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09 July 2009

Die Another Day


In the past two weeks I've had a number of conversations in which someone has suggested that there is an increase in the number of deaths around us. In each conversation I've pointed out that there was an apparent increase in the number of celebrity deaths, but the actual numerical trends of all deaths remains constant.
Underneath each of these conversations is the fascination and fear most of us has with death. (I'll not comment on celebrity cults in this post.)
There seems to be an assumption that it is "natural" to live to a ripe old age. I think this is an American and more broadly, a Western idea based on our technological and medicinal accomplishments: we just ought to live into old age. There is also, in some Christian communities, a reliance on the verse which claims that the "normal" human life-span is "seventy years or perhaps eighty" (Psalm 90:10) as a literal immutable promise.
Yet the lived reality is that people die every day at every age: in the womb, at birth, as infant, toddlers, children and teens, as young women and men, as middle-aged adults, yes as septa- and octogenarians and even nonagenarians and centenarians.
As much as we might prefer to "die another day," unless we choose suicide we cannot choose the moment of our deaths. We certainly cannot avoid the day of our death.

W. Somerset Maugham tells it this way in Appointment in Samarra:
There was a merchant in Bagdad who sent his servant to market to buy provisions and in a little while the servant came back, white and trembling, and said, Master, just now when I was in the marketplace I was jostled by a woman in the crowd and when I turned I saw it was Death that jostled me. She looked at me and made a threatening gesture, now Master, lend me your horse, and I will ride away from this city and avoid my fate. I will go to Samarra and there Death will not find me. The merchant lent him his horse, and the servant mounted it, and he dug his spurs in its flanks and as fast as the horse could gallop he went. Then the merchant went down to the marketplace and he saw me [Death] standing in the crowd and he came to me and said, Why did you make a threatening gesture to my servant when you saw him this morning? That was not a threatening gesture, I said, it was only a start of surprise. I was astonished to see him in Bagdad, for I had an appointment with him tonight in Samarra.

As for this this day, it is not yet past. I cannot say with certainty that I will die another day.

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