Talking about death goes beyond taboo. Taboo is admitting that you’d really like to have sex with your cousin, which is unlikely to result in four-eyed children and the 500-year rule of a medieval European despotic monarchy, but you still probably wouldn’t admit it to your aunt.
Talking about death is like admitting you want to fist your best mate’s grandmother before your own mum licks your arm like it’s a strawberry Magnum. Even attempt to bring death up in conversation – particularly talking about the death of someone in that conversation – and you’ll be met with the briefest of horrified glances and the swiftest possible change of topic.
To claim you accept your own mortality is all right, but only because nobody believes you. But suggest that you’ve confronted the Absurd, realised the suicide option isn’t philosophically sound but understand that there’s no way out but six foot downwards, and that you’re fine with that, and your friends will immediately assume you’re not having a great time in your job or some other such plainly pointless concern. It’s as though the only healthy way to live is to assume you can look up ‘immortality’ in the dictionary and see ‘about 75-80 years, depending on lifestyle and gender’ beneath.
Much better to confront and understand what’s coming, to realise that someone dying isn’t the end of the world – just the end of their world. The grief you feel is a combination of selfishly knowing you’re not going to get to experience their presence again and realising you might well be next, should that bus happen to leave the garage two seconds later and force itself through your body as you’re staring mindlessly at your smartphone while crossing.
My sorrow at the death of Christopher Lee is both of those things. I won’t get to see him grandly rage in any more movies or hear him howl on metal records, and I feel cheated. His demise also reminds me about death itself, though in the case of a man of 93 it more reminds me of the mortality of the man I hold dearest in my life, my 88-year-old grandfather. When he dies I’ll be devastated, and yet there’s no more natural thing that could happen, not one. And I’ve never asked the man, but maybe he’s had enough anyway.
It’s different when people you don’t personally know turn up their toes – it tends more towards selfishness on your own part. When John Peel died it wrecked me for a while, but presumably only because I’d no longer get to hear him putting on the wrong record. I never met him. The fact that he’s dead means he’s unaffected on a day-to-day basis by, well, anything. His death was, is, all about me.
Another of my favourite old men is the actor George Cole, now 90. He’ll go at some point, unless he’s learned how to buy and sell time itself, as Arthur Daley would have. The nation will mourn David Attenborough, and rightly so. We’ll all be told to cry when Queen Liz keels over, though unless it leads to revolution I’m not sure why it affects the layman. Old people die. Young people die sometimes too. Everyone dies and everybody always has.
The sooner we realise its all about us the sooner we can talk about death rationally, calmly, making serious preparations in good time and, as a by product, putting an end to the ‘right to die’ debate. Reclaim our own deaths and we’ll all be more comfortable with our lives. Stop denying the only ultimate truth we’ll ever know and we can come to terms with how temporary all of this is. It’s also the quickest route to putting an end to religion, which of course exists solely because humanity fears death. Ironically, the easiest way to put an end to ISIS might be to add Beyond Good and Evil to the school curriculum.
I have a portrait of Christopher Lee on my bedroom wall, in full Dracula regalia with red eyes and smoke swirling about him. It’s the first thing I see when I get out of bed. Tomorrow I’ll look at it and nod appreciatively at a man who can no longer nod back. It’ll remind me that everything has to end and nothing means anything. And then I’ll get on with the day, individuals across the world will die all day long and Christopher Lee will be as oblivious to my existence as he ever was.
It all amounts to a brief play among the stardust. And that should be enough.