To those familiar with The Far Side comics, there’s one where the Grim Reaper is on stage at a comedy club, scythe in hand, saying “Hey! Did someone kill this microphone? Oh, I guess it was me. But seriously, folks...” And the audience is quiet, with one exception. The picture’s caption: “Only Bernard, in the front row, had the nerve to laugh at Death.”
This was one of many cartoons making light of the concept of death that Dr. George Erickson of Eveleth, Minn., shared with an audience at Davies Theater at Itasca Community College on Tuesday, Sept. 25, in his presentation entitled “Laughing at Death.” Dr. Erickson was brought to Grand Rapids to speak by the Grand Rapids Atheists and Freethinkers. The talk, which involved many quotes from famous names both past and present on the topic of death, was compiled as a means of looking with humor at the great inevitable, the one half of Benjamin Franklin’s famous quote on the two certainties in life, death (the other one is taxes, by the way).
The fear of death has permeated human culture for as long as mankind has realized that death is in fact inevitable. Dr. Erickson noted how religion, across the board, owes its very existence to man’s fear of death. On this point, the former president of the Minnesota Humanists actually quoted author Barbara G. Walker. But the counterpoint to this fear, he asked “Is dying the bad thing that so many make it out to be?”
“What’s the alternative? Endless life, and would we want it? And if not endless, for how long?”
The wish of eternal life has taken many faces throughout human history, and no doubt human prehistory as well. Referenced in the talk was the poem “Tithonus” by Alfred, Lord Tennyson, of which the speaker is one who requested immortality from the gods, but neglected to request eternal youth. The use of this poem to make a point is appropriate since it takes the work of a 19th century author who has borrowed from ancient Greek mythology, showing that the fear of death and the desperation to escape it have not diminished over the centuries, nor has the inherent problem with attempting to do so. Tennyson writes in the poem’s final stanza, after Tithonus has reached great age and has withered to a painfully frail state:
“Coldly thy rosy shadows bathe me, cold
Are all thy lights, and cold my wrinkled feet
Upon thy glimmering thresholds, when the steam
Floats up from those dim fields about the homes
Of happy men that have the power to die,
And grassy barrows of the happier dead.”
The ability to not only laugh at death, but to approach the concept with dignity and humility, was central in the subtext of the presentation. For those who find themselves in situations not completely unlike Tithonus, namely those in the final stages of an illness that is about to take their lives, Dr. Erickson remarked that religious thought and teaching has created a blanket boycott on euthanasia as an option for those who wish to end their pain. These teachings have found their way into law, making assisted suicide illegal, most famously with the case of Dr. Kevorkian in 1999. He spent eight years in prison for assisting in the suicide of Thomas Youk, whose family supported the suicide, calling it humane.
The ultimate point of Dr. Erickson’s presentation was a positive one, that we need not fear death, but that it’s not strange that we do. And that we should, if possible, look upon our end a little bit of humor. As such, he concluded with a joke.
“I have to admit that I see myself as the third person in this story. Three friends died in a car crash, and go to heaven for orientation. They are all asked ‘When you are in your casket, and friends and family are mourning over you, what would you like to hear them say?’ The first says, ‘I would like to hear them say that I was a great teacher and a devoted family man.’ The second says, ‘I would like to hear that I was a wonderful wife and terrific doctor who made a huge difference to my patients.’ The orientation leader than turns to the third and asks ‘What would you want them to say?’ He pauses for a moment and then replies, ‘I’d like them to bend over my casket and say LOOK, HE’S MOVING!’”