Is it not for us to confess that in our civilized
attitude towards death we are once more living
psychologically beyond our means, and must
reform and give truth its due? Would it not be
better to give death the place in actuality and in
our thoughts which properly belongs to it, and to
yield a little more prominence to that unconscious
attitude towards death which we have hitherto
so carefully suppressed? This hardly seems indeed
a greater achievement, but rather a backward
step...but it has the merit of taking somewhat
more into account the true state of affairs...
- Sigmund Freud
For the past two evenings, I had been watching what is now one of my all-time favourite Japanese movie, “Departures”, on DVD. There is one scene where just before an old lady, who has just passed away, and is going to have both her coffin - “the last purchase of your life and you don't even get to choose it, how ironical!” - and body burnt to ashes, an old man whose job is to push the button initiating the process, talks about what does it mean to him, after overseeing so many cremations over the years.
The old timer feels that death is just like a gate and he is the gatekeeper, guarding the gate for the dead to pass through; he always says to himself, that soon they will meet again on the other side. I always thought it a humble idea, a comforting way to think of death or partings with loved ones, as if it is just a transit or transfer of one life or form to another. Death becomes a more natural process in this way, which I think is a much honest way of living than keeping death away from our minds, thinking of it as something that will not happen to ourselves, and our lives as “above nature” (instead of being part of nature), as if we are “gods”, hence the disrespect of nature itself – or every plant, tree, flower and animal, which of course goes through the dying process. Think how much more the human race would have embraced this planet, and live in harmony with nature and each other.
Watching “Departures” for god-knows-how-many-times, it only seemed to get better. And the above-mentioned scene returned with a new light which does not differ much from another main theme of the movie. The old “gatekeeper” has gained valuable wisdom, for which only his years on the job tell. And it is this wisdom that has bought my respect for his professionalism and pride in what he does for a living for the dead. Some people may say that he is just another self-important and delusional old fellow doing some dirty job. Yet, I see that he has brought respect for himself and into his profession, which could only be born out of his attitude, his personal vision of what his work meant. And perhaps, this is what matters, no matter what job you are doing. Just like life, which has no meaning by itself (Albert Camus called it “the absurdity of life”), can only be purposeful by the way you live it (or in other words, the meaning you put into it).
And recently I have been thinking that a customer service officer is somehow similar to a doctor: both have to face the fact that we can't help all those who needed our help. Some are bound to “die” on us. The only difference is the former is all about bread and butter; the latter is all about life and death – but is not much of a difference to some people.