‘What do you give someone who has everything?’ Penicillin? Envy? Seriously, most of us have asked that question at some time. Thankfully, there is always an answer; there is something that most of us don’t have. That’s because you can’t buy it; also, most of us would prefer not to have it.

The time now is five minutes before midnight. About half an hour ago I did probably the most worthwhile thing I have done today, and maybe for the past month or more. I reminded a girl that she was going to die.

As usual on a Wednesday night, I was at the Universal Bar in Northbridge listening, and occasionally dancing, to Hip Mo’ Toast, a jazz band (The Universal Bar is long but narrow, so the Toast was in its quintet form rather than the big band). Something she had said earlier in the evening, about iron deficiency, got me thinking. My store of trivia makes me a very sought-after participant at quiz nights, if little else. This being one of those rare times, I told her a solution she might find useful. I think she did: ‘That’s the most useful thing anyone has ever told me!’

But I knew something else that was more useful, and far more important. Opening the door to eternity, I told her, ‘King Philip of Macedon — Alexander the Great’s father — had a slave come into his room every morning and tell him, “Philip, remember you must die.” ‘

You rarely hear these reminders; that’s why they are both useful and important. Death is the most democratic institution of all: the ratio has always been 1 death per person. You don’t have to be Forrest Gump to realise that one day all the chocolates will be eaten: the box will be empty. Every person living will die.

Her immediate response was bemusement. That’s as it should be: if we aren’t a little unsettled by the knowledge that we will all die, we haven’t comprehended what death means. We should be disturbed about death: it’s obscene. Abominable. Offensive in the extreme.

In the time of the early Roman Empire, crucifixion was considered an obscenity. It was a torturous way to die — by slow suffocation, sometimes over several days — that it was illegal to crucify a Roman citizen. The Latin writer Cicero said, ‘Crucifixion is the most cruel and disgusting punishment’, and ‘crucifixion must be removed from the thoughts, the eyes and the ears of all Roman citizens. To bind a Roman citizen is a crime, to flog him an abomination, to crucify him — we have no words for so horrible a deed.’ Crucifixion was obscene.

So is death: it’s an unpleasant topic, so we prefer to avoid it. Death is a reality that will come to us all, but talking about it is a guaranteed party-killer, except perhaps to a Narnian Marshwiggle. Marshwiggles are permanently morose, and would send the perkiest infomercial host sprinting for Prozac.

Is anyone asking, who am I to judge that people need to hear about death? That’s a fair question. At the moment I would reply that, in our society where most people don’t live hand-to-mouth, we rarely lack anything we need to survive. The comforting monotony of being able to go to the fridge for food, or get into a warm bed for rest, helps us to take our existence for granted. Maybe I’m overly sheltered, but most people I’ve met in my life don’t seem too encumbered by thoughts of death.

But that doesn’t mean you must go around indiscriminately reminding everyone that the Grim Reaper is showing an increasing interest in them. To people already aware of their mortality, reminders don’t help. I tried to help them have a richer, happier life, by reminding them to remind themselves of what matters.

Modern life is, if nothing else, fast. We have access to more information than anyone could possibly digest. We have drive-through fast-food. If a website takes 30 seconds to load, it’s too long. Waiting an hour for a doctor is too much. (Forget about places where there may be 1 doctor for 40,000 people.) We have more free time, so we do more. We have more options. The tyranny of the urgent takes hold, and we easily forget the important.

And we’re a hedonistic lot. We work to live, certainly: but those of us who are ‘upwardly mobile’ may be so to buy things we don’t really need. $10,000 plasma-screen TVs. The entire DVD set of The Simpsons or Mystery Science Theater 3000: even as an avid fan of these shows, I still don’t need the DVDs. A jet-ski. The classic Australian muscle car, the Ford XY GT HO – Phase IV. (The XY GT HO Phase 3 is a necessity. Not so the 4.)

There’s nothing inherently wrong with these toys — certainly not with how the GT suspension helps you take a corner — but when we forget the truly important, there’s no topic like death to help us refocus on what means most to us.

copyright Troy Grisgonelle 2006.

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