A young person living in a society that’s safe and secure doesn’t think about death that much. In fact, there’s a feeling when you’re young, that death is a long way off, that it can’t touch you. Yeah, sure you know it will at some point, but you don’t need to worry about it because there are so many people in your family older than you—they’re your cushion, your buffer between the guy with the scythe and you. More likely than not he’ll be paying them a visit before he turns his empty eyes in your direction. Because Death seems so far away, with so many in line ahead of you, a healthy young person quite rightly focuses on the long life stretching before them and attains what could almost be called a feeling of immortality.
And then your great-grandparents die, then your grandparents one-by-one, and finally your parents and their brothers and sisters. All of those members of the older generations succumb to the inevitable until no one stands between you and the grave. You’re face-to-face with that fellow with the grinning skull, la Camarde as the French call him—the one without a nose. He is holding an hourglass in your direction and there’s a lot more sand in the bottom than in the top.
The Germans are a melancholy people and also good at coming up with jawbreaking words to describe what otherwise defies description, words like Schadenfreude, Weltanschauung, Wanderlust. To designate this arrival at the gateway to our final decades the German language gives us Unsterblichkeitstod—“The Death of Immortality”—a word, that captures this disquieting realization perfectly.*
With the passing of my father this week after 99 years of healthy living and unfailing memory, I find I can’t get that word out of my mind. Time to face it. You’re not going to make it out alive. Dad anchored our whole family’s lives for what seemed like forever and now reality has shifted.
Dig out that old copy of “Death Be Not Proud” or the Bible or whatever philosophy does it for you,… you can’t put it off any more.
*Benn Schott created this word for his book Schottenfreude.