Sometimes when I’m waiting in a lobby or near a sidewalk, I’m drawn for a few moments to imagine that all the people strolling by me are doing so even though I have died and am not actually there. I’m imagining that even without me alive and present, the people around me are doing just what they are doing right now. Some audiences like to watch the zombies on The Walking Dead. My preference is for watching the walking living.
This mode of people-watching seems a bit morbid, but it doesn’t feel that way. It’s reassuring—for reasons I don’t fully understand. It’s a reminder that all these other lives will carry on easily without me, and that’s a cheering thought. It does of course have a sad side—I’ll be missing out on the life that others still enjoy. But for me, the idea of death comes with a twinge of anxiety about obliteration, about a calamitous end-of-everything. Watching others walking seems to relieve that. Maybe it’s because walking is so sustained and purposeful (even for zombies).
Most of the time, when I’m feeling reasonably healthy and upbeat, it is extremely difficult to believe that I will die. I can contemplate the constancy of change and the brevity of life all I want, but a gut-level conviction of my mortality does not come easily. And I’m not sure I really want it to. I think most living things are geared for staying alive, for “not going gently into that good night,” for resisting death. But I can raise my level of acceptance a little as a ghost watcher of the walking living.
My wife and I have been updating our wills and the financial and legal documents that go along with them. It’s a strange, awkward process. We discuss a scenario in which dying triggers a whole series of events from which one or both of us will be absent. No surprise that our language often starts out euphemistically—“when I pass…,” “when you’re gone…,” and then gets blunter. Financial and legal people, for whom nothing personal is happening in these conversations, are blunt from the beginning: “… so when you die, this will happen….” Throw in a few “predeceases” and “survives.”
I have mixed feelings about all this. I can see why many people just put it off. The conversations are grim in that they’re about death, but the main event is only a turning point, without any content of its own (which in a bizarre way is accurate; death is an absence of event). Maybe a stronger reason why talking about wills is tedious is simply that it is difficult—complex (the financial and legal details are often beyond me), sensitive, and with perhaps long-term consequences for people. And it’s unpleasant—a real sense of mild disgust—that the event of such deep personal concern to me generates so much specialization and imposing paperwork because it’s about money.
At the same time, though, the process is an odd relief. It is a mode of preparation for dying without having to get too gritty and mournful about the whole thing. It’s numerical and clean. The money takes over as a surrogate for the person. It will, years from now, be a stand-in for me that others will presumably have some interest in, a quantity that will likely be more easily and happily managed than the old man himself was at the end. In that way, at least, the process is not a bad deal.
People believe in a life after death for many reasons. But one ability that makes it very easy for us to do so often goes unnoticed, and that is language itself. Because of the characteristics of the nouns and verbs in English and other languages, we can easily frame the names of the dead as if they were still living and their actions as still taking place.
Ordinary nouns and names show some contrasts—for example, between singular or plural—very clearly through differences in sound or spelling. But they don’t change in any way to distinguish between items that exist and those that don’t. A noun gives us no information about whether a thing exists or not. So we can use nouns and names to refer to objects and people right in front of us (computer) or out of sight (cousin in Chicago) or existing only in our imagination (unicorns) or no longer alive (Abraham Lincoln).
One result is that a sentence such as “Aunt Mary went to college when she was 16” is easy and normal to say regardless of whether Mary is living or not. When we remember the lives of those who have died, we can think and speak of them in literally the same words we used when they were alive. In our imagination and conversation, they easily remain alive-in-the-past-tense.
Sentences explicitly about a person’s death have their own peculiarities. “Aunt Mary is dead” would certainly seem definitive. But the verb is is in the present tense, and the sentence (especially if it is said repeatedly in a ritualistic or grieving fashion) does as much to encourage a sense of her other-worldly continuity as it does to convey her death.
There is also “Aunt Mary died.” Here, Aunt Mary is presented as having done something—she has died—and so, in spite of the meaning of the verb, she may also be presented as going on to do something else. So we can say, with no awkwardness, “Aunt Mary died. She has gone to heaven and continues to watch over us.”
Language is our brilliant tool for speaking and thinking about what may be present or may be absent, may be actual or imaginary. So language serves us handily when it comes to bringing the dead to life.