Johann Hari: We've forgotten how to face death

A culture that believes it it sick and spooky to see its dead forgets how to live

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In our taboo-less, porn-soaked culture, we have one subject left that makes us fall silent and look away. Nobody wants to discuss death. We view anybody touched by it – the bereaved, undertakers, morticians – with wriggling discomfort. Images of death are the only ones scrubbed from our news reports.

We demand our own dead be whisked away unseen. We are the first human society in history to insulate ourselves like this from the inevitable end of our own stories – and it is a taboo that disfigures our lives.

I have been thinking about this partly because of the retching response to the public dying of Jade Goody – and because I just spent a day staring at corpses.

I went to the Body Worlds exhibition in the Millennium Dome, where the dead – from foetuses to the elderly – are preserved and posed for us all to see. The meat that once was a pregnant woman, or a sportsman, or a baby, is stripped down, its inner workings explained.

The man who created this exhibition, Professor Günther von Hagens, is regarded by many as strange, or even sick. Yet in historical terms, we are the strange, sick exception. Every other wave of human beings has stared at corpses and the cold reality of death as a matter of course. You don't have to read much Victorian fiction, for example, to see how death was an everyday presence. Every child saw his dead relatives, and spent swathes of his life in mourning dress as a public marker of grief.

A popular Victorian hymn went: "There are short graves in the churchyard, round/ Where little children buried lie,/ Each underneath his narrow mound,/ With stiff cold hand and close shut eye." You don't have to spend much time in sub-Saharan Africa to see how death is held close and seen raw.

The sealing-off of death is a recent shift in Western culture, born in the mud and blood of the trenches. The scale of the First World War slaughter was so vast that mourning dress had to be abandoned, and the battalions of bodies couldn't be returned to their families. This is when mourning shifted from being based on the corpse to being based on memory – and death began to be hidden away.

Gradually, we have taken this further and further. I didn't see a dead body until I was 23, and even then, it was only because I was a journalist. Of course, this is in part a side effect of a totally positive development. We all live longer thanks to the dazzling advances of medical science, and most of us die in hospitals receiving treatment. But this has enabled us to take a natural human instinct – the denial of death – too far.

Death will always be hard to contemplate, particularly when we abandon the anaesthetics offered by religion. As Philip Larkin put it: "Not to be here,/ Not to be anywhere,/ And soon; nothing more terrible, nothing more true." But it only becomes more frightening – and more corrosive – if we suppress our fears, and it produces strange dysfunctions in how we live.

This occurred to me when I saw my grandfather's corpse last year. He was waxy and absent, and all his complex experiences and thoughts were simply gone. This is it, I thought. This is what you are: a slab of meat, invested with meaning by other hunks of meat, until you too rot. This is what Von Hagens's corpses say as they show you their sinews and synapses so emptily.

Yes, there is something depressing about this. Of course there is. In his autobiographical book about death, Nothing to Be Frightened Of, Julian Barnes writes: "It is difficult for us to contemplate, fixedly, the possibility, let alone the certainty, that life is a matter of cosmic hazard, its fundamental purpose mere self-perpetuation, that it unfolds in emptiness, that our planet will one day drift in frozen silence, and that the human species will completely disappear and not be missed, because there is nobody and nothing out there to miss us. That is what growing up means. And it is frightening prospect for a race that has for so long relied on its own invented gods for consolation."

Yet there is something exhilarating in the truth of it too. When you rush around pretending your life is eternal and for ever, you use it casually and wastefully, like any other resource you imagine is not going to run out. But when you are forced to see how finite it is, this seems almost scandalous. A culture that doesn't see its dead – that believes it is sick and spooky to do so – forgets how to live.

The most powerful explanation of this view that I know is the 1999 novel Being Dead by Jim Crace. It opens with two doctors of zoology – Joseph and Celice – wandering to some remote sand dunes, where they are suddenly and inexplicably beaten to death.

We expect to be told the story of their lives and murder, but instead, we simply watch as their bodies rot. Crace writes: "No one could tell what kind of man he was, what kind of woman she had been. Their characters had bled out on the grass... The plain and unforgiving facts are these. Celice and Joseph were soft fruit. They lived in tender bodies. They were vulnerable. They did not have the power not to die. They were, we are, all flesh, and then we are all meat."

Their daughter identifies the bodies, and realises: "This was not death as it was advertised: a fine translation to a better place... They were insensible as stones, imprisoned by the viewless wind." But she does not see as a recipe for despair. No. She concludes: "No one transcends. There is no remedy for death – or birth – except to hug the spaces in between. Live loud. Live wide. Live tall."

It's a healthier attitude than our quiet, delusional shunning of death. Bring out your dead. See them. Stare at them. Our culture will live better if we gaze upon death, instead of burying it six feet deep in our psyches, along with our unviewed and uncomprehended corpses.

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