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Experiencing Death

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Vincent Valentine, MD
University of Alabama Birmingham
Birmingham, AL, USA

In the last issue, we began the topic of death "Dealing with Death as Witnesses." In this issue, we continue the march to death as an experience. In all honesty, a peaceful acknowledgement of death is complicated. Art does offer experience; however, it is not the same as the experience science offers. We can experience anything from books, paintings, films and music, and these experiences are not the same as the actual experience of death. So, can art give us the experience of dying? It is art that allows us to imagine a reality we cannot afford to experience giving us a grasp of things that can be only encountered once. There is something to be said about reading on suffering and death. Reading educates and schools our emotions and feelings. Literature provides an experiential view of things giving us various perceptual dimensions of death. Art as experience can occasionally overstate the issue. For example, do we really know what it's like or how someone feels when we try to empathize and state, "I know how you feel?" Recognize that pain, suffering and death are not the same as these actual experiences.

Instead of the actual experience, great writers, artists, directors and composers keep the beam of light of conscious "on," sometimes with a buzz rather than switching the light "off." We are provided a focused feeling of entering the final phase of this limited experience with a torch that takes us right to and through the bitter end. We are enlightened and further supported by George Carlin's quote against the sanctity of life, "if everyone is going to die, or everything that has lived has died, then what's all the fuss about?"

Grammatically, anyone could say or write: I will die, I may die or I might die, but we might lose credibility if we say or write, I have died. For when we die, it would be impossible to say that we have died in this world as we know it today.

Emily Dickinson, one of the greatest 19th century poets lived at a time when death was commonplace. Women tended the sick and tended the dying. Death occurred in people's homes and bedrooms, there were no nursing homes or funeral homes. Death was a domestic reality for Dickinson, nevertheless, she viewed death in a mysterious way: as a moment of truth, of clarification and transfiguration through the senses of sight, sound and feeling that she left in her poems: "Because I could not stop for Death," "I heard a Fly buzz - when I died" and "I felt a Funeral in my Brain." From her poems, Dickinson is deep, witty and ironic. As witnessed in Because I could not stop for Death, no one makes an appointment with death. Death usually drops in unscheduled, as a surprise. Death simply comes knocking as a civilized, decorous and refined social caller - not the grim reaper carrying a sickle. In death, the hustle and bustle of life is cast aside for an elegant trip to eternity after a simple evocation of life during the carriage ride to the grave. Dickinson speaks a story of leisure with a refined tone from a coffin in the ground and from a new world of horizontals, not verticals. Also, one might recall the 1998 film, Meet Joe Black in which Death is personified by Brad Pitt who is well groomed, elegant, civilized and strikingly handsome with a scheduled plan. The seemingly kind Joe Black interrupts the busy life of Billionaire Bill Parrish played by Sir Anthony Hopkins.

In contrast, in "I heard a Fly buzz when I died" the tone is not elegant or refined. Instead, there is a disruption of the senses, a disruption of the stillness and calm before the storm. All that's left is the buzzing of a fly in the presence of the King. Is this the buzzing noise from the human brain of consciousness, or the noise of thinking? Perhaps this is a moment of truth where we meet our maker, the King, the King of Kings and in some circles the Lord. Is this a discovery of that undiscovered place in front of our eyes as vision is lost in the blue and in the light. That bumbling and stumbling buzz remains. Why a fly? Consider the 1958 film, The Fly starring Vincent Price and its 1986 remake starring Jeff Goldblum. The Fly movies are about the scientific quest of transportation via instantaneous teleportation with disintegration and reintegration only to be disrupted by a fly. The ultimate in transportation turned into transfiguration. The fly, any fly or any insect could interrupt life as can insects and germs transform death. One might ponder the prominent role of the fly at the end of Alfred Hitchcock's 1960 thriller, Psycho. Is all of this simply the search for the truth? All of this from that impossible to write line...when I died.

Dickinson can also be violent as witnessed in her poem, I felt a Funeral in my Brain. Dickinson's diction evokes a metamorphic sound of pounding, beating and hammering linked to the pounding rhythmic heartbeat, throbbing headaches and circulatory flow of blood to the parts of the body that hurts, "to and fro" which ultimately breaks through the senses of the decedent who lies there comfortably cold, motionless and rigid. She has explicitly evoked death in a figurative manner. She becomes both the perceived and perceiver lying in her own coffin being carried away. The Boots of lead suggests pain and abuse as the mourners have paced and pounded on and through her repeatedly. The pounding continues until "a Plank in Reason" breaks. The world of space, time and reason collapses and plunges into some abyss. Perhaps when we die, we die to enter the creation.

From death to creation, there may be no end but Shakespeare helped me end this piece (peace?). Here is just a tiny sampling from such great works, in the process many may have been insulted because their favorites were not included, yet I make no apologies on what I have excluded such as those from: Wordsworth, Ionesco, St Paul and Selzer, just to name a few. However, I am compelled to include at least Shakespeare's Sonnet 146. Shakespeare refers to the body as a fading mansion as the soul wastes it resources by tending to its body or mansion. It is the inner life, the soul if you will, that is to flourish; therefore, in death it is time to put aside the life of the body. The body and mind are split and the soul outwits the body. "So once dead, there's no more dying then."

Sonnet 146

Poor soul, the centre of my sinful earth,
[Why feed'st] these rebel powers that thee array?
Why dost thou pine within, and suffer dearth,
Painting thy outward walls so costly gay?
Why so large cost, having so short a lease,
Dost thou upon thy fading mansion spend?
Shall worms, inheritors of this excess,
Eat up thy charge? is this thy body's end?
Then soul, live thou upon thy servant's loss,
And let that pine to aggravate thy store;
Buy terms divine in selling hours of dross;
Within be fed, without be rich no more:
So shalt thou feed on Death, that feeds on men,
And, Death once dead, there's no more dying then. ■

Disclosure Statement: The author has no conflicts of interest to disclose.

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