Death Becomes Us
The world is a terrifying place. The philosopher William James opined that death was
“the worm at the core” of being alive, and as such, impacted our decisions to create art or wage
war as a way of coping with this knowledge. Cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker won the
Pulitzer for Denial of Death, a work echoing James’ conceit that our understanding of death and
how it is our ultimate “destination”. Sigmund Freud’s “death drive”, in contrast to the pleasure
principle as a driving force of the human experience. Jessica Mitford’s groundbreaking, if you’ll
forgive the pun, exploration on death as industry (The American Way of Death), which exposed
the vagaries of funerals as we advanced from home deaths to the industrial sheen of hospitals
and mortuary services. Caitlin Doughty started the Death Positive Movement more recently
which asks us to speak openly about death. She has written two books, Smoke Gets in Your
Eyes and From Here to Eternity to educate and destigmatize the biological and sociological
impact death has our lives.
Though these dense and important scholarly works are fascinating in their own right, film
has a way of condensing and expanding our fear and misconceptions about death with satire,
pathos, and stark realism. The confrontation of the inevitable end of our lives is made more
palatable by dark humored tales of what-ifs and why-ifs and the tenuous nature of “ending”. We
can journey in the dark and experience the loss and wonder of our chosen protagonists. We can
mull the resolutions as we venture through the curation and creation of our own lives.-Erin Tuzuner
Harold and Maude. Dir. Hal Ashby. Per. Bud Cort, Ruth Gordon. 1971.
Perhaps the most endearing existentialist dark comedy featuring a May December
romance… EVER, Ashby gently provokes laughs and insight with a death obsessed young man
and an exuberant survivor of the Holocaust finding love and meaning in each other.e.