Socrates referred to it as either a "dreamless sleep" or a "relocating of the soul..." Hamlet called it the "undiscover'd country from whose bourn / No traveller returns..."
They were speaking, as many readers know, of death. And despite some modern accounts (see, for example, Eben Alexander's Proof of Heaven), Hamlet was right: the trip into our end is one-way.
In his 1998 encyclical "Fides et Ratio" ("Faith and Reason"), John Paul II wrote that "the first absolutely certain truth of our life, beyond the fact that we exist, is the inevitability of our death." Despite this daunting fact, death is rarely mentioned or discussed; or if it is, it's done so in passing or indirectly. We rarely focus on death as its own philosophical or literary theme. We know death will deliver itself, but we don't necessarily want to acknowledge it. Fr. Richard John Neuhaus captured it well many years ago when he wrote:
We are born to die. Not that death is the purpose of our being born, but we are born toward death, and in each of our lives the work of dying is already underway. The work of dying well is, in largest part, the work of living well. Most of us are at ease in discussing what makes for a good life, but we typically become tongue-tied and nervous when the discussion turns to a good death. As children of a culture radically, even religiously, devoted to youth and health, many find it incomprehensible, indeed offensive, that the word “good” should in any way be associated with death. Death, it is thought, is an unmitigated evil, the very antithesis of all that is good.
These great authors and their thoughts returned to mind recently when I read about the expansion of what one might call "death studies." Last week, TheWall Street Journal reported:
At Kean University, students are dying (as it were) to get into Norma Bowe's class "Death in Perspective," which has sometimes carried a three-year waiting list. On one field trip to a local coroner's office, Dr. Bowe's students were shown three naked cadavers on metal tables. One person had died from a gunshot, the other from suicide and the third by drowning.
The last corpse appeared overweight but wasn't; he had expanded like a water balloon. A suspect in a hit-and-run case, he had fled the scene, been chased by police, abandoned his car and jumped into the Passaic River. On the autopsy table, he looked surprised, his mouth splayed open, as if he realized he had made a mistake. As the class clustered around, a technician began to carve his torso open. Some students gagged or scurried out, unable to stand the sight or the smell.
This grim visit was just one of the excursions for Dr. Bowe's class. Every semester, students also leave the campus in Union, New Jersey, to visit a cemetery, a maximum-security prison (to meet murderers), a hospice, a crematory and a funeral home, where they pick out caskets for themselves. The homework is also unusual: Students are required to write goodbye letters to dead loved ones and to compose their own eulogies and wills.
That's not all. The article further notes:
Today, growing numbers of Americans are confronting death as something more than an abstract possibility. So-called death dinners, in which people gather to talk about the inevitable, are increasingly popular; so are death salons, featuring discussions of death over craft beer. Death cafes, events whose dark talk is perked up by tea and cake, have sprouted up in more than 100 cities, according to Lizzy Miles, who hosted the first known one in the U.S. in July 2012 in Westerville, Ohio.
I know some will find all the death talk unsettling, but I think this trend is a generally healthy direction for our academic and popular culture, for a culture that struggles to fathom wrinkled skin and receding hair lines. It can certainly be overwrought, it can certainly become woefully depressive or despair-inducing; but if contemplating the curtain call of our earthly run inspires people to reflect more intentionally and thoughtfully about their lives, about their decision-making, and about what they value and how they behave, about the origin and end of all their days, then these courses, cafes and events can be much-needed correctives.