When I was a young man I had a job as an orderly at the Yale-New Haven Hospital. I hadn’t worked there long before I realized that no one ever died at this hospital. Obviously, plenty of people exhibited no vital signs and were whisked away to the morgue by orderlies like me. However, the vocabulary of death was rarely invoked to describe their condition. A call would come down to the orderly room: “We’ve got a patient going down the hall.” Or: “We’ve got a Brady on T-6” – “Brady” being shorthand for the Brady Memorial Unit, which was the morgue. An orderly would be dispatched with a gurney. The body would be wrapped in a plastic shroud, then covered in blankets and hauled down a freight elevator to the basement, where the morgue was located. The patient’s room was quickly swabbed down with antiseptic, and by the next shift it would be as if the person had never existed.
The pervasiveness of euphemisms for death at Yale-New Haven Hospital was a good indicator that a strong cultural taboo still surrounded the subject, even at an institution where death was a common occurrence. Our burial rituals are more of the same. Bodies are embalmed and cosmetically enhanced to suggest perhaps that the deceased had oddly decided to take a nap in an open coffin in this or her best suit of clothes. The Bible passages read at funeral services are meant to provide solace to the bereaved with promises of everlasting life, even if that means waiting around in a comfortably upholstered casket for the day of resurrection. It would seem no one ever truly dies anywhere.
“And it is appointed unto men once to die,” wrote the New Testament author of the Book of Hebrews. Given that the hereafter is painted in such glowing terms, it is curious that there is nearly universal reluctance to keep this appointment. The instinct for self-preservation is found in all creatures, of course. But fear of death in the abstract seems limited to our own kind. Alone among creatures, we are aware of ourselves as mortal beings, which makes us afraid. Alone among creatures, we are aware of ourselves, which is the root of the problem.
The irony is, the part of us that fears death has no real existence, other than in our thoughts. Take away such thoughts, and the survival of this creature that we fondly think of as "me" becomes a matter of small consequence. Nothing much is gained or lost. There is a body that will grow old and feeble and one day return to dust. What else? Our reflection in the glass. But if we can see past our reflection, we realize we are gazing through a small window into eternity. And what remains when that window disappears? All of eternity.