Reflections on recent events, plus the occasional fact
free rant unfiltered by rational argument.
Recent events got me thinking about how much we’ve removed death from our modern society. One death in the family and a near death got me musing on the subject. The way things are going most folks will go through life having never seen a dead body. As a police officer, you see a lot, as do nurses and doctors. The rest of society is increasingly isolated from the reality of death. Yet, no matter how you cut it, we remain breathing defecating lumps of meat, with a large brain. That brain allows us to foresee our own demise.
I have to say that Hong Kong has a less maudlin attitude to funerals and death than western cultures. The lachrymose displays evident elsewhere are less frequent here, although that is changing. The annual pilgrimage to family graves is a day out, with the whole family joining. Ancestor worship is less daunting to me than the rituals of the monotheistic religions. I've yet to see anyone being too emotional on one of those events.
Nonetheless, like in the West, Hong Kong is moving towards removing contact with or witness to death. For example, few folks die at home these days.I guess we are all uncomfortable with it. I saw my colleagues adopting all sorts of strategies in the face of death. Dark humour is always a useful ploy, as long as the relatives don’t hear or anyone not in on the joke. Adherence to the routine of procedures allowed some to cope. It’s a process. Do the body search, fill out the forms, take the fingerprints. Whilst others treated the dead as living and still present.
"I'm now going to search your pockets, is that OK?”
Human societies have adopted comprehensive strategies to cope. Religion offers the afterlife, as we continue for eternity. That dotty notion gets support from elaborate rituals. Incantations guide us into that new realm, giving credence to a process that has no basis in science. Some assert that near death experiences lend credibility to the afterlife concept. People report the big white light, with calmness prevailing as its approaches. Oxygen starvation produces similar results as the brain shuts down. Thus, there is a scientific explanation for the phenomena. Sorry.
Whole industries are now built around the cult of appearing young to ward off the approach of death. All signs of its approach are erased. Never mind the cosmetics and hair dye business, not to mention the plastic surgery. Look at the ladies in their sixties dressed like teenagers. Now I know I’m on rocky ground here. Ladies, dress with some sense of dignity. But I digress.
It's difficult that our big brain allows us to realise that religious mumbo jumbo is a soft option. A roost to assuage our very human fears of the unknown. Meanwhile, we are keeping thoughts of death at bay by isolating the old in ghettoes. We call these retirement homes. Out of sight and out of mind.
At the same time, medical science has made such great progress. We keep people alive using our machines. In a modern society, with top-class medical facilities, a person is kept going after organ failure. Even brain death. As such, death only arrives when someone opts to switch off a machine. Meanwhile, the family frets. What about this option? Can this help?
The good news is that some now prepare and make their passage memorable. It gladdens my heart to know that “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” tops the charts of funeral music in the United Kingdom. Maybe we can get some proportion on death. So, let us not hide from it, because it’s coming to us all. Acknowledge it, then get on with living. Finally, remember death makes us all equal.
Walter De Havilland is one of the last of the colonial coppers. He served 35 years in the Hong Kong Police.