“Whistling past the graveyard” is a popular English idiom that has parallels in other languages. It describes our tendency to avoid the uncomfortable thought that life ends. Many elements of our society and culture attempt to hide, mask, or otherwise obfuscate this fact.
Like a magician skilled in the art of misdirection, the world often says, “Look over here,” as it attempts to keep our eyes from the reality of our existence. And thus — perhaps as the unintended consequence of many factors — death begins to fade into the background of our minds. Our focus is on the here. The now.
This is unfortunate in many respects, primarily because acceptance of our mortality can help us appreciate the time we have. We often exaggerate the importance of the various issues in our lives beyond what they deserve. Walking through a cemetery can provide an incredibly calming and eye-opening effect. Reflecting on the lives of all who came before you adds a healthy perspective to whatever occupies your mind.
“All men think that all men are mortal but themselves.”
— Edward Young (1683–1765), English poet
The Uncertainties Of Life
Just a few generations ago, childhood mortality rates were astronomical by today’s standards and accepted as part of life. People were also more likely to die from accidents and disease. The uncertainties of life made people more aware of their mortality and the general fragility of life.
Thanks to an improved understanding of biology, medical procedures, drugs, and safety practices, we enjoy much longer lifespans from our ancestors. On many fronts, there is so much to be thankful for. And yet, improving life spans may have also created a false sense of security, as if death is an aberration instead of a natural part of life.
“Death is not the opposite of life, but a part of it.”
― Haruki Murakami, Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman
Fresh Insights Into Life And Death
The Coronavirus Pandemic provided some noteworthy insights into how friends, family and society at large viewed the prospects of life and death. I classified them into three broad categories:
- Some took reasonable precautions and tried to live their lives as normally as possible, accepting that life inherently involves risk. They were willing to live with some emergency measures but were also concerned about responding to the virus in isolation. They questioned what impacts the coronavirus measures might have on other aspects of our mental and physical health, our economy, and way of life.
- Others appeared to exaggerate the risks of the disease, ignoring the infection and mortality rates, and hunkering down beyond what the statistics suggested was reasonable. For these people, every economic, medical, and policy decision revolved around the virus and nothing else.
- Others were surprised to learn that, having ignored healthy diets and exercise routines for too many years, they were far more susceptible to complications from the virus. This should have been a wake-up call not to take their health for granted. Time will tell if it was.
As we emerge from the pandemic, it will be interesting to see how it affects our culture’s perceptions about a wide range of issues, not the least is how we think of and approach our mortality.
It is nearly impossible to turn on the tv or radio or visit a website without being bombarded with commercials. Ad-supported television contains fourteen-to-eighteen minutes of commercials per hour, depending on the channel — one of the reasons some are fleeing to non-ad supported streaming options.
“You act like mortals in all that you fear, and like immortals in all that you desire.”
— Lucius Annaeus Seneca (c. 4 BC–AD 65), Roman Stoic philosopher
Advertisements are often laser-like in appealing to your deepest emotions — your fears, hopes, aspirations, and desires. If you watch enough of them, you might get the impression that your every desire, concern, or worry can be satisfied with some product or service.
Don Draper, of the popular series, Mad Men, provides a fascinating insight into how the ad agencies perceive the public, and the creative process behind developing advertisements. For all his faults, Draper is intensely focused on understanding what make people tick. Sometimes he finds lofty motivations. In other situations, he describes some of the more unpleasant aspects of our nature.
“People want to be told what to do so badly that they’ll listen to anyone.”
— Don Draper, Mad Men, Season One, Babylon
Why Do We Buy?
It is fair to say advertising agencies and their clients often know us better than we know ourselves. They use detailed information about nearly every aspect of our behavior to persuade us to buy all manner of products. Many of these products indeed provide real value and add quality to our lives.
But ads also tap into our psyches to suggest that products can address some of our deeper needs and concerns. In such cases, people attempt to satisfy their inner struggles by spending money on things. This can only leave them feeling disappointed. Tip: Before you plunk down $70,000 for that new convertible you “must have,” you might want to do a gut check of your true motivations for buying it.
“Advertising is based on one thing, happiness. And you know what happiness is? Happiness is the smell of a new car. It’s freedom from fear. It’s a billboard on the side of the road that screams reassurance that whatever you are doing is okay. You are okay.”
