While we are constantly being told we will learn from the pandemic, we haven’t changed our understanding of death, writes Ruadhán Jones
Crises, whether natural disasters like pandemics or man-made ones like war, force us to confront the unthinkable; what does my death mean to me? What does the sudden eruption of death mean for me, for my culture, for my society? The question is, how have we answered these questions during Covid-19?
Consider what are currently the two primary means of conceptualising death in the pandemic. The first and predominant mode is statistical. How many people have died? What is the excess mortality? How many cases? These figures are conveyed in daily news reports, are then debated and discussed and decisions are made based on what they tell us.
The quantification of deaths is also an integral part of our modern grief-process. We use it to compare the scale of a disaster or the relative efficiency of a country’s response. Are we doing better than Britain? Is Covid-19 comparable with World War II? The Spanish Flu? We also use it as a means to recognise or acknowledge the deaths of thousands of people in a manner which is crisp, neat and democratic.
The second mode is through the stories of the dead and who they leave behind – the story behind the statistics. Whereas statistics are cold and faceless, these stories are particular and emotionally powerful. They are about grief-stricken wives and husbands, parents and children – in some cases, entire communities.
These stories fit into a number of narrative frames, such as the tragedy of a life lost too soon, the importance of taking care of the elderly and the sick, we’re losing the battle – or we’re winning. In a society which encourages the act of sharing for the sake of mental health, these stories serve as a catharsis for both the teller and the hearer or reader.
What these two modes share is a desire to explain ‘why’ in terms of ‘how’ and ‘what’. By that I mean the question of why the person died is answered by showing how they died – through the negligence of others, their own negligence, systemic failures, biological or environmental causes. Correspondingly, the answer to the why questions is an action to be carried out. What we can do to avoid such a future death is x, y or z.
What neither of these modes provide is a means for answering, or even addressing, the fundamental question of why that person had to die at all and then, why do we have to die at all. Yet that is the question which is most integral to the nature of death and how we respond to it. It is the question those who live on are left with and is largely the means by which the general question becomes personal; death requires us to consider what it means for me to die.
This is a question which has hardly been asked at all, except again in the sense of how and what: how did this pandemic come about, what can we do to avoid it happening again? Perhaps this shouldn’t come as a surprise. Although Pope St John Paul II identified us as living in a ‘culture of death’, what characterises that culture in particular is an inability to think about death as such – so argues Catholic philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre.
“This is a culture in which death as such – my death – has become a ghost concept, a concept that haunts the culture but one that many people are unable to confront,” he said in a talk at Notre Dame University. The pandemic has failed to jolt us into confronting this final question because, as Prof. MacIntyre suggests, to do so would be to chase a ghost.