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Dear All, Below the cut please find a very long and rambling entry inspired by the latest episode of Supernatural. There is also a comment which could be considered to be spoilery in the first paragraph. Just so you know :-)

This entry started out as an utter windmill of flail over 'Appointment in Samarra', because SPN basically just went and happily dropped the Winchesters straight into  Neil Gaiman's 'The Sound of Her Wings', and I nearly died of squee right here on the couch. (Actually, this is the first episode since 'Weekend at Bobby's' that I can't wait to go rewatch. Also, I feel bound to say that if Death turned up at my door looking like Jensen Ackles, my bargaining might be a bit half-hearted. "No, really, just take me now." )
 And then, the more I thought about Death in sci-fi and fantasy generally, the more it mutated into a meandering entry in which nothing whatsoever is resolved apart from my own thoughts.

I've been spending  the past couple of weeks mulling over the theory that the prevalence of sci-fi and fantasy in popular culture stems from the breakdown of monolithic institutionalized religions. (See also George Steiner's 'Nostalgia for the Absolute' ) We create and consume narratives because the whole process of living and dying is violent and unfair and joyous and absurd and bewildering, and stories allow us to order experiences, to share them, to make sense of them, to explore our best and our worst actions towards others, to consider how we live and how we die. In the creation of alternate worlds and histories and beings, sci-fi and fantasy in particular allow us to engage with what I think of as the 'big' questions, questions that are relatively easily answered in a predominantly religious context, but less so in a secular one.  
Above all, science fiction and fantasy texts allow us to explore, without reserve the final frontier. Not space; the other one. Death is the final frontier where anything can happen. Death is the roadtrip you never come back from and that no one's ever sent a postcard from. Where religious texts indicate that the afterlife is about 'location, location, location', though,  fantasy and science-fiction posit it instead as "an awfully big adventure."  Death looks like a skeleton and talks in capital letters; it looks like a goth girl quoting Mary Poppins; it looks like an endless apple orchard, like Narnia, like the Titanic. Death wears a sharp suit and has a sardonic sense of humor; death looks like the bright light at the end of a tunnel where you can see figures dressed in white. In a secularized world, death can look like anything you want it to be, or like nothing at all. What happens after we die is the one story that no one's ever come back to report on.   

If sharing narratives leads to the conclusion that you can't live alone, the natural progression is to believe that you can't die alone either. There's a reason behind every culture having some form of anthropomorphic personification of Death, for having psychopomps and guides and ferrymen. The most frightening thing that we can surmise about death is having to go it alone. And so we spin more narratives, expand our ranges of iconography in a post-modern world: the monitor flatlines, and you find yourself in an unfamiliar place. Maybe it looks like a tunnel, or a corridor, and  someone with a scythe or a sigil  or the head of a jackal taps you on the shoulder and says Hey there, jellybean, you lost? Exit to the valley of death is this way. Come with me.  If they have a sense of humor, they might even grab your hand and tell you to run. If that is what happens at the end of a life, well, dying might not be so terrifying after all.  Personifying death in a range of guises alters our perception towards the process of dying; considering a range of eventualities allows us to feel prepared for whatever comes next. Death becomes not necessarily an event to be avoided and feared at all costs, but an integral part of what makes us human, as we respond to the mortality of others as well as our own. Vampires, zombies, ghosts, the idea of life after death might just be a coping strategy, but what seems to be new to me (although I'm sure it isn't), is the way in which fantasy and sci-fi seems to allow people to consider death to be, in the grand scheme of things, just one more nerve-wracking first date, just one more event in a life full of events. It might be the end to our world, but it's not the end of the world, and there is a fierce optimism in this attitude: it gives us a semblance (however faint) of control: death is what we make it. It's everything from the absurd to the tragic to merciful relief. Death, in a way, stops being an individual fear, and becomes a collective experience. No one knows what it's like to die apart from the dead, but we'll all find out one day.  

Another narrative, not a fictional one: a very good family friend recently died. She was diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer last year, and by this October she had moved into a residential hospice. On the morning of her death, the nurses got her settled in her armchair by the window while they changed her bedding. They tucked in the corners, folded down the topsheet, thumped air into the pillows. When they turned to put my friend back into her bed, she was gone.  In the time it takes to make a bed and walk across a room, she died. They never heard her go. There was no apparent struggle, no apparent pain or fear, just a letting go.  The opening of her obituary, I think, sums up everything that the experience of dying can and hopefully will be for most of us: "Peacefully, with great dignity and courage, much too soon." I don't know what she thought, or felt, or saw in those last moments, but narratives like 'Appointment at Samarra' allow me to hope for the best.



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February 2011

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