— Don Draper, Mad Men, Season One, Smoke Gets in Your Eyes
Magic Pills And Smiling Faces
The pharmaceutical industry dramatically increased consumer advertising budgets over the past twenty-five years. Not so long ago, doctors would prescribe medicines for their patients based on the physician’s understanding of available options. Today, many patients walk into their doctors’ offices and request — if not demand — the latest drug they saw advertised during their favorite show.
And why not? The viewer sees an actor who looks like himself, his face grimaced in pain, suffering from symptoms similar to his own in scene one. In the next, the actor sports a huge grin while cooking on the grill and sitting down to a hearty meal with friends and families. Hallelujah!
Well… there is the list of nasty side effects that sound far worse than whatever disorder the magic pills are meant to cure. You have to feel some sympathy for those in the comedy business — it is increasingly difficult for parodies to keep pace with reality.
You can’t blame people for wanting to believe there is a simple cure for their pain or suffering, or lack of willpower. The blitzkrieg of advertisements suggest a simple answer for all that ails us. You can’t help but wonder how this impacts our sense of responsibility about our health, lifestyles, and habits, as well as our notion of death.
You Only Go Around Once — Grab All You Can!
If you believe this life is all there is, it is only natural that your decisions will be based on a limited view of your actions and their results. “Eat, drink, and be merry” is a phrase that epitomizes how some view life. “You can’t take it with you” is another.
“I’m living like there’s no tomorrow, because there isn’t one.”
— Don Draper, Mad Men, Season One, Smoke Gets in Your Eyes
If you study enough television commercials, you might conclude that many fall under one of the two phrases above. As such, commercials often appeal to people’s sense that they are not enjoying life enough and their remaining opportunities are fading.
And how do you solve such concerns? By buying the advertiser’s beer, visiting their restaurant, driving their car, upgrading to their new phone, and going on that vacation of a lifetime. Occasionally, the parodies of such commercials contain some truth you might wish were in the originals.
“What you call love was invented by guys like me … to sell nylons.”
— Don Draper, Mad Men, Season One, Smoke Gets in Your Eyes
Beyond The Surface
There is nothing inherently wrong with such appeals. Perhaps that latest taco dip will be a huge hit at your next party, and the new and improved paper towels really do absorb more than their predecessors. But when products attempt to address solutions to the more challenging questions of life — Who am I? Why am I here? What is my purpose? How shall I conduct my life? — they can do nothing but fall short of their promises, exacerbating our frustrations and deepening our anxieties.
In some cases, the failure of the last “new thing” to satisfy our deep-seated longings leads to a vicious cycle of needing something else bigger, better, and more expensive to replace it — more is never enough.
As we have seen so often throughout history, physical beauty, extraordinary talent, fame, fortune, and material goods cannot compensate for the inner void we sometimes feel. We have countless examples of how people — who seemingly had everything the world claims will make us happy — said it was not enough. Marilyn Monroe. Elvis Presley. Jim Morrison. Janice Joplin. Freddie Prince. Kurt Cobain. Robin Williams…
“Do not fear death so much but rather the inadequate life.”
— Bertolt Brecht, German theatre practitioner, playwright, and poet
Business Is Business — “You’ve Got To Make Your Numbers”
The business world in general treats death in hush terms. Why? The thought of mortality adds a sobering perspective to the usual plethora of trite euphemisms, bromides, and other pablum that masquerade as intelligent conversation. Few want you to question the wisdom of going into work at noon on Saturday vs. attending your daughter’s softball game.
There are certainly times when we should “bend the arc” of our personal schedule to address the needs of our employers and clients. Neither is it wrong to strive for advancing our skills or going above and beyond to ensure the success of any organization serving a worthwhile purpose.
And yet, there is a tendency for some to bend that arc so much reaching for the brass ring that…
They’re Killing Me…
In my mid-twenties, I worked for an widely-admired high tech company. Volunteering one Saturday morning for children’s day at our branch office, I configured some PCs (relatively new technology at the time) with educational and game software, and had the opportunity to meet the families of my colleagues. I introduced myself to someone I’ll refer to as “Dan,” the husband of one of my colleagues, who accompanied their daughter. He was two years older than me, and worked in another branch of the company.
