The Advantages of Dying Young

Everything mentioned above—lamenting young death, praising long life, avoiding risk, etc.—is related loosely to the loss of one theological doctrine: heaven. Hell has also been lost, or forgotten. But losing hell as a place of punishment for bad deeds on earth did not change much. Humans continued to make “little hells” on earth, especially during the twentieth century. And fear of punishment has remained a beneficial aspect of human psychology. On the other hand, the existential burden of losing heaven has not yet been accounted for. If this life is all I have, if the pleasures are only bodily, if death is the end, then I owe it to myself to live as long as possible. I am obligated to be healthy, careful, bourgeois, sensible. And I must vote so that others can do the same—I must make them live. I must protect their right to a long life, because this is literally all there is. With no heaven awaiting us, we must stay here indefinitely.

In the modern health system, life can be extended beyond one’s capacity to live. The listlessness of modern death—especially for men—is that you might not even get a chance to show courage before you forget who you are. For most of your life you were more worried about health than virtue, more worried about longevity than living well, and here you are old, alive, and vicious—without one damn good yarn to spin. As with the alternate Oedipus, a young death after or while doing some great deed would have been preferable.

Let us be comforted by the fact that we will someday die. Despite our risk avoidance, life may still be short, and even extend beyond the grave. It must, therefore, be well lived.

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Jonathan David Price is a writer living and working in Amsterdam. A frequent contributor to Dutch and European media, he is also the Editor-in-Chief of the Clarion Review (www.clarionreview.com)

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11 comments on this post.
  1. Ryan Davidson:

    You forgot to mention that dying slowly in America is a very, very expensive proposition. Think about all the wealth we’ve squandered on keeping octogenarian cancer patients alive an extra six months. How many houses, neighborhoods, indeed entire infrastructures, could have been maintained and improved with that money.

    So the irony here is that we divert money that could be used to keep our infrastructure from crumbling to prevent our bodies from doing so–but they crumble all the same.

  2. eutychus:

    A fine article. Thank you.

    And I am glad someone mentioned the silliness of keeping old codgers on life support. It didn’t seem to come up in the health debate following the “Fat People” article. Let them die I say! (The octogenarians that is.)

  3. Kacy:

    To quote the good Wendell Berry:

    “I approve of death, when it comes in time
    to the old. I don’t want to live
    on mortal terms forever,
    or survive an hour as a cooling stew of pieces
    of other people. I don’t belive that life
    or knowledge can be given by machines….”

    Berry, Wendell. “Some Further Words.” In Given Washington D.C.: Shoemaker Hoard, 2005.

    As for Jonathan David Price’s post, I think it is important to ask the question: What makes a good death? Most of the young deaths today are attributed to accidents, suicide, and drug overdose. The latter two can hardly be classified as a good death. Most accidents that result in death among the young involve motor vehicles, a very mundane way to die. Still I will gladly die in a motor vehicle accident if I have just been to confession and recieve Christ in the Eucharist one final time. I think this would then qualify as a good death.

    Of course my concern is that most young people today (speaking as one 24 years young) have very little creative accomplishments such as a Byron, a Keats, or a Bronte. Dare I say a viciously lived young life is the most tragic, for perhaps one may have repented and learned to love in later life. Personally, I hope age will give me the wisdom of experience and the courage to love others more and be a better human being. This isn’t a fear of dying as simply a cessation of life. It’s a fear of dying before learning how to live well.

  4. John Willson:

    I know a priest who is fond of saying “We have just the time we need.” This is meant to underscore the “living well” part of JDP’s essay. On the other hand, advocates of “let the old codgers die” (of which the present political administration is full) forget one very important thing. Maybe it is our duty to extend life enough for people to realize that death is not the end.

  5. Ryan Davidson:

    John, I hear you, but that sounds like an unfunded mandate if there ever was one.

  6. Barry Brown:

    A great-aunt called all of us in one evening for tea, cookies, and a little conversation. She was lucid and happy. When she got tired she asked my mother and an aunt to help her get ready to go to bed. I helped her get up from her chair in the living room and noticed that her hands were cold, so did my aunt who asked Great-aunt Wilma if she wanted to go to the emergency room as her limbs were cold and she said “No, I’m right where I want to be. It was good of all you to spend the evening with me. Now, Thelma and Wilma (my mother was named for her)just help me into my nightgown. Everything is fine.” The next morning the housekeeper found my great-aunt in her bed, dead and cold, so she called the coroner. He told us that Great-aunt Wilma probably died in her sleep shortly after going to bed. No fear, no struggle, a quiet holy death.

  7. Marion Miner:

    Let’s be cautious about devaluing life itself. Sadly, it is true that many, many people live out long lives in which they find no meaning and do nothing of real substance. However, the “let the old codgers die” attitude is extremely dangerous. The tragedy of a life wasted is not quite so tragic as a life ignored or a life taken away. All human life is equally precious – from the infant in the womb to the middle-aged felon in prison to the eighty-five year old man on life support.

    Life itself, apart from anything else, is infinitely meaningful, and God alone is qualified to judge when it is anyone’s time to go.

  8. C. Hitchcock:

    What about the doctrine of the resurrection? I’d say it’s much more important in understanding the nature, purpose and extent of life than the doctrine of heaven.

  9. Nursing Homes:

    Sad reading, but I do agree with unnecessary suffering especially when of an old age, I would not let my Mother to suffer for a pro-long period even though I am totally devoted to her.

  10. Lydie:

    I hate to disagree…..you’re a decent writer. But, seriously, you sound so incredibly young. I’m young myself (at least, I believe so), and your ideas…well, they just don’t sound fully developed. I am glad that I lived to be older than 21 because, retrospectively, I learned so much from my mistakes. If I live to be 30, I’ll be equally grateful, although I probably won’t be able to improve on my issues until a couple years later.

    And your statement “life is already so boring that to escape it we shroud ourselves perpetually in music and the banality of flashing screens”, wow, that’s just sad. I love the internet because there is no end to learning. I hear of something new, and I have the possibility of researching it easily. Incredibly awesome. It’s not something that controls my boredom.

    I’m not in search of heaven. I’m agnostic and couldn’t begin to tell you a belief on the afterlife (or lack of), because I have no clue. I have hopes, but no belief, since science has not proved one way or the other.

    However, your article lacks insight. It proposed a belief (a belief in a lack of something is also a belief) that was not supported. You may not be a fan of learning more (from one year to the next/from one life to the next/from heaven or hell/ect.), but keep in mind there are endless possibilities, even things we could not comprehend. But I bet you, like everyone else, could benefit from learning more.

    Your article, although well written, sounds very, very young.

  11. W.B.:

    “Gather ye rosebuds while ye may
    Old time is a flying…”

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