The Cultural Distaste for Death

by Richard Lawrence

One in four of the climbers who try to scale Mt. Everest dies in the effort.

That “statistic” was offered in a TV show called Sports Night. In the scene where I heard it, there is an extremely tense moment in the studio where live coverage shows a team of climbers within feet of reaching the summit. One of the broadcasting staff says: “Did you know that before you approach the summit, the sherpas and climbers offer a prayer called the ‘Pujah’ to ask for permission to climb so close to the domain of the gods?”

After the team has successfully made it to the top and the celebration in the studio subsides, one of the crew says, “I don’t think anyone should tell us how high to climb.”

Another TV crew member whispered, “Look what we can do!”

I found myself shouting in agreement: “Amen, amen, amen.”

I feel the same thing when I ponder the tragedy of Jonestown: look what we can do!

We can decide to climb to unexpected heights. We can decide to look danger and death in the face. We can decide to follow our leaders – even if the final destination is death.

In One Shot, a novel by Lee Child, there is a scene in which a Russian agent named Raskin digs his own grave in anticipation of punishment for his failure to execute an assignment from his boss, named Zec.

He [Zec] came close to Raskin and stopped. He put his ruined hand in his pocket and came out with a small revolver, his thumb and the stump of his index finger pincered through the trigger guard. He held it out, and Raskin took it from him.

Ukase [Thank you],” the Zec said.

Nichevo [Think nothing of it],” Raskin replied. A short, amiable, self-deprecating sound, like de rien in French, like de nada in Spanish, like prego in Italian. Please. I’m yours to command.

Raskin stepped away to the narrow end of the trench. Opened the revolver’s cylinder and saw a single cartridge. Closed the cylinder again and turned it until it was lined up right. Then he pulled the hammer back and put the barrel in his mouth. He turned around, so that he faced the Zec and his back was to the trench. He shuffled backward until his heels were on the edge of the hole. He stood still and straight and balanced and composed, like an Olympic diver preparing for a difficult backward pike off the high board.

He closed his eyes.

He pulled the trigger.

I find myself wondering if it is too hard for us to believe that what the people of Jonestown experienced might just have been good enough or serious enough to have generated a discipline comparable to that of the Russian Raskin.

I wonder, too, if we who look back at Jonestown feel the same pain, disappointment and betrayal when we receive one of our sons or daughters in a body bag from the Defense Department because of their commitment to faithfully serve our country in the military?

Do we really want to make the decision about when we die? Or must dying always a result of blindly following the lead of someone or something like the government or a charismatic religious zealot or the inevitable passage of time?

The tragedy of Jonestown is an American tragedy born in our cultural distaste for the reality of death itself.

We pay thousands of dollars to funeral parlors and undertakers to convince ourselves that the deceased among us “really look good and natural” – as if death is not a natural eventuality. Rarely do we look death in the face, although if we are passing an accident on the highway we find ourselves fascinated by the possibility and find it nearly impossible to turn our eyes away. Rarely will we even say that a family member or a friend has died. We strongly favor “passed away.”

Perhaps dying as a hero is different. We seem to glorify the death when an heroic effort(s) is involved even if (when) we see an occasional frozen body (bodies) in the snows of Mt. Everest? Is choosing to die as a hero okay? And is it heroism or stupidity when we choose to tackle the world’s toughest mountains or choose to go to war?

Perhaps we need to think a great deal harder about the concepts of revolutionary suicide and dying with dignity, in part, because of the events in Jonestown. However, the more I find myself thinking about them, the more broadly I roam.

If I choose to risk my life in the service of a cause to which I am devoted, and if I should die in the course of meeting the obligations attendant to that commitment, am I possibly a candidate for sainthood?

What about the (nearly) events in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Middle East where virtually every day children tape bombs to their bodies and step into the midst of the enemy to sacrifice their own lives?

What about the death of Jesus? If he could have saved himself and did not, was his choice to die on the cross a choice to commit revolutionary suicide?

What about the adults in Jonestown? Could their deaths have been a choice?

Can we look death in the face and say, “You too are an instrument at my disposal”?

Being free to use death for some purpose is indeed a revolutionary thought. I know that I have not been able to think much further about this than being certain that when I die, everything in my body that can be used by another human being will be freely theirs. Making that gift changes the face of death to some small degree, but it is still an ugly and fearsome dark hole.

It strikes me that it need not be that way, and that we (can) should struggle with the freedom that suggests we can make something good of the thing that scares us the most. It is not difficult for me to think that some folks in Jonestown exercised that freedom.

(Richard Lawrence is a retired Methodist minister who was active in the Civil Rights Movements of the 1960s. His complete collection of writings for the jonestown report may be found here. He may be reached at ralawrence1015@yahoo.com.)

Originally posted on July 25th, 2013.

Last modified on March 5th, 2014.
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