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Jewish World Review Oct. 29, 2002 / 23 Mar-Cheshvan 5763

Bill Tammeus

Bill Tammeus
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We naively ignore the inevitability of death | One reason Americans are so angry at the malevolent sniper who terrorized the Washington, D.C., area is that, like the Sept. 11 hijackers, he forced us all to think about the one subject we most wish to avoid: death.

And not just death in a generic, amorphous way but our own particular death, our own spilled blood, our life force drained away in a parking lot, at a gas pump, a school.

American culture evades the topic of death. Almost everything about the way we live -- including, oddly enough, the deadly violence of our entertainment -- causes us to dance around death, pretend it's an illusion. We put off imagining what death is about, why it's inevitable and how we ourselves might die.

It is, of course, possible to be obsessed with death, which 19th century Algerian religious and military leader Abdelkader called "a black camel, which kneels at the gates of all." Obsession, too, is unhealthy.

But most Americans are far from that. Most don't want to think about death at all. Instead, our culture urges us to stay young, build bigger barns for our bumper crops, feel that we are entitled to a minimum of 80 years of comfortable life, with time added on for good behavior.

How foolish. I don't recall the source of this old saying, but I believe in its truth: If you want to make G-d laugh, describe to him your plans for tomorrow.

The sniper, whatever his crazed thinking, brought death out of the closet, plopped it on our sofas and made us think about it -- again. We hoped we could just get back to shopping after Sept. 11, 2001. But we were naive. The sniper's randomness petrified us because he compelled us to face our own death once more.

Some subcultures in our society do better at this than others, but most of us don't get much training in how to think about death, how to confront its inevitability, how to integrate its reality into our lives.

Maybe I was blessed in this regard. My first experience with death came when I was just 5 years old. The old woman neighbor we called Grandma Morse died. The wake -- as was the custom 50 years ago -- was in her house, and my parents took my sisters and me with them. Grandma Morse's body would be lying in a casket in the living room.

Before we went, I was petrified about having to gaze on a dead, naked old lady. I don't know why my childish mind imagined she'd be nude. Thank goodness my parents introduced me to the reality of death at an early age.

Since then I've had much experience with death. I've seen dead bodies on the streets of a holy city in India, where people purposefully go to die. I've seen shooting victims. I've been with many AIDS patients near their death. I've buried my own parents, looking on the lifeless bodies that gave me life. Most recently I've experienced the lacerating pain of losing my own nephew, a passenger on the first hijacked plane to hit the World Trade Center.

The Sept. 11 murders and the murders committed by the D.C. sniper, however, were unexpected. They exploded on us, catching us unprepared. In the process, they have forced us to acknowledge what we desperately don't want to -- that we are vulnerable to death's perseverative reapings.

Why does this surprise us? The Roman philosopher Seneca understood this almost 2,000 years ago when he wrote: "It is uncertain in what place death may await thee; therefore expect it in any place." And long before that, the book of Job in the Hebrew scriptures accurately described humans as "foam on the surface of the water."

Still, we don't expect death. Not really. We prefer to imagine that it's some astonishing aberration that happens to others, especially the kind of shot-in-the-dark, no-warning death the D.C. sniper dreamed up.

I think it's the bogus sense of entitlement, the idea that somehow we are owed 80 years, give or take, that makes such death seem so scary to us, so outrageous. It is outrageous. It is evil. But on the day we were born, no one was in any position to promise us even an hour of life. Every hour after our nativity has been a gift of grace, pure grace.

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JWR contributor Bill Tammeus' latest book is "A Gift of Meaning." To order it, please click on title. To comment on his column, please click here.

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Reprinted by permission, The Kansas City Star, Copyright 2002. All rights reserved