . .

It is fair to say that both men were prescient in predicting the spurious nature of what would become woke culture, the fully actualized culture of death the late Pope warned us about.

Although neither Martin Buber nor John Paul II would have had occasion to play “Call of Duty” or “Red Dead Redemption,” they might have watched some American westerns. American popular culture, even including these old westerns, showed a reverence for life and for the concept of all humanity sharing an invisible bond. Several now-classic westerns sent a strong message of American moral exceptionalism. They also took care to affirm an irreducible respect for the humanity of every individual—pointedly including the insignificant, the scorned, the inconvenient. In John Ford’s “Stagecoach,” the passengers risk their own lives to ensure the survival of a pregnant woman and the baby to which she gives birth.

In John Sturges 1960 western “The Magnificent Seven,” the characters played by Yul Brynner and Steve McQueen form an instant brotherhood of protest when a town tries to deny an Indian’s right to be buried alongside the white people of his town. Finally, in Fred Zinneman’s “High Noon,” citizens of a seemingly doomed town rationalize their abandonment of that town and of its marshal Will Kane to certain death, by complaining that nobody outside their town cares about their town anyway. It takes a madam and businesswoman, Helen Ramirez, to argue that the town is choosing to kill itself and thus making it that much easier for the next town to be ground into the dust by the forces of evil.

Over the past two months, the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States has taken over 50,000 lives and wrought economic devastation. If there is good to come of this, it will be born of acknowledging the moral abyss whose edge we have too closely skirted. It is not too late for a rebirth of reverence for the precious value of human life, for the somber—not frightful—claim of all our dead upon our respect. We might reclaim lost ground from the culture of death as we reach for the light of life in the very shadow of that death.

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About Elizabeth Fortunato

Elizabeth Fortunato is a wife and mother from New York. She has a background in liberal arts and philosophy.

Photo: George Peters/Getty Images

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