"There is a forbidden zone marked on the map of twentieth-century American culture, a place every citizen knows but fears to enter. It is a place whose borders are open but never willingly trespassed, a place guarded by dread but surrounded by fascination. It is the zone of death, the modern American Hades. All of us know we must die, but as much as we fear it, we want to know about it. Some of us want to know in order to prepare ourselves; others to discover some way, if not to avoid it, then at least to choose the time and place. Most of us want to know only just enough to experience it imaginatively and then live to tell the tale, like Lazarus returned to the light. Our curiosity makes those who pretend to reveal death's secrets rich and famous. Critically acclaimed best-sellers are written about pathological killers; television programs are punctuated with murder, every death followed by commercials that, like antidotes, promise health, happiness, and unencumbered freedom; crowds of ticket holders wait in line to see films of massacre and dismemberment, homicidal spectacles equivalent to the ancient Games, whose dramas of carnage reminded their audience that they were alive. Our culture is permeated by images and accounts of death, but they are only fictions, works of imagination, counterfeits. The real thing is carefully hidden. Photographs are cropped; news footage is edited. What finally appears is only a flicker, out of context, reduced to a rectangle of light or printer's ink. Every Hollywood movie, television drama, and executioner's song, no matter how explicit, is only a fabrication, mantled with art, artifice, and commercial interruption. Death's fictions are everywhere available, shrink-wrapped like chicken legs and hamburger meat, but death itself is rarely revealed, only the mirror image of our fear, dread, and fascination with it. Eighty years ago, people died at home and their friends prepared their bodies for burial. In England and America, cemeteries were designed as parks where families stroll for refreshment — landscapes dotted with graves, where the living might contemplate the dead. Today, instead of gazing at death, we watch violence: instead of the long look at the steady state, we switch back and forth from one violent epiphany to the other. Ordinary and inevitable death, death as an actual part of life, has become so rare that when it occurs among us it reverberates like a handclap in an empty auditorium.
"Perhaps it's naïve to compare our present with our past, to claim calm and enlightenment for our ancestors and anxious confusion for ourselves. After all, our grandparents had no choice and we do: epidemic death walked among them, and, like it or not, they had to acknowledge it. We don't: medicine has set us free. But medicine hasn't made us immortal. Death still comes to us like sleep, but, unlike our grandparents, few of us believe in the consolations of heaven. We are, as a nation, like that man at the beginning of John O'Hara's Appointment in Samarra: one morning in a crowded bazaar in Baghdad, Death accidentally jostles the man. Death looks at him in surprise: the man looks at Death in horror. The man rushes away, in fear for his life. 'I will ride from this city and avoid my fate,' he says. He flees to Samarra. Death remains in the bazaar in Baghdad. There, she confesses her surprise at seeing the man so early in the day. According to her calendar, it was to be that evening in Samarra that they were to have their appointment. Like that man, we try to avoid the inevitable, and so our lives are awash with it, sodden with its replicas, soaked with its allusions. We are like the wolves the Eskimos kill with the animals' own appetites: the hunters stick knives in the snow, blades up, smeared with suet; the wolves come and lick. They taste the fat and then they taste their own blood. They lick and lick and lick until they die. Our fascination, our dread, and our denial breed only more fascination, dread, and denial. The fictions we live only famish our craving.”
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