The Western Discomfort With Death
by Manuel L. Quezon III
There was a clash of civilizations in evidence in the wake of Pope John Paul II’s death. On one hand was the ancient civilization of the Catholic Church, one familiar to many in the developing world, for whom death is a communal experience; on the other was the modern, Western conception of death: compartmentalized, sanitized, shielded and better off not seen. There was the experience of death as communal experience, and of death as clinical occurrence.
While the Roman Catholic cult of death — the elaborate ceremony and proliferation of ritual — is quite complex in its manifestations, it is not altogether alien to the Muslim who must wash the body of the dead and then bury the deceased in a simple shroud, or the Jew who follows similar rituals, or even the Hindu who consigns a departed loved one to the flames of a funeral pyre, or a Buddhist following the rituals of the many varieties of Buddhist teachings. What’s more, the traditional adherents of these faiths are intimately aware, from a young age, of the process that precedes death, in particular the last illness of an aged family member, or the dying of a revered member of the community. It is not just death that holds no terror, but dying.
Western media commentators bravely tried to make sense of the dying days of John Paul II, and the splendid ceremonial that has followed. Throughout, however, I seemed to sense a growing level of discomfort arising from a profound lack of comprehension of what was going on.
The pope, very publicly, very slowly, died, attended every step of the way by his intimate associates but also, the followers of the faith he personified. The barrage of questions commentators on CNN, in particular, subjected doctors to, surely seemed ridiculous to non-Westerners who have attended to dying relatives in the past. The slow, steady, collapse of the body’s functions; the labored breathing; the slipping in and out of consciousness: all seemed medical revelations, of great world-historical importance.
Yet they were not; they were the almost predictable progression of symptoms of an old man approaching the moment of death.
And yet, to modern Westerners, profoundly secular, intensely personal in their inclinations, all these, I suppose, were revelations. First of all, the Western experience of death is a profoundly secular one, restricted to the confines of hospitals, attended by only a few, if any, family members, and just as quickly resolved with a quick, clinical cremation, after possibly a perfunctory viewing of the remains of the deceased — the whole process managed with the strongest possible self-control and public composure possible.
The more primal connecting of the dead with the living, the intensely personal attempt to say farewell to the departed, the rigorous requirements of ritual that stresses loss and grief, seen in the days since the pope died, continues to puzzle these Western observers. Modern as it is, Catholic Italy may still be more in touch with traditional ways of dealing with death than certainly their brethren who share the same faith in the United States. American observers had to go out of their way to explain Italians spontaneously applauding the pope when his death was announced and when his body was borne in procession from his residence to St. Peter’s Basilica.
You could see some commentators squirming as cameras focused on the pope’s lifeless face. And you could sense their wrestling with the idea that their coverage might be some sort of ghoulish intrusion into something only dealt with after assassinations, bombs, or accidents.
In particular, the deaths of leaders have become more clinical, less personal, these days. I can remember the funerals of the last series of Soviet leaders, with their puffy, embalmed corpses exposed to the adoration of the Communist faithful in a sort of less royal, but far more militaristic, echo of papal funerals.
The great public funerals since then have had sealed caskets (Princess Diana, Elizabeth the Queen Mother, Ronald Reagan), with rituals that accentuate the state, and not grief — and certainly not spirituality. In a sense, it is this intangible and antimodern element, of faith, that makes the coverage of the events in Rome so strange. It is easy, and understandable enough, to explain away shrieking, sobbing teenagers flinging roses at the coffin of Princess Diana, or elderly statesmen studiously ignoring the love of gin of the Queen Mother. But to see young people and old, crying, after having spent days patiently waiting for the pope to die, and talking about things such as God, and souls. This is something for which the modern media is not trained.
This explains, though, why to Jews, and Muslims, Buddhists and of course Catholics, and many other people, the pope’s death and coming funeral could seem so personal, so natural, so relevant.
In a world for which the harshest reality of life -death, particularly death for the old — have been so assiduously shunted aside, here was a man who made the determination to die slowly, and as publicly as his position would allow.
It is something a large minority of the world has lost touch with, and has a fleeting opportunity to grasp: death is not only a personal, but communal experience.