Death: the proverbial elephant in the room

No one enjoys living with the feeling that an elephant resides in each room they step into. That nasty elephant ends up making those rooms seem a whole lot more crowded. Even if the elephant is the only other presence in a room large enough to hold a dirigible, its mere existence will lead to uncomfortable and unanswerable questions. Whatever the effects of the elephant’s constant presence, however, those who acknowledge it will be far more comfortable with their brief tenures in the room than those who refuse to see it until one day they get too close for their ignorance to continue.

In this world today we refuse to see our elephant: death. Perhaps this country is singular in its utter refusal to treat death as the inevitability it is, but the myopia that forms so much of the American mythology is present in one form or another all over the world. Fewer and fewer people really die each year. Instead of merely perishing, friends and family are ripped away or pass to some other place through a magical gate in the sky. Cultural heroes never have hearts that stop beating or chests that cease their heaving, instead “gaining immortality” in the minds of their followers.

Even the notion of honoring death is gone. What cultural traditions exist to pay homage to death end up only comforting the living? Is there any other reason for a eulogy? Its subject isn’t there to hear. An individual who suffered a death close to them will mourn for the dead, but will refuse to confront their own mortality in their waking hours.

Custom dictates that people will at a young age be exposed in some formal way to the belief system of their parents. There is no need to worry or think about death, says that system, because we can give you enough minutiae to dwell on for the next 80 years that you won’t have time to think about something so unrelated to your holy life as death. So artificial goal after artificial goal is set forth, all of which keep people thinking only of life’s next milestone. Death can have no place in a mind so busy with worries about life.

Why does it matter, though? Why worry about something that no one can possibly control? There is in fact no reason to worry or stress about the inevitable, but concern would be good if only because it would force those who now are so cavalier about ignoring reality to acknowledge it and adjust their lives accordingly. If a person lives with the knowledge that every day could be their last, or their best friend’s last, or their mother or father’s last, would it be so easy to procrastinate? Would it be so simple to delay starting that project, to ignore that person, to push back from your mind questions about your ultimate fate if you understood that today might well be the only one available to you? Death only becomes a tragedy when it hits those who lived thinking it would never come.

Andrew Hamner is a freshman majoring in journalism. He may be contacted at