It’s so much easier to enjoy life, to think of ideas on making our existence greater, to dream about and work on accomplishing great heights while we’re living the years we do; it is so much more easier to think about children, lovers, and a stable career then to think of that one thing that our culture today has tried to sweep under rugs. This reality is always on the tip of our tongues, but we manage to disbelieve it and keep it buried deep down in the pit of our stomachs.
What is this reality? People are born, and people die too. But death, the greatest loss that people fear for self and for loved ones is an occurrence that most would like to defy. Death is inevitable, it’s universal, it can happen at anytime to anyone, yet death is something that is too taboo to talk about in our culture. Our culture, a death denying culture. We seek ways to prolong life, and to delay death. The products we own today are largely hazard-free and accident proof. Our medical technology has excelled in such a manner that people can add almost a year or two to their declining lives.
If death is universal, something that will definitely happen – why isn’t our culture more open to talking about it? Why do we fear death? Why do we try to defy it’s presence?
One of my favorite British shows, titled Black Mirror portrays weird, intriguing, futuristic stories in each of it’s individual episodes. The opening episode of Season 2 “Be right back” perfectly en-captures the extent of our death denying culture, and also discusses how far people are willing to go to keep someone they love around, rather than bear the loss of their presence.
The story in this episode revolves around a young married couple, Ash and Martha who have had just recently moved into Ash’s childhood house – an hour away from the main city amidst mountains and farms. After a day or so of moving in and settling down, Ash has to go to the city to run some errands. Martha stays in the house, and awaits Ash’s return in the evening. When he fails to show up late at night, she starts to worry. Soon she hears police sirens outside the house, and opens the door to cops bearing the news of Ash’s death.
Martha loved him deeply and fiercely and couldn’t bear the absence of him. Everything in his house reminded her of him. At his funeral, one of her friend’s, who had also lost a husband previous to Martha losing Ash, refers Martha to a software program that would allow Martha to talk to the “dead” Ash.
Initially, Martha rebukes the idea of this crazy software. But the loss of Ash was driving her deeper into depression, that she decided on an impulse to use the program that would bridge her to Ash. She purchases the program, and connects all of Ash’s social media pages to the program. The program registers every word Ash has had used in his social media life, either to the public or via public messages. Soon Martha is able to chat with the virtual Ash. She finds that the pretend Ash chats with her in the same manner real Ash would. She keeps this chat process going on for a long time, and one day the program displays a pop-up window telling that she could take communication with Ash to the next level – all she had to do was attach every video Ash had ever recorded and upload it to the program. Desperate to get more of the virtual Ash, she does as asked. The software then calls her on her phone, and Martha picks up the call and the virtual Ash greets her. At this point Martha breaks down and awes at how much the software Ash sounded like her real Ash. Martha then enters this crazy phase where she would never leave her phone, would take it everywhere – just to be able to hear Ash talking to her. One day she dropped her phone, and it shattered. Martha was in hysterics at this point. She was greedy for more of Ash.
Once her phone was fixed, “Ash” tells her she can take his presence to the greatest level. And our death-denying Martha takes it to the next level. A life-size robot that feels human and looks and talks exactly like Ash is shipped to her house. Martha and the hyper-realistic Ash start spending a lot of time together. To Martha, the emptiness that the death of real Ash left in her chest was starting to fill in by the presence of the software Ash. But one can only deny a loved one’s death for so long. Martha starts noticing that the software Ash would do whatever she asked, and never fight or defy her opinions. One day while climbing a cliff, she asks the software Ash to jump of the cliff and initially he is willing – and that’s when Martha screams “You’re not him! You never will be.” This is the moment of clarity for Martha – for her selfish reasons she wanted to keep whatever of Ash she could. She didn’t want to accept the irreversibility of his death, the absence of his existence.
Truth be told, if a software like this existed in our society today, many would buy it. We don’t want to die, we don’t want our loved ones to die. Our death-denying culture wants ourselves and our loved ones to be forever living, and immortal. Coping with death, is something our society as a whole has to still learn.
The media today displays death and its occurrence and effects in differing mannerisms – sometimes extremely misleading, sometimes almost nonchalantly . This episode from Black Mirror, though a little exaggerated, is very accurate when portraying some of the ways people try to cope after a loved ones death. Death of a loved one, leaves one desperate, sad, numb, empty. The list of emotions are endless.
The language our society uses to refer death tries to hide the heaviness of it’s reality too. “He’s with God now”; “She’s at peace” etc. are just some catch-phrases people use instead of ever mentioning the forbidden “dead” word. Language and the media reinforce our pretend oblivion to death and promote our society as a death denying culture.