The Uneasy Western Relationship With Death English Literature Essay

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Possibly the most influential example of western literature relating to death is Dante's Trilogy (the Inferno, Purgatory, and Paradise). Prior to the shift towards wild death, people once viewed death as tamed. They thought it was inevitable and tried to experience it in a calm nonchalant manner. Dante's Paradise is an example of literature from the tamed death era. In fact, the very setting of the novel is the afterlife. It is based within a surrounding only apparent after one's last breath is exhaled. In Dante's Paradise, Beatrice guides Dante through various and complex levels of heaven. As Dante says after witnessing the philosophers in canto X, heaven is, "where joy becomes one with eternity." Dante stated this with such simplicity for a description of such an abstract facet. Dante, who was able to sum up this feeling in one short sentence, performed an act that remains unachievable for many. In the Western culture, this aspect seems to escape modern man, along with the idea of the tamed death.

With the idea of paradise, comes the reference of hell. A curiosity of Dante's, as well as many people of the modern western culture, is why some people are privileged to heaven while others are damned to Hell. In Canto 7, Dante asks, "Why God did not choose some other way for our redemption?" As I interpreted Dante's Paradise, the answer comes in the words found in canto VII-- "Sin is the only power that takes away man's freedom." The entrance to heaven or hell is controlled by the person's free will. What a man does during his life on Earth will clearly reflect how he spends eternity in his afterlife. Redemption holds no price and often enough people realize too late in life their wrongdoings and mishaps. Dante's version of Paradise is very different from the western view. In Canto 16, Cacciaguida says to Dante "All of your works must die, as you must too, but they conceal this fact since they endure a longer time, and your life is so short."

As the time continues the shift towards a wild nature of death becomes increasingly apparent. An example of this shift is represented in the play titled Mother Courage and Her Children by German writer, Bertolt Brecht. Due to his unique style of writing, and extensive theatrical contributions, Brecht's work eventually became a pivotal piece in both German and American culture. Perhaps the reason that American's value the insights of Mother Courage and Her Children, is due to an early depiction of the wild death. Each death of Mother Courage's children occurs when she absent, therefore avoiding the visual death to the audience or the reader. Even as their mother, she is not there in her children's time of need and does not witness their misfortunes. This feat in the novel can also be interpreted is she not taking full responsibility of the deaths due to the same fact of her not being there. Some could believe that because in fact she is not present for each of the deaths, than such was out of her control and she should not be held on full account.

Although Mother Courage doesn't contribute directly to the deaths, she also does not act in a way to prevent them either. When she is bargaining Swiss Cheese's life she refuses to give all the money that she has, leading to his demise. Her lack of full commitment is what cost her son his life. However, Mother Courage does not see her faults in any of her children's deaths or even in the deaths of others. In scene 11, the peasant woman says to Katrin "Pray, poor thing, pray! There is nothing we can do to stop this bloodshed, so even if you can't talk, at least pray. He hears, if no one else does (Brecht 105)." The woman pleads with God but sees that there is no one to step up and stop the killing. Mother Courage should in fact be the one who becomes submissive offering anything to spear the lives of her children. Mother Courage does not see herself to blame in any of the problems around her. Yet it is Katrin, the daughter of Mother Courage, who stands up for the helpless and puts an end to the bloodshed. Upon discovering Katrin's lifeless body, Mother Courage says to the peasant woman "You shouldn't have told her about the children." To this, the woman responds, "If you hadn't gone off to the town to get your cut, maybe it wouldn't have happened." Ignoring the fact that she was possibly to blame, Mother Courage simply repeats "She's asleep now (Brecht 110)." Mother Courage was able to disregard the tragic events that occurred because she was not actually present when the bloodshed occurred. With her last statement given, Mother Courage is perceived as being selfless and unintuitive.

Aries' describes western civilization as having a tendency to avoid the face of death by taking aging family members to a hospital or a nursing home. From his perspective, this is the best option so that grief is minimal (cite). Based on Aries claims in Western Society, the waiting process after death includes three phases. Phase one; which is a period of suspended animation in which the person is presumed to exist in sleeplike state. Phase two is the dramatic Day of Judgment. Lastly is phase three which occurs as the soul proceeds to its ultimate destination or condition (cite).Death is viewed as cycling and recycling. It has been stated that adults regard death as a temporary condition that alternates with life and represents transition between one form of life and another (cite.) However, regardless of all being true, based on whichever

religion one practices and follows, the options surrounding death may be contrasted considerably. However, Christian wakes are one of the most common grieving practices by the survived (friends and family), followed by a funeral.

