Death is a part of life – why be afraid?

The Culture Show's guest Diana Athill discusses life's most glorious mystery

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Some time during my teens I was told that Montaigne believed one should spend a short time every day thinking about death, thereby becoming accustomed to its inevitability and losing one’s fear of it. This seemed to me sound advice, so I decided to follow it. I didn’t stick strictly to the “every day” part of it, but I did think about death often enough to become accustomed to the idea, and I can truly say that since then I have never been afraid of it.

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Like everyone, I am rather apprehensive about the process of dying. It certainly can be very disagreeable, but it isn’t always so. My family is lucky when it comes to death: I have either seen, or know about, several quick and calm departures, so I can touch wood about that. About being dead, I feel no more worried than I do about falling asleep.

There is, after all, absolutely nothing that doesn’t follow the pattern of starting, developing, wearing out and ending. Not a person, not an animal, not a plant, not a thing that ever was, is or will be, has failed to follow that pattern. Even things seeming to us eternal, such as mountains, gradually wear down – come to think of it, even planets die. It is simply how life works; death is a part of life. So it can’t really be too bad. Particularly considering that until our planet has gone, endings make way for new beginnings, so that on the planetary scale death is not just a part of life, but works to prolong it.

Of course young deaths are sad, not because being dead is horrible, but because being alive is so good that one does naturally want to have as much of it as one comfortably and usefully can. My brother, who was 82 when he died, was not scared, but I think he was resentful, because he was lucky enough to have a happy old age, doing things he thoroughly enjoyed. My mother, on the other hand, who was 96 and beginning to feel her age, was quite calm and accepting.

I live now in a retirement home where our average age is 90 – mine is 95 – and I think I’m right in believing that most of us are waiting to die without undue alarm. The fact that one’s body gradually becomes a source of discomfort rather than of pleasure, and that one has out-lived people dear to one, is a useful preparation for the end.

It puzzles me that human beings are so frightened of the unknown that they have been forced to invent the idea of an afterlife. To me, simply ceasing to be seems much less alarming. Of course, belief in vanishing is no more sure to be the truth than belief in heaven and/or hell – but isn’t it impertinent to aspire to know when all we have to know with is our little human minds?

Think of how minuscule our planet is, what a speck of dust in the universe; and we are quite a recent development on that speck. It would be an unimaginably huge miracle if our minds were capable of really grasping life – what causes it, and what it actually is, once caused.

What we can grasp is that it is a mystery, to my mind a glorious one, and to be frightened rather than excited by a mystery of which we happen to be a part is surely silly.

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Literary editor and writer Diana Athill appears in Alive: Rankin Faces Death – a Culture Show Special on Saturday at 10.10pm on BBC2