This week, the last of 2020, is a week of reflection and creativity. A week of solitude, swimming, and development. One of the themes that has been simmering in my mind since the beginning of corona crisis is our seemingly increasing inability to deal with death.
When my mother died when I was sixteen, she was 55 years old, yet she looked 99. She was bedridden and had been hospitalised for years. There was nothing left inside. She was just a shell with working lungs and a tired heart. The official cause of death was dehydration. The real cause of her death was a broken heart, a broken mind, and the crushing loneliness that goes hand in hand with separation. It's an extremely long story that I won't go into here. My father stated that he was thinking about suing the hospital for negligence. I still think back on this moment with disbelief. What was the point of keeping this shell of a human being living? Why on earth would you sue the hospital for the case of dehydration? She had died years before her actual death. She stated it in her letters. "Van binnen ben ik dood, nu het omhulsel nog." My choral work, Mille Regrets, goes more in depth about how I feel about her death.
My grandmother, Joan Bruineman, was an extremely active and strong woman. Being left with four children after her incompetent husband left, she was the embodiment of "when the going gets tough, the tough get going." I visited her during her last months of life. She had turned into a very frail little bird of a woman, transparent, and strapped to a chair so that she wouldn't fall and break a bone. She pleaded weakly to be freed from her imprisonment. I could see the shadow of that strong woman in her eyes, hating her condition.
In the preceding century, and especially the last decade, technological advancement has enabled us to put death increasingly farther at bay. Especially the development of vaccines has virtually eliminated sicknesses that would otherwise have kept the population at non-exponential levels of growth. Cancer treatments and genetic testing for cancer is so far advanced that a cancer diagnosis is no longer a certain death warrant. We are able to live longer, healthier lives. The question arises, are we now able to lead more fulfilling, happier, more meaningful lives? Does the prolongation of life bring the being into question more happiness, or are we feeding our ethical egos with our own search for meaning in life?
Looking at and working with the texts of the Lübecker Totentanz, I am personally searching for my own understanding of what death is, and what death means to life. So far I have come: death is absolutely necessary for life. The day that nothing died would be a terrible day for life. To live is to inevitably move closer to death. Welcoming this moment, or, dying well, shall we say, might be a better aim than prolonging life until it becomes agonising.