Saturday, 16 January 2016

An Autistic View of Death

We’ve lost two starmen in the last twelve months. One of them I cared deeply about. One of them triggered the response that a famous name and good music does, but I can’t say I held a special place for him in my heart. So David Bowie has returned to whatever fabulous alien celestial home he came from. Leonard Nimoy has beamed up. Spock is now enjoying a drink somewhere beyond the stars with Scotty and McCoy. (And then, in the few days that I wrote this, Alan Rickman is also gone. Pictures proliferate with images of Severus Snape and the word always.)

Maybe it’s the autism in me, but whenever this kind of thing happens I just want to scream, no! They’re dead! They’re not resting in a better place. They haven’t gone on to some imaginary world based on whichever media persona we knew them by. When your dog dies it doesn’t tiptoe over a rainbow bridge, either. It’s dead. That’s the condition of being dead; there is no doing, there is no animated beyond. Cells cease to function, brainwaves stop, everything that makes a being a being is gone. It leaves behind a gaping hole in those who loved them, but that doesn’t make it less true, and stating that fact doesn’t make you love someone less, or miss them less. It’s hard not to say these things without sounding like an asshole, but you get used to that. People layer emotions onto completely unemotional statements, and that makes you an asshole.

That’s not to say I have no belief in any kind of soul, that I have no belief in the energy that makes up a being moving on to another place. I can’t prove heaven, but I can’t prove there is no heaven, either. What makes me uneasy is the way that we layer a pretence over these things that the deceased doesn’t deserve. We imagine David Bowie in a silver glitter suit with incredible make-up and platform shoes doing things beyond our ken on an alien world. We imagine Leonard Nimoy with his Star Trek uniform and his pointed ears, out there on the Starship Enterprise, able now to go about his business without all of those pesky human connections that grounded him when he was bound by Nimoy’s life. We have taken away what made up that unique person and instead we see only the fantasy of a character that they were not.

Part of what makes me uneasy about this is, I think, the autistic response to metaphors, to anything that isn’t straight speaking. I understand metaphors. I use them regularly. I don’t always say precisely what I mean. But it bugs the hell out of me if, for example, I ask someone if they want something and they reply, ‘I wouldn’t say no.’ ‘Would you say yes?’ I want to ask. Not saying no leaves a realm of possibilities that might not include yes. It bugs me even more when people pretend that death is a sleep or a trip into a better world full of glitter and unicorns.

But what really makes me uneasy is this shared fantasy. I know these kind of things are not new. For millennia people have taken solace in the idea of heaven. Saying grandma’s in heaven now is no different to imagining Bowie on an alien planet having a rock party. But Bowie becoming the starman, Nimoy transcending his earthly form to beam up to the Enterprise, are more than saying grandma’s in heaven, even if the ideas come from the same motivations, to visualise our loved ones and heroes in a better place. Grandma isn’t defined by heaven. The idea of heaven doesn’t erase every other amazing thing that grandma did. The Starman and Spock – and now Severus Snape – do that. They erase the deep, many-layered, incredible richness of a human life.

For every newspaper report and internet meme to associate Nimoy with Spock, Bowie with the Starman, Rickman with Snape, suddenly deletes every incredible detail of their lives. No childhood of scraped knees and selling papers, no early years searching for a niche, no children, grandchildren, loved ones. No quiet evenings reading books, or meals out, or gestures of kindness or moments of temper. Second upon second of a person’s life, piled up like leaves of a book, piled up into stacks so high you couldn’t comprehend them, become flattened. In our desperation to keep our heroes around, to send them to a better place, we’ve compressed them to a cartoon cut out, and I think that kills them more than anything.

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