“Guess how much it costs to die?” That’s what my dad asked me this weekend, still clearly in shock after spending three hours and $10,000 on his own father’s death. I had never thought about it before, but it makes sense. In America we love to try and make sense out of the senseless, so why wouldn’t we turn death into a commodity, something that can be bought and measured?
I’ve written about this tendency before. We’ve seen it in realist literature — in the idealized narratives of Charles Dickens — and during World War I, when we attempted to tidy up what were essentially mass, chaotic carnages by calling it the “Battle of the Somme” or what have you. “What we call things is one way we remember them,” wrote Philip Gourevitch in the New Yorker, but I’d like to add it’s also one way we attempt to make sense of something — to put it in a quantifiable and digestible context.
But some things are intrinsically senseless — that’s their DNA, their identity, and how they should be defined. For instance, this:
Pure and utter senselessness. Kendall most likely made this style choice on her very own, perhaps in a model stupor. Why are we acting surprised? Has anything about her upbringing that we’ve seen thus far suggested “good taste”? And yet, somehow, people are still talking about it. Or how about this:
No, your eyes are not failing you; and yes, that is Shia LaBeouf in Uggs. Just about every media outlet has covered it, which, again, begs the question: Why must we try and make sense out of the senseless?
This habit obviously extends into more grave territories too. Like the public’s and the media’s reaction to the Sandy Hook school shooting. We are wired to not accept something as simply being “senseless.” We associate “reason,” “motives” and “explanations” with comfort, but then when we reach for these empty forms of consolation, we’re indignant when it doesn’t give us the relief we need. Still, we continue to argue, debate and mull over every facet of Adam Lanza’s life that could have contributed to or led up to this harrowing moment. We heard he was placed on the autism spectrum as a young boy and we grabbed onto this information, holding it tightly as if it would provide some sort of solace. Adam is dead, his mother is dead and, though Adam hadn’t seen his father in two years at the time of the shooting, we still fixate on his father and try to squeeze any hint of motive from him. He’s our only hope left for finding someone to blame and for making sense out of this murky senselessness.
We think that searching for an answer in times of starving desperation will somehow help, but it doesn’t. Sometimes it’s best to leave things behind as they are, and to not try and meddle with them.
Since the genocide in Rwanda in 1994, there has been a genocide-commemoration ceremony held in Rwanda every year to remember the atrocities. As Philip Gourevitch details, the commemoration always results in “Scores of Rwandans erupt[ing] in this way”:
The first voice was like a gull’s, a series of wild, high keening cries; the next was lower and slower, strangled with ace, but growing steadily louder in a drawn-out crescendo; after that came a frantic, full-throated babbling–a cascade of terrible, terrified pleading wails.
And so in light of all of this he asks a reasonable question: “Is it really healing to keep re-opening a wound?”
And I can’t help but feel similarly towards our response to death. Unless the deceased had already figured out all of the particulars that go into dying properly, then the family of the deceased is left with this burden. My grandma relayed to me all of the grueling decisions she was forced to make after her husband of 64 years passed, and with each detail, she grew more and more exhausted, more and more haggard. “You wouldn’t believe how many types of wood caskets come in,” she said, “and yet they all looked exactly the same.”