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The Beauty of Death By Woods Hutchinson 1898
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Humanity has a faculty for ignoring and abusing its benefactors which amounts almost to a genius. Scarcely an age can be mentioned which has not starved its Homer, poisoned its Socrates, banished its Aristides, stoned its Stephen, burned its Savonarola, or imprisoned its Galileo. Nor is the strange perversion of sentiment confined to our fellow-mortals. The great, calm, stern, yet loving forces of nature have constantly fallen under the unjust stigma, and though we have outlived many early misconceptions or misrepresentations of most of these, a ghastly, repulsive, lying mask is still permitted to conceal the kindly, though stern features of pallida mors albeit both religion and science are striving hard to tear it away. Let us endeavor to lift up a tiny corner long enough to catch a glimpse of what lies behind it
I regard the prevailing conception of death as false in three important particulars: First, that it is in some way an enemy of, or opposed to, life; Second, that it is a process of dissipation or degeneration involving and associated with a fearful waste of energy, time, and material; Third, that it is a harsh, painful ordeal, from which every fibre of organic being shrinks in terror.
I am aware that my first contention will seem like a flat contradiction in terms, but a few illustrations will probably make my meaning plainer. Let us take those earliest and lowest results of formative tendencies in matter, the crystals, "the flowera of the rocks," as Ruskin beautifully calls them. Here we have individual unit3 which for beauty, variety, and definiteness of form, brilliancy of color, and purity of substance, stand absolutely unrivaled in all the higher walks of life. Watch them forming, and see with what certainty atom seeks atom, here a diamond, there a cube, again a prism or rosette, each substance having its own definite, peculiar shape, with an utter disregard of all alien materials in the mass. Mark how crystal seeks crystal and proceeds to weave its own warp and woof, in column, in truncated cone, in spire, in lace-like web of slender needles, each according to its kind. See how the advance columns of the various ingredients of the mass, cut through, ride over, or yield to one another, in regular social order of rank, dependent not upon bulk or hardness, but upon purity of substance and organizing power, upon crystal vitality in fact, and suppress if you can the conviction that these organisms are alive. The only thing they lack is the inherent faculty of dying. Drown and dissolve them by fluid, fuse into shapeless masses by volcanic heat, and on the very earliest opportunity they will promptly and surely resume their former shape and beauty. Gentler influences they defy. So long as they exist they are indestructible, and their lifetime is that of the everlasting hills. Here, if anywhere in the universe, is eternal life, in the popular sense of the term, but it were better named eternal death.
Crystal life is a bar of adamant to progress. Beautiful in itself, it is utterly barren, inhospitable, hopeless as regards future growth. It can neither grow itself, nor assist anything else to grow, save in one way, by dying.
The old earth shrinks a little in cooling, and our mass of crystals is suddenly elevated from cavernous depths to the top or side of one of those long wrinkles we call mountain ranges; the sun heats it, and the rains pour upon it, the frosts gnaw at its edges, until at length its vitality becomes impaired, and it succumbs to the elements. The whole structure crumbles into a shapeless mass of dull, damp, colorless, lifeless clay. Here, indeed, to all appearances is the desolation of death in all its hopeless repulsiveness. But wait a moment; here comes a tiny descendant of some crystal which has stumbled upon the faculty of dying and improved thereon unto the fifty-thousandth generation, a lichen spore, drifting along the surface of the rock. It glances forlornly off from the flinty faces of the living crystals, but finds a home and a welcome at once upon the moist surface of the clay. Filmy rootlets run downward, tiny buds shoot upward, the new life has begun. It ensnares the sunlight in its emerald mesh, entangles the life-vapors of the air in its web, and grows and spreads until the valley of crystal death becomes transformed into a cushion of living green in the lap of the gaunt, gray granite.
But what as to further progress? The lichen is green and beautiful, but as an individual it can never develop into anything higher. Here again progress is absolutely barred by life, and must call death to its aid. The lichen dies, and its dust returns to the earth, carrying with it the spoils of the sunlight, the air, and the dew, to enrich the seed-bed. A hundred generations follow, each one leaving a legacy of fertility, until the soil becomes capable of sustaining a richer, stronger, higher order of plant-life, whose rootlets push into every crevice and rend the solid rock; the living carpet spreads; grass, flower, and shrub succeed one another in steady succession, until the cold gray rock-trough is transformed into the lovely mountain glen with its myriad life. As the poet sings, the crystals have risen "on stepping-stones of their dead selves to nobler things," and of any link in the chain the inspired dictum would be equally true that "except to die, it abideth alone."
But, says some one, this is all very true as to the surface of Mother Earth; but how about the deeper structures, her ribs and body bulk?
Every layer of the earth was part of the surface at one time, and the more intimately death has entered into their composition, the more highly organized the corpses of which they are composed, and the more useful and important they are.
