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Checking out in style


I am frequently told off by The Conversation’s very informed and sometimes opinionated readership for writing about things that are outside my supposed area of expertise. But on the topic of TC’s innovative and imaginative series Coping with Mortality, I think I can claim to know as much as most. I’m going to die and I’m not sure what, if anything, happens afterwards. My guess, for what it’s worth, is: not a lot.

You may find this hard to believe, but I derive quite a bit of comfort from this idea. Worst-case scenario is that we cease to be. No more agonising about global warming, insoluble ethical dilemmas, or doing one’s fair share of the domestic chores. Compares favourably with being boiled in oil or having a pitchfork stuck up your backside for all eternity.

I realise this sort of depiction of the post-death experience has rather gone out of fashion with more progressive religious types, but it makes you wonder what happened to all the countless millions who have already succumbed to the grim reaper’s scythe in less enlightened times.

What about the poor old pagans, or the Neanderthals? Not really their fault they were a bit dim and BC rather than AD.

I’m not sure what Christians expect to happen to them these days in what will probably be soon known as “the post-death space”, but I hope it includes giving the fundamentalist types an update on how the universe actually works. Either way, I can’t imagine what we’re going to do with ourselves for “all of eternity”.

After we’ve spent a few hundred thousand years swatting up on all the things we didn’t have time to find out about while we were here, and met all the interesting people we didn’t get to meet this time round, there’s still going to be a lot of time on our hands. Obviously, we’re all going to want to have a long chat with Shakespeare and Socrates, but who’s going to talk to the office bore?

One of the charms of living in the only reality we actually know anything about is serendipity. The randomness of existence can be dispiriting and disorienting at times, but it can also throw unexpected pleasures in our direction, too.

Perhaps it’s because it won’t be long before I, too, will be shuffling off this mortal coil that I was so delighted to discover a copy of Julian Barnes’ Nothing To Be Frightened Of in the apartment I’m currently renting. It’s a frequently hilarious meditation on death by someone who’s not looking forward to it.

Among the book’s many pleasures are vignettes of famous departures. I’ve long been a fan of famous last words as it’s rather interesting to know how others signed off.

They vary from the sublimely in character (Oscar Wilde: “either the wallpaper goes or I do”), to the ridiculous but memorable (George V: “bugger Bognor”), to the delightfully pedantic: “I am about to – or I am going to – die: either expression is correct” (Dominique Bouhours, French grammarian).

Realising you’re on the way out is the key thing, which is why I’m not all that alarmed – in principle, at least – about the prospect of expiring in an air crash.

Not only do I do more than my fair share of gadding about, but as I choose to spend some of my time miles above the earth’s surface I’ve only got myself to blame if something goes wrong up there. More positively, I’ll be on the way to or, even better, on the way back from somewhere I actually wanted to go – probably at the taxpayer’s expense.

I’ve even got a great one-liner to use during the unplanned descent, too: “glad I didn’t get anything from the duty-free trolley”. But given that my fellow travellers are likely to be bug-eyed with terror and apologising to God for a litany of sins real and imagined at this point, my attempts at insouciant humour are not likely to find a receptive audience, I fear.

God’s unlikely to be impressed either. After all, He knows the punch line to every joke that’s ever been told, even before we poor mortals can think them up. I bet He can also spot a bit of contingent groveling when He sees it, too. As Voltaire said when offered a deathbed confession: it’s a bit late to be making enemies now.

By way of conclusion, here are a couple more classic last words from what is, I admit, a rather weird and specialist genre: “They couldn’t hit an elephant at this dist…” (John Sedgwick, Union commander killed in the US Civil War). On a more positive note for the true believers: “God will pardon me, that’s his line of work” (Heinrich Heine, poet).

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