If you look at modern meme culture (which I do because it’s a nice ephemeral distraction from our current hellscape) there’s a lot of talk about death. Responses like “At least we all die.” and easily and casually referencing death as a way to handle any inconvenience or slight no matter how small. “I guess I’ll just die.” has been a rather convenient form of shorthand for a while now referencing how difficult and herculean some tasks in life can be and it’s even one that me (someone who works in the death care industry) use when talking about how hard it is to set appointments or even stay on the line while I wait to refill a prescription.
But I wonder why we have such a casual relationship with the concept of mortality despite death denial never being stronger with all the detoxes and fad diets.
It’s easy to chalk this up to the hyperbolic nature of language now. Death is the ultimate end: it doesn’t get more hyperbolic than saying that going to Trader Joe’s will literally kill you.
I think it goes a little deeper than that. I think it has to do with our current epidemic of anxiety and nihilism in the face of our current climate.
Let’s step back in time: it’s just after World War II in Paris. A city that is still in places rebuilding and is full of wine, absinthe, smoke, bread and ennui. The new wave of existentialists had taken root in Paris and with minds like Sartre and Camus looking at the works of Kierkegaard and Freud. Both come to similar but somewhat differing views on death and meaning. Sartre was more hopeful, a little like Kierkegaard while Camus was incredibly nihilistic about the whole thing like a strange fusion of Freud and Nietzsche. But both saw death as a drive we moved towards and dealt with. Existentialism is being very aware of mortality to a nearly terminal (pun intended) way. Death hangs round like a passive ghost here to remind you that meaning is useless and we all perish: it’s simply a matter of time.
There’s a line in an early episode of Lore where the brilliant host Aaron Mahnke discusses the Afterglow Vista (which is an amazing episode and one of my favorites) and one of the features of this strange mausoleum are pillars: most of the pillars are finished except for one and the construction note on that is “because Death never lets you finish your work.”.
Existentialism was a direct response to how hollow Romanticism seemed and the Romantic notion of how glorious death and the afterlife must be seemed to only accelerate the death drive. Romanticism fits in with a great deal of the Victorian era and that’s where we really start to get a romanticization (lower case for a reason) with death and memento mori and modern funeral culture. So while the Romantics saw death as a friend who hangs around waiting patiently for you to be finished with your meat prison, Existentialists saw death as a forever looming ghost that you had to fight off daily because existence is painful, useless and never-ending until it, well, ends.
And while we are technically in a Postmodern age (a word I hate), I don’t think that Existential relationship with using dark humor to cope with our current existence. The internet (which seems to be mostly people who have some form of anxiety [because that’s very human and fine]) has perpetuated that feeling. Dark humor, memes and more is how we deal with all that is going on and woah, boy, it’s a lot going on. And it is in dark humor that we return to our relationship with death. Death is a lot to deal with, mortality is not something that’s fun or exciting to meditate on: trust me, I am surrounded by death daily for work and it doesn’t get easier.
I’m proudly mostly Death Positive and one of the main tenets of The Order of the Good Death is confronting mortality but facing it: often, daily. And no member of The Order will ever tell you that such a thing is easy. I joke about it to make me aware and maybe, just maybe to take a small shot at something we are all hurtling towards.
That is one of my favorite things about the French Existentialists, using humor to defuse our fear. Camus was huge on using humor and wit to demystify and remove the wonder from the world and in facing and coping with the absurd, even large things seem less large. It reminds me one of two of my favorite pieces of humor ever: The Galaxy Song and Always Look on the Bright Side both from two old Monty Python movies. Both songs take a firm look at how silly and stupid life is and can be and encourages you to overcome that feeling with a laugh.
There is a lot to be overwhelmed with in our current world. Climate change is nearly paralyzing, world governments are a hot hot mess, the economy is bad and apparently everyone in Hollywood is a garbage human. All of it seems hopeless and futile and the sweet sweet embrace of the quiet, stillness of an eternal dirt sleep seem almost like a comfort.
And our media seems to enforce this narrative. With the influx of genocidal themes and generalized themes around death and dying as aspects of movie plot lines, it’s easy to see a much more casual if not entirely fictive relationship with The End. Comic books and video games make death seem like an inconvenient bump in the road and lord knows that anime has a bad reputation with character deaths meaning next to nothing. One of the biggest things I’ll always say about the earlier runs of comic books is that most of the time, death mattered. When House of M happened, those characters stayed dead. When Crisis on Infinite Earths happened, those deaths mattered and when The Great Blue Boy Scout stopped flying around Metropolis, he stayed gone for a while. Each one had weight and meaning until it just didn’t.
Music seemed to take the opposite direction with pop songs encouraging almost destructive levels of Carpe Diem via excessive drinking, partying, sleeping with strangers, driving fast cars and generally not giving a hoot and a half. Drake said “YOLO” Ke$ha says act like we’re going to “Die Young” and Avicii encouraged all of us to create more of “the nights that never die”. Death stops the party but if you get there faster, you might as well have gotten there faster but doing a kegger in a parking lot after seeing your favorite band one more time.
This isn’t to belittle the actual suicide crisis in the U.S. and around the world. There is a huge different in joking about death casually than those who actively do not see light at the end of the tunnel. And that’s always a tricky line that I am not professionally equipped to answer for you. To each person, a joke or a cry for help are likely very different lines and cues and I am not the one to say there’s a one-size-fits-all answer to it.
For those of us who are anxious, depressive, melancholic, malcontent, filled with ennui and malaise; joking about the end makes it easier to face the end and with our current state of inflammatory language, using The Grim Reaper as a stand-in for a myriad of other issues that oppress, confine and exhaust was a logical step in the right direction.
It’s a road we all reach someday: might as well have a good time while on it.