The Return of Death… as a Migration Route

Our western society, heady with its successes and impressive technological performances, especially in the fields of biology and health as well as in space research, but closed to anything that would reduce its success and limit its ambitious plans of evolution, had succeeded in getting rid, almost to the point of denying it, or at least neutralizing this witness as cumbersome as inevitable: death…

Little time was given to it, both to speak of it and in funeral rites reduced to the bare minimum. Compared to other cultures that celebrate it, sometimes more than is sensible, the West has directed its energies to trying to hide it to the point of making the deceased the host of his funeral, receiving his guests in his living room with a cigarette between his lips while his recorded voice resonates in the house. And now, some great fortunes are financing billions of dollars of studies in search of immortality by creating an augmented man.

And suddenly, within the space of a few days, one of the smallest living things, an almost harmless but highly contagious virus, probably introduced by some wild animal, flaunts its tally of kills all day long on all the media in the world: the number of people killed daily in every country on the planet, locking down half of humanity in the process. Although objectively the number of deaths is not in itself very impressive compared to the usual death statistics, the absence of a cure and the fear of death or, rather, of the death of those we love have invaded our western societies to the point of anguish. The repressed is back with a strange vengeance! Death, our end in both senses of the word, becomes our companion again and, as we have not been able to tame it or cohabit peacefully with it, its presence gnaws at us.

What does the pandemic, and the death it makes so present to us again, tell us? Despite the fact that there were a few other epidemics in the past, it caught us off guard to the point of finding ourselves deprived of the first means of fighting the virus, namely masks and screening tests, not to mention the inadequate number of beds (beds that we had closed to save money) and the non-existent ventilators. On an unprecedented scale, since it affects everyone on the planet, it is above all the obvious experience of our common fragility that we thought we had overcome through our technical exploits: even if some people, like the Brazilian president, have continued to defy it, no one can claim to be invulnerable to this disease; it affects all ages and all social categories, from the heir to the throne of the United Kingdom to its Prime Minister, from the elderly to a healthy 16-year-old girl, to the medical staff and doctors who fight against it all the time. Appalled by the violence of the shock, we accept, showing almost no reaction, the restrictive conditions of the state of health emergency declared by the government, conditions that hinder our freedoms.

As a result, it is not only our social relations that have changed, but also our relationship to time, space and money. Whereas, usually, apart from the unemployed, everyone is running after time, one third of the population, locked down at home, have an unexpected forced leisure. On the contrary, others must become more active in order to continue to ensure the functioning of society: the government decrees authorize an increase in working time to up to 60 hours per week. Daily commutes to work are now limited to the vicinity of everyone’s accommodation: our space has shrunk to the size of our homes and apartments. As for money, which was measured by time to the point of being almost its equivalent, it has changed its sign: idleness and furloughs are happily compensated. A huge upheaval of our principles!

In the health field, as in economic activity and social relations, what will happen when the pandemic is overcome and eliminated, when we come out of the lockdown in which the pandemic has locked us up and when we return to a ‘normal’ life? Will it be the same as before, proud and confident, once the page is turned? Or will it leave a scar after that extraordinary period when all of humanity has been reduced to impotence for weeks? How will we then experience death, our anticipated death, that of our loved ones, after this salutary alert? Will Pascal’s entertainment regain the upper hand in the resumption of our activities? Or will our daily existence have gained more weight and thickness under the sign of its finitude? Will we keep the memory of this planetary event or, as usual, will it be forgotten as quickly as the previous ones?

In a way, this virus has made it possible to live and anticipate, in an unexpected way, something that awaits us today to meet the climate challenge which is as urgent as the health crisis.

In this great return of death in our individual, but above all collective, consciousness, caused by the outbreak of this virus, what is probably the most unbearable for us is, on the one hand, the brutal separation from our loved ones without the possibility of seeing them again to say goodbye and, on the other hand, to be deprived of the practice of a funeral rite, which is one of the signs of our common humanity since its origin, and is even a criterion of humanity. Because of the fear of contamination, the deceased is treated almost as an object that must be disposed of as soon as possible. All of a sudden, what we in the West had reduced to a rudimentary social expression and confined to our collective unconscious comes back to us and should now make us think: our technical exploits do not cancel out our finitude and our fragility. The thought and fear of death must restore vigour and meaning to life, which is our most precious good.

By simply affirming, in The Great Return of Death, that death is our end, in both senses of the word, we have stopped at the common experience, the end of life, without further exploring the second meaning: the finality or meaning that death gives to life. Everyone interprets it according to their convictions, beliefs, philosophy, personal history, culture, religion… but also their living environment. Without prolonging these few reflections further, I would just like to conclude with two converging suggestive quotations that may indicate an orientation of life:

Anne Vercors, the father in The Annunciation of Mary by Paul Claudel, solemnly declares: “How much is the world worth compared to life? And how much is life worth, if you don’t give it up?”

Éric Emmanuel Schmitt in the Gospel according to Pilate: “the only thing that death teaches us: it is urgent to love”.

This is what we have seen from all the caregivers who have given their time and even their lives to care for their fellow men, and all the others who, through their work, have allowed us to continue to live during the lockdown. And all this has triggered waves of a solidarity that is almost forgotten in our solitary and individualistic crowds. Let’s not forget it on the day after!