In Judaism, death is not a tragedy, even when it occurs early in life or through unfortunate circumstances. They believe death is a natural process. When a close relative first hears of the death it is traditional to express the initial grief by tearing one's clothing. The tear is made over the heart if the deceased is a parent, or over the right side of the chest for other relatives (cite). This act is referred to as 'Keriyah' (cite). Although in Jewish custom the mourning practices are extensive, they are not an expression of fear or distaste for death. Jewish practices relating to death and mourning have two purposes. One is to show respect for the dead, the other is to comfort the living; those who will miss the deceased. With this custom, the mourning period lasts seven days after the burial "Shiva". During those seven days the mourners sit on low stools, or on the floor. Use of chairs is not permitted. Other permitted acts of the mourners include not being able to wear leather shoes, shave or cut their hair, wear cosmetics, work, and more importantly do not do things for comfort or pleasure, such as bathe, have sex, or put on fresh clothing (cite). Jewish law even requires a family member who has passed the coming of age, to practice the mourning rituals (cite).

Differing immensely from Judaism is Hinduism. In this religion death is looked upon as a spiritual opportunity. They are more inclined to embrace death because according to their beliefs it is a part of the natural cycle of life; one ending with perfect harmony with God. 

After one dies its body is turned facing south and placed on the ground so that it can be as close as to nature as possible. Lamps are left burning as the family of the deceased sing songs dedicated for this purpose. Also during this period, religious pictures are turned the opposite way, facing the wall. If someone dies before he/she becomes entirely pure than him/her are then reincarnated into another incarnation (cite). This is practiced so that the deceased can get another chance at becoming pure and achieving ultimate peace. If a person who is already pure dies, his/her soul will no longer remain in human form. The soul is released, allowing the deceased eternal peace with their higher being (cite). Similar with other belief systems, following Hinduism, the body of the deceased should not be embalmed nor have its organs removed for donation.

In scene 12, the final scene, the fact that Katrin's own mother would not stay to bury her daughter, does not follow the Western and American identification with death. The wish of most parents is for their child to reach adulthood before they pass away. No parent wants to bury his/her child. If such prevails, necessary grieving and remorse does become highly apparent. Not only does Mother Courage bypass the burial, she does not enter a time of mourning. Instead, she continues to work by pulling her wagon. She even says, "I hope I can pull the wagon by myself. Yes, I'll manage, there's not much in it now. I must get back into business (Brecht 111). " This in fact could be how Mother Courage is dealing with the death of Katrina. No two people experience and express death in the same manner. For Mother Courage, continuing with life as if nothing was disturbed was her method for doing so.

In the opening of the novel, Mother Courage is buying and selling items to make a profit during wartime. While people are dying in towns all over, Mother Courage is mostly concerned with business prosperity. Her character does not evolve. She can be looked upon by readers as self centered but she believes that this is the norm. As the novel concludes, even as her three children die by the hand of war, she continues to be fixated on continuing her business. As she continues her cyclical business and ignorance of death, the war also continues across the decades and generations.

Beloved by Toni Morrison, published in 1987, is the most recent portrayal of wild death in modern society. Until we actually find out how Beloved died towards the end of the book, death is something only speculated about. It is something of a whisper spoken between the characters, allowing the readers to remain absolutely oblivious. Although the book contains many supernatural forces, the characters are quick to believe in even the most out of the realm occurrences. The characters are so confused that they are quick to believe whatever claim is being spoken of within any thought and interpretation. When the baby is first heard crawling on the steps, it is simply accepted and not questioned, although it is clearly escaping realistic framework. Although there is no direct answer on why this is occurring, no one questions the oddity. It is the only way that the characters can recognize and accept the limits beyond life. Most of the book is spent referring around death and describing ways and events that are changed by death. Countless pages are scribed about how lives are changed by death, but not death itself.

Another example of the wild death that Toni Morrison portrays is the connection between death and life. One of Denver's younger memories is her mom explaining that "If you go there-you who was never there-if you go there and stand in the place where it was, it will happen again; it will be there, waiting for you…Even though it's all over-over and done with-it's going to always be there waiting for you (Morrison 44)." Through these words, Sethe taught Denver about the inescapability of the past and of awaiting death. There seems to be an undertone of a desire for longevity in the absence of a hopeful future. Everyone wants to be successful and have a legacy of some sort. Sethe is inspiring Denver to aspire for greatness in life and not to be held down and limited by inevitable forces. In the beginning, during Sethe's recount of her journey to freedom, she meets a young woman named Amy Denver. Denver was on her way to find carmine velvet, which seemed to be the only tangible sense of future in the entire book. Most of the novel is spent elaborating on the past and describing what events have previously transpired. The only prospect of the future is symbolized in a minor character's search for cloth. Though minimal, this prospect gives hope to many; allowing them to believe in something other than the status quo.

