When Death Becomes “Death”

When Death Becomes “Death” February 21, 2018

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Figure skater Evgenia Medvedeva achieved a world record score in the ladies’ short program at the Winter Olympics. That was lovely. But she also did something completely bonkers — at least to hear CNN writer AJ Willingham tell it:

Yep, if you were watching NBC’s enhanced coverage of the events, you were treated to the fun trivia that Evgenia Medvedeva “said that her short program is about ‘the flight of the soul’ as it leaves someone’s body at the point of ‘clinical death.'” Festive! Apparently souls get a pass through the bedazzler before fleeing this mortal realm.

AJ is known for putting a funny spin on sports and breaking news, which makes me instantly glad she is alive, which in turn makes me wonder why I am picking on her. But this article is too spot-on an example of the nervous arm’s-length death-denial titter to pass up.

You see the problem, right? An artist chooses a rich, serious human theme for her program, and our utter inability to look straight at death, even in the abstract, even with “flight of the soul” add-ons, leaves us no recourse but the nervous arm’s-length death-denial titter, peppered with Yep and Festive! and Fun Trivia! We can’t even mention her theme without scare quotes. It wasn’t clinical death that inspired the routine. It was “clinical death.”

The combination of outward dismissive humor masking the inward terror of death reminds me of the How I Met Your Mother episode in which Mitchell realizes what’s wrong with The Captain’s face: the lower half is smiling, but the upper half wants to kill you. Sorry — it wants to “kill” you.

The Captain’s conflicted face. YouTube screenshot.

In the arsenal of verbal death deflections, humor isn’t even the most common weapon. There are of course the euphemisms for death — passing on, resting in peace, going to one’s reward — most of which hint at some continued post-expiration existence. But one word is especially revealing.

For years I taught an interdisciplinary college seminar that included a toss-off assignment to write your own epitaph. After teaching it twice, I banned the use of a word that kept appearing in the first sentence of the paper, time after time after time: “Although it’s morbid to think about my own epitaph…”

I’m confident that the students were using morbid according to its accepted definition: “characterized by an abnormal and unhealthy interest in disturbing and unpleasant subjects, especially death and disease.” But by invoking it in this case (the non-obsessive one-time consideration of how you might like to be remembered after your death), they revealed our cultural insistence that any direct admission of the reality of death, whether in a college writing assignment or an Olympic figure skating routine, is abnormal and unhealthy.

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