Tom Friedman – Thoughts on Death and Immortality

May 10, 2002

I clearly recall my first thoughts on death. I was about five years old
and was sleeping, when I had a terrible nightmare about dying and sinking into a black morass. I woke up terribly frightened, crying. My Mother comforted me. I could not accept the thought of non existence.

Later, as life progressed death became part of the process. The phone calls or, initially, the yellow Western Union telegrams delivered to the door: Aunt Millie has died, cousin Walter is dead, Uncle Irwin is gone – steadily over the years the generations before me have all vanished from this earth. My wife recently received back from Copenhagen a letter she had sent to a lifelong friend there. The cryptic statement in Danish, written by the postman was a “No longer exists.” An apt way of putting it.

And, also during the war the constant disappearance of my Army Air Force buddies, (and in 1942 from the Royal Air Force nightfighter squadron I was attached to for a while). Young men vanished forever, just the vacant beds in the barracks that night, and the empty seats in the mess hall. And the accidents I saw: The fiery crash on takeoff, the fellows could not get the door open, burnt to death right there on the runway. Another time the airman who walked into the propellor as the engines were warming up on the tarmac.

And the takeoff on our first bombing raid from India, against the railroad yards at Bangkok. As we made the turn after takeoff I looked back and saw the plane taking off just after us crash and explode just off the end of the runway. That was on June 6, 1944, as D-day was just beginning in France. Memories.

And a poignant memory of death and love which often comes to mind: One fine summer day, about fifteen years ago, my wife and I were waiting to take the ferry from a small town on the northern coast of the island of Zealand, near Copenhagen. While waiting for the ferry to arrive, we visited a cemetery, beautifully kept, in a quiet churchyard near the ferry terminal. There we found an exquisite memorial, erected to the memory of three British airmen, in their late teens and early twenties, whose plane had crashed nearby during the war, while on a bombing mission against a German target in occupied Denmark. The local inhabitants had recovered the bodies, buried them and erected this beautiful monument to these young foreign men who were fighting the Germans in their behalf. Tears still come to my eyes when I think of the love these Danes showed.

Now, I am definitely a member of the next generation scheduled to depart. No ambiguities here. For so many of my peers whom I have known from work and play, there is a constant stream of obituaries and the brief notices in the company newsletter which I still receive after retirement. Statistically at
age 86 I am not in good position to stick around that much longer. What are my thoughts?

I am not sure of any hereafter, but surely am in no position to rigorously disprove the existence or nonexistence of some state of consciousness after death. Regardless, it is time to set fear aside. As Hamlet famously soliloquized in his walk on the ramparts of Elsinore, “to be or not to be ” and about that distant land of death “from whose bourn no traveler returns”. This is a journey each and every one of us is scheduled to take, we will have company, we are not alone. Years ago, Time magazine started its obituaries with the words;”As it must to all men…” And thus it will be.

So, I accept my mortality and appreciate the good life I have been privileged to enjoy in this most interesting time in history, a period of enormous technological and sociological change, generally for the good, but not all. I am particularly dismayed that science has made it possible for mankind to swiftly and efficiently kill large numbers of people at vast distances, certainly an obscene miscarriage of scientific inquiry and principles. I hope that this endeavor will be abandoned, the sooner the better.

And I leave this brave new world to my grandchildren, whose constructs are so different from mine, I cannot begin to fathom their true thoughts and desires; their inputs are often completely external to their parentscontrol. Already, considering some of the middle aged generations actions we are finding a breakdown in traditional ethics and principles. ( I refer to the current accounting scandals). Of course, every generation has believed that the succeeding generation is going to the dogs, however so far we have survived. I will leave to future generations the confirmation of Nietzsche’s pessimistic viewpoint that western civilization is doomed and of Arnold Toynbe’s historical work, showing that all civilizations rise, flourish and then decline and fall.

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