The Western culture, more specifically the American culture, has a habit of avoiding death. Although, Mexico also falls under the area of the Western world, it definitely has a more tamed view. The Day of the Dead, by Octavio Paz describes the comfortable relationship that the Mexican culture carries on with death. Their celebration, known formally as the Day of The Dead is even state sanctioned by their government. On this fiesta day, family and friends create home altars and visit their passed loved ones at the graves. This event is filled with happiness, sorrow thoughts and behaviors on this day are nonexistent. From children to adults, everyone participates in this day of unity. This fiesta day is so mainstreamed throughout the country of Mexico that candy and foods are given, as well as time off from work. Although Americans often visit deceased gravesites, it usually is not on a day of the glorification of death. Mexican cultures confront death as a natural process, while Americans tend to fear death rather than celebrate. Fearing death tends to hinder a person's life and the experiences he/she might indulge in during the course of it. Although death is in fact inevitable no one wants a constant reminder that his/her days are soon to be limited. Looking at a glass half full, versus half empty is how some people reflect on the aspect of death. Some insist that death is a natural process, one that will occur during its own set time, while others live life to a tee trying to avoid it from happening. These people believe that what they do on a daily basis can alter their biological clock. Even though in some instances this may be true, (for those who live on the extreme spectrum of life) for most people death will occur regardless of whether or not one "prepares" for it over the next.

**Western culture, as well as Western literature, reflects the views of society and their relationship with death. Death is waiting for us. An average person only lives about 80 years on the long end. Every day we live, every breath we take is one less; one inhalation closer to death. Living is just a constant approach to dying. Death appears to render life meaningless for many people because they feel that there is no point in developing character or increasing knowledge if their progress is ultimately going to be thwarted by death. I feel that there is a point to all of this; the point being to provide peace of mind and intellectual satisfaction to our lives and to the lives of those we care about. Striving to the top and caring for others are goals that enrich our lives (cite).

From the fact that death is inevitable, it does not follow the claim that nothing we do matters from this point on. On the contrary, our lives matter a great deal to us. If they did not, we would not find the idea of our own death so distressing. The fact that we're all eventually going to die has no relevance to whether our activities are worthwhile in the present. For example, for an ill patient in a hospital, a doctor's effort to alleviate pain certainly does matter despite the fact that 'in the end' both the doctor and the patient (and ultimately all life in the universe) will be dead (cite).

In reference to importance on life, the main reason why many people feel that life is ultimately meaningless is that, as far as science can tell, there is no greater purpose for our lives. A scientific picture of the world portrays the origin of human beings as "the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms (cite.) Both individually and collectively, human beings came into existence due to accidents of chance (cite.) Because we cannot discern any indications that we were put on this Earth to fulfill a purpose given to us by an intelligent being, our existence does not appear to be part of some greater plan. If the absence of a higher purpose is what makes life ultimately meaningless, our lives would be just as meaningless if they were eternal. Conversely, if being part of a higher purpose gives our lives meaning, then our lives would be meaningful even if death ended them forever (cite). After taking everything into conclusion, the final inference is that we as people need to create our own meaning for our lives regardless of whether or not our lives serve some higher purpose. Whether our lives are meaningful to us depends on how we judge them. The absence or presence of greater purpose is as irrelevant as the finality of death. What makes our lives meaningful is that we find the activities we engage in to be worthwhile. Our determination to carry out projects we have created for ourselves gives our lives meaning. We feel that life is meaningless when most of our desires, in which we regard as important, are frustrated. The judgments that we make about our lives on these points are the same regardless of whether one's life is eternal or not or whether it is part of a greater purpose or not (cite).

I would agree in saying that Aries' category of tamed death rightly summarizes the Western relationship to death, especially in the example of American literature titled Beloved. Mirrored in the works of Dante's and Bertolt Brecht, the non-western relationship is much more tamed affinity toward death. Western or non-western, a person's relationship with the inevitable catches up to us, one day at a time.

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