Death defines us

imageMy impression of modern consumer society is that the whole edifice, in recent decades, has been built around the avoidance of death or its reminder. It has become the crux of existence and (I feel) has led to the rampant materialism and consumerism which exists today. Death defines us in modernity. This is a huge statement to make and I think I shall need to explain myself less cryptically.

In the old days there was a distinct belief in Allah (God, for the West). This meant that there was an afterlife. When there was an afterlife, it meant that death was just another phase of our journey. It also meant we had something spiritual and non-material to aim for. We could achieve everlasting success, by doing good stuff, which may come at the expense of material success in this life. From the times of Hazrat Ibrahim (and earlier), man had grounded his belief in Allah and great deeds were done on this basis (and some not so great!).

Somewhere, in the last three centuries, as the age of reason and logic took over, this strong belief in an omnipotent God declined. As this thought developed, the belief in afterlife became weak. The motivation for being spiritual declined and sacrifice in this life for the next one, disappeared. But death was still there, very visible round a corner. It now became a bigger problem, as afterlife was a question mark. So how to hide from death? Humanity went out in search of that cure.

There is of course no such cure. We all are traveling towards death daily and will get there sooner or later. Extension of life is a goal (I wrote about recently), but death still resides at the end of it, even after a long life. But, at least one can remove the reminder of it. More and more we erased the concept and mention of death. Anti violence movements, safety considerations at work (safety rules are huge in manufacturing organisations) and anti-war movements became stronger. The anti-Vietnam movement was the first one of its kind. Standalone, this is a good thing. But, taken as a trend and a continuum, it gradually works on our collective psyche. When some US service men were killed in a rescue effort in Somalia in the early 90s, the horror of the US population was quite visible. I remember Clinton remarking that enemies must be rejoicing, that USA can be intimidated by a few deaths. Recently, the furore about Mother Teresa being declared a saint, was ridiculous. The lady died two decades ago, how does it matter to her if she is declared a saint? Having an everlasting name in this world seems huge to the living, but the truth is it is not important at all. When your innings is finished, the judgement is made by someone else. What the living think of a dead person,  is irrelevant in reality.

This of course over the years has become a part of society. Our culture today seems to be about withdrawal from the reality of death. We establish our legacy in an overt style, because we feel what is left behind will sustain our name. So we will cheat death, by living on through the presence of our legacy. Tall buildings; iconic monuments; grand sites; big titles; all created to overcome that desperation. Alas they come to naught. We would do well to understand Shelley’s Ozymandias.

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