Bloggers' New Ars Moriendi

Bloggers' New Ars Moriendi May 5, 2011

Salon reports that Canadian blogger Derek Miller died shortly after blogging his own death. Miller, first diagnosed with colorectal cancer in 2007, had been using his blog as a platform for his meditations on illness and death, longing and loss. His final post begins:

Here it is. I’m dead, and this is my last post to my blog. In advance, I asked that once my body finally shut down from the punishments of my cancer, then my family and friends publish this prepared message I wrote—the first part of the process of turning this from an active website to an archive.

His final message runs about 1,400 words — short sentences, no rambling, no block quotes. In literary terms, the man was a thoroughbred. The post drew almost 3.000 Facebook likes — a number which, under any other circumstances, I’d surely envy.

But what impresses me most about Miller is his detachment. That word might not apply in its religious sense; Miller was an atheist. But the absence of any afterlife seems not to bother him. He writes:

I haven’t gone to a better place, or a worse one. I haven’t gone anyplace, because Derek doesn’t exist anymore. As soon as my body stopped functioning, and the neurons in my brain ceased firing, I made a remarkable transformation: from a living organism to a corpse, like a flower or a mouse that didn’t make it through a particularly frosty night. The evidence is clear that once I died, it was over.

So I was unafraid of death—of the moment itself—and of what came afterwards, which was (and is) nothing. As I did all along, I remained somewhat afraid of the process of dying, of increasing weakness and fatigue, of pain, of becoming less and less of myself as I got there. I was lucky that my mental faculties were mostly unaffected over the months and years before the end, and there was no sign of cancer in my brain—as far as I or anyone else knew.

Though Miller expresses disappointment at “missing out,” he concludes:

The world, indeed the whole universe, is a beautiful, astonishing, wondrous place. There is always more to find out. I don’t look back and regret anything, and I hope my family can find a way to do the same.

As you’ll have noticed, Miller writes of himself in the past tense, as though from beyond the grave. For me, at least, this was confusing in a wonderful way: if words are coming from a man who was, then maybe he still is. I wonder what Miller would make of the contradiction.

Miller isn’t the only blogger who’s invited the world to his sickbed, or deathbed. Alicia Parlette, a San Francisco journalist, who was diagnosed with cancer at the age of 23, has kept a chronicle of her experiences in Alicia’s Story. There must me many others — more than anyone could name, or I could link to.

Some advantages to having such easy access to so many real-time personal accounts of sickness, pain and dying are fairly obvious. All the taboos surrounding the body’s inevitable collapse are shattered; the world gets a big, fat “memento mori,” along with innumerable competing versions of the Ars Moriendi

But I suspect there’s another reason to cheer this new connectedness: people suffer and die better in front of an appreciative audience. To cite just one example, there’s my mother’s brother, whose carotid doctors recently unblocked. The operation involved the insertion of a Foley catheter, which remained in place for several days afterward — a grim experience.

When he talked to my mother, for whom his jokes have always been hit or miss, he sounded grumpy throughout the conversation.

I’ve always been a big fan of his. When I called, he opened with, “They stuck a Foley in a Foley.” Foley is his surname. I fold him, “Bravo, sir!” And he brightened up immediately.

Actually, like Miller’s FB numbers, the Foley-in-a-Foley joke is something I’d normally have envied, or possibly tried to steal. But there are times it’s best to be magnanimous.

Oh, and since we’ve been talking a lot about St. Therese lately, imagine if she’d blogged, or better, vlogged. She could have converted half of Vietnam in her very own lifetime.

— Max Lindenman

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