A healthy approach to life and death
Faith and finality
So is it easier to face death if you have a strong faith? “You can’t generalise,” McQuillan says. “For some people there is a very strong faith and it’s very sustaining. For others, there is a very strong faith and it’s terrifying or bewildering. They’re asking: ‘Why has God done this to me?’”
Kay, who is a member of the Irish Association of Humanistic and Integrative Psychotherapy, which has its roots in “humanistic philosophy”, says: “I think atheism and fundamentalism are flip sides of the same coin, and for the most part probably make it easier to think about death. When you believe in ‘nothing’ then that is final – decision made. When you believe in an afterlife, you have hope in the form of a reward to look forward to – it doesn’t require much thought, it’s black and white, much easier than grey.”
That’s not to say anyone finds it easy. “If you embrace death, or face it, that doesn’t mean you won’t be afraid of it but you will be acting consciously of it.”
There is a balancing exercise, she stresses, and “any morbid dwelling on death would not be good for wellbeing as it would keep a person stuck instead of getting on with living”.
The many uses of death awareness
Reflecting on death has produced some great art. In fact, Tolstoy went so far as to say, “Whatever an artist is thinking of, he is thinking of his own death.”
Visual artist Martin Healy is not as certain as Tolstoy, although he admits, “I have explored forms of belief and in a sense this could be perceived as a kind of resistance to the finality of death.”
One piece he created for a 2011 Dublin exhibition was a bronze replica of “the dash” between the dates of birth and death on philosopher Martin Heidegger’s gravestone. Okay, so it’s not quite Hamlet. But Healy explains: “I wanted to make something that succinctly summed up the brevity of life and was a kind of distillation of ‘being’.
“Although my work does not consciously draw on a ‘death awareness’, I think some of my works allude to a tenuousness or precariousness of existence and perhaps in some ways a certain futility. This is particularly the case with the film works Last Man [a still from which is pictured above] and Fugue, which depict characters who are essentially alone and invested with unspecified anxiety.”
Art is not the only field in which death awareness has had its uses. In 2005 the former boss of Apple, Steve Jobs, said in his Stanford Commemoration address: “Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything – all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure – these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important.”
Now there’s a cheery thought.