Painting by Jean-Baptiste Oudry, Death Nature with Shooting Gear and Flowers I
The ancient Egyptians had a very specific and entirely instructive vision of the afterlife: more life, more Egypt, but better and easier if you deserved it. Like all the other desert faiths, they believed only a good person could be rewarded with a paradise everlasting. They had 42 commandments, and a Judgment Ceremony much akin our modern apocalyptic literature! Other parts of the world, other faiths shaped by different climates and systems of control, emerging from different times, possessed ideas that were at once strangely similar and entirely different. The Greek world was dark and dreary, at least until the advent of Elysium for the honored dead. The Norse spoke of different destinations and halls, depending on how a person’s deeds in life aligned with their overt morality. The Aztec had their Mictlan. We have only ambivalence and anxiety, indefinite patchworks of beliefs inherited or gleaned or borrowed, but none too fixed.
Similarly, we have lost the art of navigating the afterlife in wider culture, both for the dead and those left behind. None of our ancestors would have been caught dead (pardon the pun) not knowing the proper prayers to the proper powers, unequipped with stories and expectations of what would follow. Entire classes of experts were to be consulted, rites performed for both the living and the dead at specific times, signs and portents interpreted to diagnose the journey and its challenges. This is not to say this approach represented a triumph over mortal angst. Though loaded with myths and magic, we have always feared the end for its implacable finality. For the grieving, the process is seldom circumvented; the work must be done.
Nonetheless, in shunning the hour of dying, we shun the lived moments leading up to dying. We shun part or all of life’s richness, heeding no end and capable of happening at any given moment. Blind, or unable to decide on how to meet the end of conscious experience, we imperil life as we fail to recognize what processes must take place, how to preserve what is worth remembering, and how to care for the survivors.
This is precisely the problem identified by Eric Demore in the article/essay published as “A Palliative Approach to the End of the World” on Medium. He argues, often convincingly, that “palliative environmentalists” should refocus their efforts toward more local and achievable goals. The Paris Accords have, for all intents and purposes, so far failed. Though different United Nations bodies continue to issue dire warnings, the world’s carbon dioxide emissions continue to skyrocket with no discernible breaking. The United States continues to be ruled by an idiotic tyrant deeply indebted to the fuel lobby and industry. The gilets jaunes protests in France were, in part, triggered by aggressive efforts to (unfairly) cut back carbon emissions. Therefore, palliative care for a dying world that may easily surpass 3-degrees of warming by the end of the century, mass starvation, hundreds of millions of climate refugees across fraught international borders, and increasingly nationalistic governments unwilling or unable to cooperate.
This is not necessarily the wrong approach, though I would argue that it is not the world that needs such care, but us Homo sapiens. Whether or not we succeed in halting climate change, or at what degree of warming we manage to adapt to as a species or civilization, we’ll need to recognize the moment and live accordingly. Reality always demands adaptation, and some degree of palliate care and its ethos would get us there gently, even joyfully. But what happens after we have found acceptance to our limits? This is the province of the death worker, the psychopomp priesthood of our ancestral days. It is a lacking perspective in our world, and noticeably so.
What we’ll find in death is neither a great Spiritual Revelation, I wager, nor materialistic finality. There will be neither ends nor rebirths, but transformations to undergo, if we’re still capable of pulling off such feats as a species. And there is the fact and truth and wisdom of the bones: we decay, yes, but take part of other forms; recycled into new life without our cumbersome mentality. In all, it is a chance to fuel new life in the most primal essence of being. The atomic reshuffling of our existence awaits our return to dust.
Behind the myths of the dead and mourning, this is what we find in death. Perhaps, if we abandon grand schemes of halting climate change–for the gods’ sake, no geoengineering–and relearn the trust to accept the nature of bones and dying, we’ll find a New/Old Eden.
It is not to say that we simply surrender our lives. The wisdom of death applies as much to the living, and to the preparations one must make before setting foot on such a road. This realization demands work in the here and now. Eric Demore speaks a bit of this, but only in those dimensions that refer to the individual and the human. That is, he cannot avoid the Capitalist ethos that must now be interred and composted.
In our approach of death, perhaps through palliative care, we realize the interwoven nature of things and the obligations due to the living and the dead. Therefore, the work that must be done ahead has less to do with limiting the intake of meat and more with bringing an end to exploitative industrial practices against animal kin and fellow humans. It means disrupting the power-structures that continue to degrade Nature’s Sovereignty and establishing a new relationship of obligations between kin. This ought to be done, not to “save” the world for ourselves, or even for itself. At the end of life, all such grand notions are stripped from our bones and we stand in truth. It must be done to know ourselves and our place–to earn it–and fill that niche with Justice.
Our (oft pagan) ancestors knew how to return to death, to lift its veil of mystery, and reveal the bone-truth of Nature.