Soon after I first moved to Canada, I took a program in Satir family reconstruction with Maria Gomori, who was 87 at the time. I told her that I had a hard time imagining myself living past my 60s at best, since my mother and father had died at 60 and 68 respectively. Maria listened to me for a while, and then said simply: “Well, you must stop that!”
So, since it was Maria, I did. I began deliberately to imagine being 70 and 80 … in fact, since it was Maria who gave me the idea, I practiced saying things like “When I’m 87, I’ll …” These days, I do indeed think in those terms.
And, remembering days spent in Egypt, I hear myself saying Insh’allah, God willing.
Of course, there is another side to all this.
If I had been born in England in the 1830s instead of the 1960s, I would have been likely to live, on average, to around 38 years old. As it is, however, the fact that I was born in the second half of the 20th century means that my life expectancy has doubled, and my chances of getting to Maria’s age are not bad at all.
Indeed a middle-aged woman in the 1950s (like Maria) had a 10 per cent chance of living into her 90s. That figure has now risen to almost 30 per cent. (I don’t have the figures for men.)
The fact that people now live decades longer than they did little more than a hundred years ago, says Roman Krznaric in a chapter called “Deathstyle” in his excellent book The Wonderbox, “may be the greatest social revolution in human history.” It has, however, been accompanied, he points out, by a radical decline in the public presence of death. The rise of medicalized death in hospital, and the erosion of traditional funeral and mourning rituals, have made death largely invisible in modern society.
Krznaric compares this to the situation in medieval and Renaissance Europe. With high mortality rates meaning you were very likely to have siblings who had died in childhood, plague leading to piles of bodies in the streets, and a religious atmosphere obsessed with the fires of Hell, death was literally everywhere.
The artistic genre of memento mori (Latin for “remember you must die”) flourished. Examples are the danse macabre, showing people from popes to peasants dancing with rotting corpses; the Grim Reaper, a personification of death as a skeleton with scythe and cloak; and rings and brooches showing skulls and other symbols of death. I remember years ago visiting the Sedlec Ossuary in Kutna Hora near Prague, which contains the skeletons of between 40,000 and 70,000 people, many of whose bones have been used to decorate and furnish the chapel.
One result of the prevalence of death in the Middle Ages was, says Krznaric, that people had a heightened appreciation of the preciousness and fragility of life. An historian of attitudes towards death, Philippe Aries, wrote that “probably at no time has man so loved life as he did at the end of the Middle Ages.” Krznaric expands on this:
When you are constantly reminded that death can snatch you away in an instant, when you grow up playing amongst human thigh bones and seeing skeletons dance on the walls, you are likely to realize that life exists to be lived to the full, that every moment must be cherished as a gift, that you should make the most of the few years granted you. The very ubiquity of death propelled a whole age towards a state of radical aliveness.
Death does not seem so imminent as it once did. “We imagine living long into our distant eighties and nineties,” says Krznaric, and I take note. “As a result, our awareness of the rare value of existence has been diminished, and with it the ability to immerse ourselves in the present and suck all the marrow from life.”
And yet, it does seem possible to have both. I think of Maria, who is now 93, still going strong, teaching, travelling, learning, full of laughter. And other friends, both dead and alive, who in full knowledge of the imminence of their end, lived and are living to the full. I take inspiration and comfort from them.