The Living Dead

Our failure to prepare for death makes it more frightening

By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian ?15th January 2000

Three days ago I found a corpse. I was hunting, in my canoe, for the paddles I had lost in the Christmas floods. In a murky sidestream of the River Thames, a little before dusk, I nudged my boat beneath a willow tree. In the flotsam of dead leaves, plastic bottles and fishing floats was a low dome, covered in short brown hair. Beneath it, disappearing into the gloom, I saw something white and swollen. The body was hanging vertically in the water, its head trapped against the branches.

I paddled home as fast as I could, feeling lonely and afraid. I also felt curiously guilty, as if I had disturbed someone in a moment of the utmost privacy, as if I had committed a desecration.

My discovery solved a mystery which had haunted the Thames Valley police for more than a month. At midnight on December 8th, a young man left a nightclub in the centre of Oxford to take the bus home. Closed circuit television shows him walking up and down a pavement near the club. Then he disappeared. The police sent dogs, helicopters, mounted patrols and divers to find him, but a few days ago they announced that they were baffled. He now appears to have fallen into a mill race in the city centre. He must have been carried down the Thames, into a sidestream, through a weir, then down the channel in which I found him, three miles from the centre. Throughout Monday night I kept waking up, imagining his journey, the body bumping the banks as the floodwaters lifted and turned it.

I have seen plenty of corpses, working in the parts of the world in which death wanders freely. But this discovery was more shocking than any I have made before. I am not sure why. Certainly the setting – a stream passing through the watermeadows on the outskirts of an English town – was not one in which you expect to find death. But it seems to me, also, that I had begun to imagine that death is no longer looking for us. The only inevitable fact of life has, in Britain, begun to seem almost improbable.

By the time British children reach their late teens they have seen, on average, 16,000 screen murders. Yet millions of us will live and die without ever encountering a body in real life, or real death. Death, for us, inhabits the realm of fantasy. Confronted with it, we no longer know what to do. It is an embarrassment, to be hidden and denied.

While other cultures kiss and embrace their corpses, wailing and keening, paying tribute to the undeniably dead, here we shut down. The body remains locked in its coffin, our feelings remain locked up inside us. No one seems to know how to react, so we grasp at the polished insincerities of the funeral director and the blandishments of the vicar. Cut off from the dead, we find it hard to believe death could happen to us. In the newspapers, we see only the corpses of foreigners.

We deny death, I think, because, being so greedy for life, we are more frightened of it than the people of other cultures. But, far from assuaging fear, our denial surely makes its prospect the more frightening. Just as sex for many Victorian women was a private and traumatic event for which they had received no preparation or instruction, death, our own taboo, is something we are left to cope with and comprehend alone.

To the Dani people of West Papua, the dead are everywhere. When the living sit beside the fire in the evenings, they leave a space for the ancestors, handing their invisible companions food and tobacco like everyone else. They may turn to the empty place to ask advice or present an argument, and appear to listen to what the void is saying. In some villages the bodies of the most respected elders are smoked and hung from the rafters. The presence of the dead is believed to guarantee the continuity of life.

When white missionaries arrived in West Papua, claiming to possess the secret of eternal life, many of the Dani believed them, not least because they never saw a dead one. The whites, they imagined, were the living dead, returned ancestors who had conquered physical destruction. Now our denial of death has begun to convince us, too, that we are immortal. Researchers believe they have found a “youth gene” in mice, and have discovered the means of rejuvenating ageing cells. I have spoken to people who claim that death is now an avoidable accident.

Our experiments in immortality are, paradoxically, accompanied by a precipitous decline in the quality of life for many elderly people. They are shut off from the rest of the living as if they, like the dead, are an embarrassment to be disposed of as quietly and as efficaceously as possible. The trade in years, like so many other aspects of consumerism, seems to place quantity ahead of quality.

Demanding more of everything, we threaten the very resources which permit the longevity of the species. Seeking to repel the inevitable, we succeed only in bringing it closer. By denying death we are, in fact, denying life.