Thoughts on thanatos and truthfulness

Death is not a subject I give much thought, perhaps unfairly; for it affects all of us in varying ways, and to ignore it is to ignore one of the most important facets to life: its conclusion. (Whether or not this conclusion is ultimate depends on your worldview.)

I have, however, thought on it somewhat in the past, and recently, it has been pushed further to the front of my mind. Since I am not one to ignore my circumstances, I push forward and consider some aspects of this cruel reality.

I have not been touched by death much in my life; my grandfathers both passed away before I had graduated high school, and my paternal grandmother died a few years ago. A smattering of older relatives here and there and one of my wife’s uncles are the only other individuals around me who have passed on (if I might use that unfortunate euphemism), and none of them were close enough to me to leave any significant emotional impact.

Recently, my wife’s family learned that the problems her father Jeff had been having with pain and difficulty breathing were due not to pneumonia, as had been diagnosed previously, but rather to a tumor wrapped around his pulmonary artery; a biopsy later determined that the tumor was malignant, and doctors informed us that it was inoperable – making the illness terminal. Understandably, the family has had a difficult time coming to grips with Jeff’s somewhat imminent death, and for my part, it is difficult to think about my father-in-law – a man with whom I am not incredibly close – not being a part of our lives, especially my son’s. It’s also sad to think about the fact that he is considerably young for this day and age: 43 years old.

One of the first thoughts I had (as morbid as this might sound) when I heard about the cancer was his eulogy. Eulogies always seem significant to me because they are the capstone of that person’s life; people will remember whatever they want to remember about the dead, but the eulogy is sort of the formal send-off. If a stranger wandered into your funeral, that’s all they would know of you. Similarly, obituaries are the public form of a eulogy (albeit one that suffers more for space constraints), and what is said in an obit is often what people clip out of the paper and remember of you.

Oddly, Bill Vallicella of Maverick Philosopher posted an entry today that touches on the idea of what obituaries are meant for; he says that they are “tributes,” but is a glowing remembrance of the person – with the flaws understated and the virtues overstated – really appropriate for a posthumous ceremony? He seems to suggest otherwise, and I say no as well.

First, let me say that I understand the reasoning behind the overwhelming positive nature of eulogies: 1) Nobody wants to come to remember a loved one with all the stupid things they did, especially when they are grieving the loss of that person, and 2) a dead person can’t exactly defend themselves against character assassination (Edgar Allan Poe could attest to that, were he able). So, to an extent, I think truth gets put on the backburner for the sake of helping others cope. This correlates with another belief I have about funerals and memorial services: they’re for the survivors, not the dead.

I don’t want any of that.

I am of the belief that you make your life what it is, good, bad, or otherwise. If I refuse to show compassion to my family, friends, and to others more generally, then that is my own fault. (Whether other influences play a part is another story.) Accordingly, I think that a eulogy or obituary should tell exactly what a person did to make their life what it was: nothing more, nothing less. Orson Scott Card’s idea of a Speaker for the Dead that comes from his Ender’s Game series serves as an interesting example of what I think is preferable in a eulogy. Moreover, it might be interesting to see how many people might act more properly if they knew that the record of their life would be marred by persistently vicious behaviors – not that I approve of that method of moral consequence, but it would be something.

So, if I were to die tomorrow, give me a eulogy like this:

He wanted many things from his life. He wanted to feel important, and most of the time, he felt more important than he really was. He wanted to attain a high level of intellect and knowledge, and most of the time, he felt more intellectual than he really was. He wanted to affect people, and he certainly did succeed at that, although not always as he would have liked.

He was a stubborn old bastard, and even though he followed the party line of his family and blamed it on the Dutch blood, it was his own fault ultimately. He spent far too much time trying to achieve success in the things he enjoyed and too little time trying to achieve fulfillment in the things he should have cared more about.

He was at times a contradiction and ignored it even though he openly despised them. He knew very well that he could not live up to the standards that he wished and yet did very little to rise to the occasion.

But overall, he wasn’t that bad a guy. He loved his family and what few friends he managed to hold onto, and he knew how to work hard when push came to shove. When he decided what he wanted to do with his life, it was a goal that he pushed for, something he didn’t take lightly.

And even though he had many serious interests, ones that he loved to talk about even though very few other people cared to listen (and if you showed interest, even as a matter of politeness, you were trapped), he still had a jovial side. He enjoyed laughter and comedy, even though he wasn’t that good at making others laugh. He fancied himself a witty person, although he probably won’t be remembered that way by anyone else.

And he loved music. If he could produce nothing else of value to the world, music was his contribution. He loved playing almost everything he could get his hands on, and he played some things well enough that it could be truly said that he enriched others’ lives with his talents. If he did anything with his heart and soul, it was this.

So, everyone gathered here, let us remember a man who was not by any means perfect, but his heart was often in the right place, all other things considered. We loved him, and he loved us, and that is enough to keep him securely in our warmest thoughts.

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