If you were after a pleasant read, best to skip this piece of writing altogether. The intention is to take a long hard look at the cold, hard truth. To examine death, and the cosmic ash of nothing it represents. Still here? You’ve been warned.
One day you will die. Everybody you see around you will soon be dead too. Some sooner than others. It’s 2014 now. By 2100 virtually everyone you know, and you, won’t be up here living and breathing, you’ll be down there rotting and feeding worms.
It seems very unfair doesn’t it? Or is it completely fair. Is it just life? What after all is unfair, we get life, we lose it. What’s unfair? Well, just this:
"To have emerged from nothing; to have a name, consciousness of self, deep inner feeling; an excruciating yearning for life and self-expression. And with all this; yet to die. Human beings find themselves in quite the predicament. With our minds we have the capacity to ponder the infinite, seemingly capable of anything, yet we're housed in a heart-pumping, breath-gasping, decaying body. We are godly, yet creaturely."
That quote comes from the award-winning 2006 documentary narrated by Gabriel Byrne.
Since we need to make provisions for human nature, its sensitivities and proclivities, let’s turn the conversation now to the dead. The dead who have no rights. Let’s be voyeurs, and so, face away from looking at (or dealing with) ourselves.
Poor Reeva Steenkamp. What were those final moments like? Can we dare imagine? At one point in the Oscar Trial we came close. When an old grey man with a funny name (“Vollie”) played model for us behind that door. I don’t understand why the prosecution didn’t get someone who looked like Reeva, to model exactly how and where she would have been wounded through that door, and how she would have fallen. Instead, we have to imagine.
We have to imagine we are her at 3am in Johannesberg, with chicken stir fry in our stomach, on a warm evening in February, staring at a door, shouting at the wooden surface, at someone without proper legs or feet on the other side. We know now that Reeva would not live to fight another day. But did she? A witness suggests that from the escalating pitch of her screams, Reeva knew what was coming. What do you do when you know you are about to die? Beyond the fear, what is there to say or do?
Unfortunately, even after 4 bullets ripped through that door, it wasn’t over for her. The pain would have come as a shock. But as she lay, her broken body, her strong beautiful body draped over a toilet, her precious blood flowing out of her head (where the worst bullet had penetrated her) she may have pondered the tragedy of living. For such a beauty to find herself in such an ugly place. Why? She may have felt her killer pick her up, and stabs of pain as he struggled, and moved her. Unable to blink, or speak or breathe, the exquisite sharpness of the painful fire was slowly subsiding. But no pain would mean death. Did she wish for it? Did she wish for the dream that was slipping so quickly away from her, to linger, for just one moment more? Did she wish for a chance to finish her life’s work? A chance to speak to Gina. To say goodbye to June, and dad. No-.
And a year later her mother would drive to court, and on the way, the bitter realisation would hit her. Reeva isn’t here. The streets are going on without her. They will always go on without her. They seem to have forgotten her already. My daughter made this place her home, but now that I’m here, searching for her, she’s gone. And I couldn’t protect her.
Oscar may be aware of the profound simplicity of death. That the dead can’t be brought back. They are mute forever. They can’t testify on their own behalf. They can’t contradict what is said, but neither can what was done that caused a death be contradicted. Death is final. We can speak on their behalf, we can argue for or against their rights, but they remain silent. They remain missing. They consent in their silence to our dignified responses and our ignorance. And what we finally see when someone very close to us dies is really the spirit of ourselves trying to live in a vacuum. It is a doomed reflection. It is a lost voice, crying, unconsolable, in the wilderness. Time does heal wounds, but not in the way we think. Time erases our memories. In the end, all we remember is what we say we remember. Do we really remember faces, the sound of someone’s voice, a moment?
So what is the point of living if it ends like this? Indeed, this is a question asked by every dying person, and the odd existentialist. Memento mori is Latin. It means 'remember that you will die'. But what should we remember, and why? What is the point of the mountains of dead creatures for each human life? How many chickens, and lambs, and pigs, and bulls and fish have we torn to pieces with our teeth? How many voiceless lives have we gulped down, laughing, tasting more the wine or the cola than the oysters, or the snails, the prawns or the mussels. How high is that mountain of dead prey that we ate without thinking? That we took pleasure in eating, rather than because we were hungry. That we doused in sauces and spices in order to overlook the underlying inanimate, authentic flesh. Is that what life is for, in all its forms, mouths connected with pipes to anuses, tearing at living things and pumping their digested remains out in stinking piles?
Is the world anything better than a toilet, with a locked door? Because make no mistake, once you’re in it, there’s no way out. Whether you’re safely in God’s Book of Life or not, your body will fail and rot and disappear. And then what? Who will we be then? Will it even matter that we lived?
What we fear most of course is what happened to Reeva, and the Steenkamps of Griekwastad. A nameless, faceless death. Only the killers know the real reasons, and the real sights and sounds of what they did, how they did what they did, and why they did what they did. But it makes one wonder. If murderers must live a lie (despite their obvious crimes) in the hopes that society may forgive them, what about the rest of us? Given how we live our lives, and the mountains of death we leave in our wake, do we not also live a lie? The lie that we live is the shared pretence that everything is normal, and everything is the way it should be. (Except, everyone is going to die). Is death the way it should be? If we say that, are we being honest?
All of us are guilty. Guilty of what? Of being alive. We’re guilty by association. We’re guilty of all we do (and don’t do) with our lives. We’re guilty of months, years, wasted on meaningless distraction. We’re guilty of mindless materialism, and social bankruptcy. We’re guilty of not listening, and not caring. We’re guilty of laziness. We’re guilty of wasting vast swaths of time, and wasting the time and lives of other people. We’re guilty because we cling to the mistakes of yesterday more than we do to the hopes and dreams of tomorrow. And all the while, the present just slips from our grasp. Like a candle flame brushing a fingertip, so quick we hardly feel it.
So what should we do? Bemoan death? Celebrate death as the ultimate measurement of a well-lived life? Alan Harrington suggests there is a window in that toilet. There is a way out that does not involve bullets and a locked door, or blood dripping onto the toilet tiles, or a life needlessly flushed away. What is it? What if we could engineer salvation? What if we could hold off death?
“The beautiful device of tragedy ending in helplessness,” says Harrington, “has become outmoded in our absurd time, [it is] no longer desirable and not to be glamorized. The art that embellishes death with visual beauty and celebrates it in music belongs to other centuries. Anything that celebrates or bemoans our helplessness has gone as far as it can. We are done teaching accommodation to death and granting it static finality as the 'human condition.”
Really? Because if we take Harrington seriously we have to turn our backs on Christianity and the crucifixion. Why? Because both glamorise and celebrate death. Surely, death is natural, and part of God’s plan for us. Surely, if death is natural and life after death part of a divine plan, cheating death is the real abomination.
Except cheating death is what religions and miracles specialise in. Lazarous did, and he was a hero. Jesus did, and became God, and saviour to billions. You can’t get more heroic than that. And so isn’t this the final question we face. To be truly heroic, can we transcend our own mortality.? In this life, on this planet, in this Solar System? Surely the question is, should we or shouldn’t we? Or is death in a toilet the least – and most – we should expect from our lives?
Note: Nick van der Leek is a freelance photojournalist.