For the past several weeks the nation has been caught up in a kind of orgy of mourning: for Farah Fawcett, Michael Jackson, and now Walter Cronkite. It's striking that each of these deaths occurred at different times of life and in very different ways. Jackson was 49, preparing a career comeback, and although the cause of death has not been firmly established, it seems likely he died from a drug overdose. Fawcett was 62, just a few years older than Jackson, but had been involved in a courageous three-year battle with cancer and died with what everyone seems to agree was a dignified and even exemplary death, an inspiration to others fighting terminal diseases. Cronkite was 92 and much beloved---and as I'm sure you heard more than a few times over the last several days , "the most trusted man in America." There was not a good deal said about the cause of Cronkite's death---officially it was cerebral vascular disease---but we can presume, because he was 92, he died of what is usually called "natural causes."
Add to this mix the death of David Carradine who died under bizarre mysterious circumstances in Bangkok, Thailand on June 4. You'll recall he was found dead in his wardrobe with a shoelace tied around his penis and his neck, and was originally presumed to have committed suicide, but later a Thai forensic pathologist suggested that he more likely died from an accidental death involving autoerotic asphyxiation (proving once more that there's always something more to learn about edgy sexual practices.) Carradine was 72.
Oh, and if I can include one other figure in this necrology, it was reported from London that the world's oldest man, Henry Allingham, the last surviving World War I veteran, died at the very ripe age of 113. According to the Associated Press, he attributed his remarkable longevity to "cigarettes, whiskey, and wild, wild women." Of all the deaths, Allingham's left me the least depressed. In fact, it cheered me a little.
So here we have in the space of a few weeks a literal cacophony of death emerging from our TV sets and computer screens. And of course we are also told daily of hundreds of deaths humanity inflicts upon itself through one or another of the world's brutal wars or racial conflicts-in Iraq, Afghanistan, Gaza, throughout the Middle East, South and Central America, Africa, and on and on. And just check out the obit section of your local newspaper if you want to get some notion of just how omnipresent the reaper is.
Has anyone stopped to consider what our amplified daily consciousness of deaths of this sort does to our conception of life and time? We see here deaths natural and strange, premature and overdue, courageous and self-inflicted, and attend each funeral as what William Shawn has called "designated mourners," grieving for people few of us personally knew but may have admired or even idolized from afar, as if they were family members. And in a sense they are. For what television and the internet (even more so) has done is to underscore the intertwined connections between each of us. More than ever we understand John Donne's timeless utterance that no man is an island: "Any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankind; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee." As Julian Barnes writes in his stunning recent meditation on life and death called "Nothing to be Frightened Of," "...[D]eath is the one appalling fact which defines life; unless you are constantly aware of it, you cannot begin to understand what life is about; unless you know and feel that the days of wine and roses are limited, that the wine will madeirize and the roses turn brown in their stinking water before all are thrown out for ever-including the jug-there is not contest to such pleasures and interests as come your way on the road to the grave."
Isn't this a lesson all of us who inhabit this technologized and digitized time and place need to understand? That we are all mortal, flesh and blood human beings and will ultimately go the way of all flesh? Tibetan Buddhists meditate on death daily to underscore life's impermanence frailty, and brevity. It reminds them that human suffering comes from attachments to the things of this world which are here one day and gone the next-just as the people that inhabit our cultural world-Farrah, Michael, and Walter were here just the other day, and are gone today. May they rest in peace...and is it too much to ask that our heightened consciousness of the universe of deaths that surround us teach us a little something about living in peace?