The Hidden Death Around Us

Approximately 150 people die every day in New York City; the three most common causes are heart disease, cancer, and influenza/pneumonia. I’ve lived in New York City for almost twenty years now, so a rough calculation tells me that in the time I’ve lived here, more than a million New Yorkers have passed away. I’ve seen precisely one of them: a homeless man caught between a train and a subway platform, crushed to death, still standing, his face oddly peaceful as he seemed to lean over drowsily. I looked away quickly and kept walking.

There is death all around us but we rarely see it. Humans and animals share our cities, our towns, our streets; they die all the time but they die out of sight.

In The Lives of a Cell: Notes of a Biology Watcher Lewis Thomas wrote:

Everything in the world dies, but we only know about it as a kind of abstraction. If you stand in a meadow, at the edge of a hillside, and look around carefully, almost everything you can catch sight of is in the process of dying, and most things will be dead long before you are. If it were not for the constant renewal and replacement going on before your eyes, the whole place would turn to stone and sand under your feet….

Animals seem to have an instinct for performing death alone, hidden. Even the largest, most conspicuous ones find ways to conceal themselves in time….

It is a natural marvel. All of the life of the earth dies, all of the time, in the same volume as the new life that dazzles us each morning, each spring. All we see of this is the odd stump, the fly struggling on the porch floor of the summer house in October, the fragment on the highway….

I suppose it is just as well. If the earth were otherwise, and all the dying were done in the open, with the dead there to be  looked at, we would never have it out of our minds. We can forget about it much of the time, or think of it as an accident to  be avoided, somehow. But it does make the process of dying seem more exceptional than it really is, and harder to engage in at the times when we must ourselves engage….

There are 3 billion of us on the earth, and all 3 billion must be dead, on a schedule, within  this lifetime. The vast mortality, involving something over 50 million of us each year, takes place in relative secrecy. We can only really know of the deaths in our households, or among our friends. These, detached in our minds from all the rest, we take to be unnatural events, anomalies, outrages.

As the numbers indicate, death is commonplace, mundane, weekday. We know how to keep it discreet, most of the time. It happens in closed rooms, behind curtains; when it is over, sheets are drawn over the dead so they may be hidden away. It is bad manners to die publicly; when death takes place in visible spaces it is the most disruptive event of all, reminding us of a fate whose thoughts we normally consign to the margins.

The world is a vast charnel house; animal and humans have somehow found a way to diminish the discomfort that might be caused by knowledge of this fact, to co-exist and sometimes even flourish with the remains it stores.

3 thoughts on “The Hidden Death Around Us

  1. you know, something that I’ve thought about recently is the intersection of Facebook and death. In the 7-odd years that I’ve been using FB, about 3 or 4 of my friends on that site have passed away. Yet their profiles remain. Death may have occurred off-line, but the profile is a persistent reminder that the person won’t be sharing status updates anymore. It sparks all sorts of questions. Perhaps a post from me is in order?

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