“Of course the world of work begins to become – threatens to become – our only world, to the exclusion of all else. The demands of the working world grow ever more total, grasping ever more completely the whole of human existence.”
― Josef Pieper, Leisure: The Basis of Culture
I’ll never forget his response when I asked how he was doing: “They’re killing me” — a reference to his sky-high sales objective. Dan went on to tell me about the long hours he was working and his many concerns. I thought his comments a bit unusual, but chalked them up to the way some complain about work.
“Life goes by fast. Enjoy it. Calm down. It’s all funny. Next. Everyone gets so upset about the wrong things.”
— Joan Rivers, American comedian, actress, and writer
Within a few months, however, Dan was rushed to the hospital with severe chest pains. He died in the emergency room, his pronunciation proving prophetic. Doctors attributed his heart attack to stress. He was not yet thirty years old.
I don’t think the company wanted any of us to think too much or very long about Dan’s death. When your performance is being judged by Wall Street on a quarter-to-quarter basis, there’s little room for introspection, the broader meaning of your life, or how you are spending your time. Mortality finds little expression in the world of commerce.
Hollywood To The Rescue?
Occasionally, Hollywood does a credible job questioning our traditional notions of success, life’s meaning, and our priorities. The movie, The Family Man, demonstrated that the life of Jack Campbell — a rich, “successful” investment banker — was not quite as full as he imagined.
“I got everything I need.”
— Jack Campbell, The Family Man
In the beginning of the movie, we get a humorous “glimpse” of how Campbell’s life might have unfolded had he made a different decision in his early twenties. The glimpse turns serious and life-changing when Campbell questions the wisdom of his choices and values, and recognizes he has not been honest with himself.
A Word From The Twilight Zone
As you may know from my other posts, I’m a fan of Rod Serling, the man and his work. His Twilight Zone episodes continue to be popular because they cut straight to the core of our existence. A Stop at Willoughby is one of the all-time classics showing where chasing goals — inconsistent with our nature — can lead.
Gart Williams, an advertising executive, finds himself suffering from physical ailments in a job he can’t stand, living a lifestyle not of his choice, and married to an unsympathetic wife whose values are very different than his own.
“Willoughby? Maybe it’s wishful thinking nestled in a hidden part of a man’s mind, or maybe it’s the last stop in the vast design of things; or perhaps, for a man like Mr. Gart Williams, who climbed on a world that went by too fast, it’s a place around the bend where he could jump off. Willoughby? Whatever it is, it comes with sunlight and serenity, and is a part of The Twilight Zone.”
— Rod Serling, A Stop At Willoughby, The Twilight Zone
Unfortunately, Williams is unable to reconcile his career with core values in time to make a much-needed change in his life. It is a thought-provoking episode you will likely never forget. If you don’t have access to the series, you can listen to this episode here for less than a cup of coffee.
“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
― Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning
I certainly don’t mean to imply there is anything inherently wrong with advertising campaigns, products or services that improve our lives and health, building a business, or working overtime. “For everything, there is a season…”
“A civilization that denies death ends by denying life.”
― Octavio Paz, The Labyrinth of Solitude
But problems always arise when we fail to keep things in perspective, imagining that our deeper psychological needs can be satisfied by purchasing some product, or believe that health, happiness, and fulfillment can be found in a pill. And while dwelling on our mortality may seem upsetting to some, we also have plenty of evidence to suggest that denying it can unleash a host of unpleasant consequences.
Perhaps it is idealistic, but I would like to think that walking among the graves of so many who have departed this life — the humble and the famous, at different ages, from different generations — might add a bit of perspective to your challenges.
I don’t believe it was a coincidence that Charles Dickens’ classic novel, A Christmas Carol, ends with a walk in a cemetery. Scrooge was indeed “whistling past the graveyard.” His coming to terms with his own death enables him to undergo a transformation, embracing life and becoming a better man. That is a lesson we can all learn from.
“Ghost of the Future, I fear you more than any specter I have seen. But as I know your purpose is to do me good, and as I hope to live to be another man from what I was, I am prepared to bear you company, and do it with a thankful heart.”
— Ebenezer Scrooge, Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol
Cemetery Art earns commissions for purchases made through links in this post, which are used to offset the costs of building and maintaining this site.