Come back with me a few hundred years to the great tree-fern period, and gaze upon the matted jungle of frond and stem, thirty to sixty feet in height, which covers mile after mile of swamp. Here, indeed, is life in all its glory, yet it is a living shroud. No hum is there of insect-life or twitter of birds that build their nests in the branches; for there is neither flower, berry, nor seed to support the tiniest life. No animal can live on its stringy, indigestible fodder. The rank growth crushes out any possibility of nobler, more generous plant-life. The old earth gives a tired sigh, her bosom heaves and sinks, and the waters rush in and cover the jungle, drown it, crush it, bury it with silt, compress and mummify it, and it is numbered with the "has-beens," until one day man stumbles upon a fragment of its remains in the face of some sea-cliff, and coal, the food of the steam-engine, the motive power of latter-day commerce and civilization, is discovered. Alive, it was a worthless weed; dead, it becomes "black diamonds."
There is another illustration very much in point, indeed, but so familiar through the medium of Sunday-school literature, and so nearly worn threadbare as a text for sermons, that I hesitate to allude to it. I refer to that exemplary being, the coral "insect." This sturdy little polyp anchors himself to the surface of the sunken reef, and with an industry and devotion that would do him infinite credit, if we could for a moment imagine that he was actuated by any other motive than that of filling his own greedy little stomach, he swallows and deposits in his tissues the lime-salts until his whole substance becomes literally petrified and forms a stepping-stone of adamant for the succeeding generation, This process is repeated a few million times, and the lovely coral island, with its lofty palms, emerald verdure, silver sands, and glittering bird and insect life, breaks the surface of the howling waste of waters. Alive, he is a flabby, shapeless atom of grayish jelly; dead, he is a rainbow-hued crystal of loveliest outline—a thing of beauty in himself and the rock-ribbed support of countless other forms of life and beauty above the surface. Alive, he is an insignificant, slimy little salt-water slug; dead, he is a part of the framework of the universe, and a saintly creature, whose value as a moral example can hardly be overestimated.
When we turn to the higher forms of being, the dependence of life upon precedent death is so self-evident as to have been formulated into a truism. That the grass must die that sheep may live, and that sheep must die that man may live, are facts as familiar as the multiplication-table. If the command, "Thou shalt not kill," were to be interpreted to extend to our animal cousins and our vegetable ancestors, it might as well read at once, "Thou shalt starve."
In this sense death is as important and essential a vital function as birth, and the highest aim of many an organism is attained, not by its birth, but by its death. Literally: "He that loveth his life shall save it," in the world to come. Without this power of the lower life to forward the higher life by dying, progress of any sort would be absolutely impossible. There be forms which when they are devoured refuse to die, but we call them parasites, and should hardly choose the tape-worm as a symbol of progress.
Even when we reach the human stage where no such direct digestive transformation into higher forms is possible, the same necessity is still apparent.
To permit progress in the social, political, or moral worlds it becomes ultimately just as sternly essential, cruel as the fact may seem at first sight, that the old generation should die, as that the new should be born.
Now let us look for a few moments at the second prevailing misconception of death as a destroyer and waster. This is apparently supported by a vast array of facts, ranging from the tremendous loss of life among the eggs or young of the lower forms to the sudden cutting short of existences in which meet the labor and preparation of generations of the past and the hopes of the future. What is the use of being born only to die, of laboriously building up an organism or character only to have it destroyed, annihilated, scattered like smoke?
To the first part of the question the answer almost suggests itself, viz., that this destruction is only apparent. Nothing is really lost at all. Merely the form is changed, and as it is necessary that life should be produced in great abundance in order to give nature, figuratively speaking, a wide field for selection, some method becomes absolutely indispensable by which the elements of the unfit, incompetent, nonelect forms can be promptly returned to the great crucible of nature, there to be available for use in new and improved patterns. So far from being a waster, death is the great economist of nature, enabling her to conduct her most extensive experiments with a mere handful of material.
But you will reply, this accounts only, so to speak, for the materials used. Are not the vantage ground so hardly won, the wonderful organizing power, the long years expended, utterly lost and hopelessly wasted? I answer, no; but rather secured thereby. They become an immutable part of the history of the race. The upward growth of the race is not an even, continuous line, but a series of ever-ascending tiny curves, each the life of an individual, and the tiny shoot of the curve of the life that is to follow is given off from near our highest point.
Death is the great embalmer, the casket into which our loved ones are received in the very flower of their beauty and the glory of their strength. A sheaf of corn fully ripe is a beautiful, dignified, inspiring sight and memory, but it must be reaped to make it so, and not left on the stem to rot and freeze.
