“Kiss of death.” What a jarring juxtaposition of two words. Kiss: a tender, personal expression of affection, love, and life. Death: a cold, disemboweled, shutter of the grave. The union of these words yields startling reverberations of meaning. The kiss of Judas, for instance; a deadly betrayal masquerading as an act of love. Or the kiss of a mob boss given to one of his assassins to seal the contract on a targeted enemy.
Or a description of our lives. From the moment of our birth, we are kissed by death; the sweet, miraculous experience of life shot through with the looming shadow of our ending.1 The juxtaposition expresses the painful ache of love, informed, at some deep level, by our impermanence. The kiss fades. Life fades. Love intimates death within its embrace.
Death’s kiss is at the center of much philosophical and religious practice. Memento Mori, “remember that you must die,” has a long and distinguished history. Plato, Cicero, Seneca, and Montaigne (Greek, Roman, Christian) all argue that “To philosophize is to learn to die.” Judaism and Christianity direct us to “number our days”; Buddhist practice embraces suffering and impermanence as noble truths; and Islam counsels a “remembrance of death.” Much of Western art from medieval times to the 19th century contained symbolic reminders of mortality, often coded in small details like an hourglass or wilting flowers.2
Why? Why urge that we meditate on such a disturbing topic? And it is disturbing. The looming presence of death is an acid that strips away the easy familiarly, the ready-made obviousness of everyday life. It frightens, disorients, and destabilizes. Troubling questions, and reactions, are prompted by intently staring into the blinding glare of our mortality.3 But we must do so precisely because death’s kiss provokes troubling questions: How shall I live? Toward what purpose? Why? Although each tradition prescribes different answers,4 the purpose is the same: Awaken us to our fleeting presence on this earth, overcome our preoccupation with trivial matters, and live with vital, purposeful, urgency.
I have long been preoccupied with the kiss of death and can attest that it is an unwelcome, almost taboo topic for discussion; indeed, sometimes presumed to be a sign of psychological disturbance. One reason is because death has become remote. Life expectancy has more than doubled in the last century-and-a-half, so death is less likely to be encountered in the daily round of life, especially in developed countries. The United States has been further graced by good fortune, as we have not been devastated by war, famine or disease during this time.5
In our most fortunate society, in our most fortunate time, it is generally expected that most of us will live a long life. Early death is a shock, an upending of the natural order. Death, when it occurs, is personal and prompts very private grief for the loss. Denial of death is a very comfortable and comforting strategy to protect us from the angst and anguish of the kiss of death.
It has not always been so. Sometimes death cannot be tamed, felling cities, countries, even continents with a scythe of mortal ruin that leaves streets and country sides littered with corpses. Perhaps the most devastating of these types of events was Black Death in the 14th century where 30% to 60% of Europe died, and major cities, like Florence and Paris, became ghost towns and charnel houses. The entire medieval order was torn asunder. Serfdom ended, the economic structure based on land ownership undermined, religious authority challenged, medical practice disparaged, licentiousness and riots in the streets pervasive, and the persecution of Jews, lepers, and “Others” widespread. The shadow of death haunted everything. Death was a communal, public experience. Grief and anguish were not only for the loss of an individual, but for the loss of everything and everybody. The painting “The Triumph of Death” by Pieter Brueghel evokes what it must have felt like to live in this apocalyptic time.
Black Death is an event that we might want to dismiss as a historical anomaly, a curiosity from the distant past of little consequence to our present circumstances. The human toll of today’s pandemic is microscopic compared to devastation of this plague, so trying to connect the two could be considered simply scare mongering. But the Black Death threat of today is not COVID. It is global warming. We know it is coming, and are beginning to feel the heat of it, not only in rising temperatures and widespread environmental disruptions, but in the straining of social, cultural, economic, and political ties that bind. We are past the tipping point; no longer can we halt it, and our continued collective inaction ensures speedier and more devastating consequences. Black Death gives us a peek at the kind of devastation that possibly awaits.
The world is, literally, on fire. Brueghel’s painting of the past also envisions our possible future—death communally experienced, and grief and anguish for the loss of everything and everybody. The discomfort and avoidance of discussing our individual death is magnified when it is not only our own personal ending, but the death of the world as we know it. Sleepwalking, however, is not the answer—it is the problem. We must awake, take urgent action NOW if we are to have a world where life will be worth living. We must embrace the kiss of death! 6
- ”Once a person is born, they are old enough to die.”—Martin Heidegger
- “No thought exists in me which death has not carved with his chisel.”—Michelangelo
- See “Between Sunlight and Darkness”, https://decembersongs.com/between-sunlight-and-darkness/.
- e.g., To a life hereafter; to transcend this life; to embrace this life.
- I do not mean to slight or disparage the loss of life in two world wars, a “conflict” in Korea, war in Viet Nam and more recent combats. In all these cases, war has occurred elsewhere, sparring us the horror death in our streets, in our homes, in our nostrils.
- O, Death: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H3IL4jY9NBs