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Death, Additional Subthemes

Subthemes: Survivor Guilt, Funerals and Eulogies, Alter History

The preceding sections cover multiple subthemes of Death identified from four works of art: Donne’s poem that humbles Death, a painting by Cezanne related to a hanging, the violent end of a crime-spree couple, and the sadly-remembered death of honey. Here are additional thoughts about the theme of Death that don’t associate with any of those works.

Survivor Guilt: When a person unaccountably lives through a plane crash, a train wreck, or a mass shooting, they may be dogged by unanswerable questions about why they were spared and others were not. Often, sheer luck accounts for why one person on the Titanic was rescued and another drowned or one soldier on Omaha Beach was machine gunned but his buddy made it. That gnawing question – “Why me?” – and feeling undeserving may worsen Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. People can’t justify why the person next to them perished and they did not. A form of what they and Holocaust survivors suffered from has come to be termed “survivor guilt.” Dodging death carries its own pains.

Funerals and Eulogies: All cultures mark a person’s death, most commonly by burial or cremation. All groups of people recognize the passing of a person, but with a wide variety of practices. For an example, the movie Four Weddings and a Funeral includes a tearful funeral. Vikings buried royalty in a ship, Indians lit burning pyres, Egyptians constructed pyramids, Americans hold solemn processions or guide horses with no rider – the ethnographic catalogue of funeral rites is vast.

Alter History: History has pivoted in the aftermath of a bullet: Washington, DC in 1865, Sarajevo 1914, Dallas 1963, and Memphis 1968. Other deaths have set history or politics on a different course. Legend has it that in 1244 the death of Ögedei Khan halted the Mongol advance on Vienna so that all Mongol leaders in Europe could return to Mongolia and elect a new Khan. Tito’s death fragmented Yugoslavia. The death of George Floyd in Minneapolis in 2020 or Ruth Bader Ginsburg death in September 2020 may cause large-scale changes over time. Momentous consequences can follow from the death of one person.

Near-Death Experiences: None of the art works considered above address the reports of people who almost die. Someone drowning is revived, another nearly asphyxiated in a garage, the stomach pumping at the last second worked, a touch-and-go struggle in an emergency room brought back a flat-liner, or other miraculous rescues leave survivors to describe lights and sensations. Doctors attribute such perceptions to the body shutting down, notably the brain.

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