And it should not be forgotten that so long as life lasts, not only is growth possible, but degeneration also; and that the further the zenith of power is passed, the more probable does the latter become. Nothing can imperil the good that a man has done save his own later weakness, treason, or folly; and when the mortal dart pierces him it transfixes him where he stands and secures the vantage-ground he has won. Death's function here is, as it were, a ratchet upon the notched wheel of human progress, to secure every inch gained as a starting-point for the life to come.
But the crowning beauty and noblest impulse of the process is that it is intrinsically a burying of the old life to enrich the new. The parent form falls with all the scars, the weariness and grime of the conflict, into the gentle lap of Mother Earth, in order that the new life may rise, fresh, pure, triumphant. Old errors are buried, old failures forgotten. The good of all the past is inherited, the evil falls by its own weight. The race takes a fresh start every generation. We are all but drops in the grand stream of life, which flows with ever-widening sweep through all the ages.
We are immortal, if we but form a true, sturdy link in the great chain of life. It is this unbroken continuity of life, ever rising to nobler levels from the ashes of apparent death that is so beautifully typified by the Phoenix and similar traditions. We should cheerfully pay the debt of nature, proudly confident that she will be able to invest the capital to better advantage next time, from the interest we have laboriously added to it.
There need be no shrinking dread of the "pangs of dissolution," the "final agony," for such things have little existence save in disordered imaginations. Ask any physician whose head is silvered over with gray, and he will tell you that while disease is often painful, death itself is gentle, painless, natural, like the fading of a flower or the falling of a leaf. It is literally true that there is a time to die as well as to live, and when that time comes the event becomes not only tolerable, but, like all other natural processes, desirable; every fibre of our tired, worn-out being demands it.
The overwhelming majority of such records of authentic "last words" as we possess, re-echo the saying of Charles II. on his death-bed: "If this be dying, nothing could be easier."
Even in such an extreme case as death under the fangs of wild beasts, all those who have gone very near the Valley of the Shadow from this cause unite in testifying, incredible as it may seem, that after the first shock of the attack there is absolutely no sensation of pain.
For instance, Livingstone, upon one occasion, was pounced upon by a lion, which felled him to the ground, and, making his teeth meet in his shoulder, dragged him a considerable distance into the jungle before his followers could come to his assistance. Livingstone asserts most positively that he was perfectly conscious of what was happening when he was being carried, could hear the cries of his friends, and wondered how long it would take them to reach him, but that he felt no pain or fear whatever, nothing but a strange, drowsy, dreamy sensation. And yet his shoulder was so severely injured that he never fully recovered the use of it, and his body was identified after death by the scars.
Sir Samuel Baker reports a similar experience with a bear which he had wounded. The great brute felled him by a stunning blow from its paw, and he was aroused to consciousness by its crunching the bones of his hand; it continued the process up his arm, and had almost reached the shoulder before the rescuing party could reach him, and yet Sir Samuel declares that he felt no pain whatever, and that his only sensation was one of intense resentment against the beast for seeming to enjoy the taste of him so much. Nor are these by any means exceptional instances, as many other such reports could be collected, and it is almost an axiom with surgeons that the severer the injury the less the pain. Many a man has received his deathwound and never known it until his strength began to fail.
But nature is even more merciful than this. Contrary to popular impression and pulpit pyrotechnics, the fear of death, which is so vivid in life and health, absolutely disappears as soon as his hand is laid upon us. Every physician knows from experience that not one person in fifty is afraid or even unwilling to die when the time actually comes, and in the vast majority of instances our patients drift into a state of dreamy indifference to the result as soon as they become seriously ill. So universally is this true that we seldom feel any uneasiness as to the result of a case in which a lively fear of death is exhibited. The highest sensibilities are the first to die; so that both pain and fear are usually abolished, literally rendered impossible, hours, days, or even weeks, before the end comes. Our dear ones drift gently out into the sea of rest, on the ebbing tide of life, with a smile upon their sleeping faces.
For every minor injury nature provides a remedy; for every hopeless one, a narcotic.
In not a few instances tins indifference becomes changed into positive longing for death. Days of suffering and nights of sleepless weariness quickly bring men to stretch out their arms to the great Rest-bringer. Fever-parched and pain-weary men and women long for death as tired children long for sleep. Ask your own family physician and he will tell you that as a matter of fact he has heard five prayers for death to one for life, when fate is trembling in the balance.
Because the thought of Death in the noontide of life sends a chill through them, people never stop to think that their feelings may entirely change with the circumstances, and will not understand, as the good old Methodist elder shrewdly expressed it, that they "can't expect to get dying grace to live by."
The ghastly _in articulo mortis_, or "death-struggle," of which we hear so much in dramatic literature, religious or otherwise, does not occur in one case in ten, and then usually long after consciousness has ceased. When death comes near enough so that we can see the eyes behind the mask, his face becomes as welcome as that of his twin brother, sleep.
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