Americans don’t like thinking about their deaths. Growing up in a Syrian-American household, death and the afterlife were frequently discussed topics. The threshold for morbidity was extremely high: Many Arabic-media editorial boards and independent journalists do not grant their consumers the luxury of sanitized images of mangled bodies from war, and the imagery of death is inculcated in Arabs from a young age. The Arabic language is saturated with religious references to destiny and the afterlife; my non–Arab American friend who studied abroad in Kuwait said that the first term he learned in Arabic was “inshallah,” meaning “If God wills it,” just by the sheer frequency of its usage by Arabs — the language itself reduces humanity to its mortal, destructible flesh, dependent on a maker to grant our broken world the mercy it doesn’t deserve.
I was once told by a Coptic Egyptian that following a bombing of their churches by Islamists, Egyptian Christians will pack the church the following week, because they don’t fear martyrdom: They remember eternity. They remember their deaths.
In the social-media age, when only the most seemingly carefree, whimsical renderings of our lives make the Instagram cut, and most of our lives are not in limbo because of war, death isn’t a prospect Americans often meditate on, and it’s one that’s actively avoided. We often act as though the finite material world is our opportunity to establish a paradise by any means necessary; American politics is a perfect representation of this. William F. Buckley Jr. popularized Eric Voegelin’s phrase that he coined in 1952 in The New Science of Politics, and that, with the growing presence of politics in the lives of Americans, I wish would be resurrected: “Don’t immanentize the eschaton.” Don’t try to make what is reserved for the afterlife happen here and now. Because it’s impossible. We should instead remember our deaths: Memento Mori.
In the 1500s, when Europe was blooming with art, politics, and science, Memento Mori art that was considered a morbid relic of the Middle Ages that Europe was transitioning out of made a comeback. Memento Mori art typically depicted images of skulls, or ticking clocks, or lit candles that suggested time was fleeting and death is an inevitability. People were comfortable during the Renaissance, but they also began to contemplate the role of the divine and superstition in their lives with the rise of humanism. Whether through a religious or secular lens, the imagery of death was present in popular society.
Today, we are comfortable in our decadence, but we don’t interact with the imagery of death on a regular basis; in fact, we’re often shielded from it.
In a New York Times interview with Conan O’Brien from January 14, O’Brien tells the reporter of the return of his late-night show “Conan” after a three-month hiatus, and I found his last answer to be a refreshing (as refreshing as death can be) one:
Is this how you want to go out, with a show that gets smaller and smaller until it’s gone?
Maybe that’s O.K. I think you have more of a problem with that than I do. [Laughs.] At this point in my career, I could go out with a grand, 21-gun salute, and climb into a rocket and the entire Supreme Court walks out and they jointly press a button, I’m shot up into the air and there’s an explosion and it’s orange and it spells, “Good night and God love.” In this culture? Two years later, it’s going to be, who’s Conan? This is going to sound grim, but eventually, all our graves go unattended.
You’re right, that does sound grim.
Sorry. Calvin Coolidge was a pretty popular president. I’ve been to his grave in Vermont. It has the presidential seal on it. Nobody was there. And by the way, I’m the only late-night host that has been to Calvin Coolidge’s grave. I think’s that what separates me from the other hosts.
I had a great conversation with Albert Brooks once. When I met him for the first time, I was kind of stammering. I said, you make movies, they live on forever. I just do these late-night shows, they get lost, they’re never seen again and who cares? And he looked at me and he said, [Albert Brooks voice] “What are you talking about? None of it matters.” None of it matters? “No, that’s the secret. In 1940, people said Clark Gable is the face of the 20th Century. Who [expletive] thinks about Clark Gable? It doesn’t matter. You’ll be forgotten. I’ll be forgotten. We’ll all be forgotten.” It’s so funny because you’d think that would depress me. I was walking on air after that.
Death is grim. But O’Brien, an American-household name, standardizes life, erases the earthly concept of fame and luxury, and reduces humans to the dust we’ll all one day become. He’s the skull with worms crawling in between the eye sockets that was crafted from ivory, and he’s the painting depicting skeletons holding up a mirror to a human to remind them of their fragility. Like Coolidge and Conan, the Reaper comes for us all.
Art may not speak to Americans like it did to Renaissance-era Europeans, but celebrities do. On a last note, some more Latin to remind us of our ephemerality: Carpe Diem.