Death isn’t a rest, cancer isn’t a battle

Because I’m in the midst of organizing Death School — I’m reading a lot by people who work in the death field, and thinking a lot about how to talk to people about death — I’ve been sensitive to the language people have been using to talk about David Bowie’s death. There’s the old “died after a courageous battle with cancer” trope; also, “Rest in peace.”

I think the language we use to talk about death — or anything at all — directly affects how clearly or how vaguely we understand the concept the language is pointing to. If I want to understand something more clearly (and I want to understand death more clearly), I can start by looking closely at how I’m talking about it, whether I’m really talking about it at all. Otherwise, language becomes a placeholder for understanding, a spot of gloss that lets us slide across death without touching its difficulties.

In the rest of this post, I’m going to look more closely at these two tropes, the one that posits death as a “rest” and the one that suggests cancer is a “battle” we can either win or lose.

“Rest in Peace”

We bury people lying down, in coffins cushioned so they’re soft and satiny as a luxurious bed, and we say, to the deceased, “Rest in peace.” Of course the dead can’t hear us, but the language we use to talk about death is important — for us, for how we understand what dying means.

Death isn’t a rest. A rest is something we return to action from. We take a break, we rest, and then we go back to doing what we were doing. Wikipedia says that the phrase “rest in peace” was not found before the 8th century and “became ubiquitous on the tombs of Christians in the 18th century”: “The phrase dormit in pace (English: “he sleeps in peace”) was found in the catacombs of the early Christians and indicated that ‘they died in the peace of the Church, that is, united in Christ'”. (There are a few references cited for that last quote on the phrase’s Wikipedia page.) So “rest,” in the way it was first used in “Rest in peace,” was a metaphor for being together with the person, or the idea, “Christ”.

Whether or not we want to express any sentiments about Christ, I think we all want to be able to express something of the tenderness we feel for someone who has died. Wishing someone a good rest, whether they are living or dead, is a way of expressing our care for them. And humans are so complex — when we say “rest in peace” of a dead body, there is irony, and the melancholy that comes with irony, the bittersweetness of life. The dead aren’t resting, because they’re not going to return to action.

Yet, there’s a way in which they will act — they’ll remain active in our minds, our memories. So, when we say “rest in peace,” maybe it’s like we’re wishing for ourselves that our memories of the deceased will be peaceful. We won’t be haunted or bothered. We’re wishing that we will rest in peace, at least concerning the dead. The inscription R.I.P. on a tombstone, then, is a reminder to the living, Don’t worry about this one — regarding this dead person, you can rest, you can take a break (from worrying about the dead, about death, about your own death).

After all, would we really be comfortable storing a dead body standing up, in a pose that suggests that our dead loved one will reanimate and start walking towards us? It’s like we want our dead a little incapacitated, supine, “resting,” so that we can rest too. It might be interesting to notice if the thought of a corpse interred standing up seems creepy to you, and why.

Dying “after a courageous battle with cancer”

This is the language of war: death is a battle, dying is weakness, and our charge is to be brave and win. But dying isn’t losing, and living isn’t winning, and to tell ourselves otherwise is to delude ourselves. We don’t really have any control over our own births or deaths, or even our own bodies. I know from times when I’ve been sick that my body is really out of my control. In lots of ways, the body is hopeless.

But we only become more fearful about death when we view it through delusion. After all, who really is strong enough to “win” when it comes to death? Nobody. By the rationale of this language, we’re all going to “lose” eventually, because we’re all going to die, and nobody wants to be a loser, so we arm ourselves, we resist the thought of our own deaths — as if by resisting we might overpower death and, somehow, “win.”

But imagine if we didn’t delude ourselves like this. Imagine how much less painful and alienating dying of cancer, or any terminal disease, would be if we all collaborated to view death as a natural, necessary, and maybe even beautiful part of living. When we go for a walk in the forest, we are surrounded by death, but do we really let ourselves see it? Plants and trees wouldn’t be able to grow without the nourishment the decaying corpses of dead plants and trees provide. The beauty of leaves changing colors in fall is due to their dying.

As painful as a disease like cancer is, it isn’t an “enemy.” It’s a natural part of life for us as creatures. Cancer is something that happens to the human body, it’s one of the many ways we decay. I don’t at all mean that we should stop trying to understand how cancer works, or that we should just accept it and succumb. And I know from ordinary sorts of sickness that while I am suffering, language seems distant and useless, sometimes even meaningless. Still, it seems to me that if while we’re well we attend closely to the language we use to talk about illness and death, then we might give ourselves a wider range of options for how to think about what’s happening to our bodies when they’re not well. We might be able to better honor the truth of someone’s life if we can describe their death using language that doesn’t imply they are in any sense a loser for having died, or “lost”.