Death, the Body, Sex, Life

It had been a good morning so far. My two classes went well. As usual on MWF, I met my husband, who had also just finished teaching, at the bottom of the stairs and we walked together to his office to catch up, talking about camps for the kids next week, finalizing summer cottage rental plans, griping about the usual university business, and, naturally, detouring into Star Trek Deep Space Nine and the origin of the word “ferengi” and whether the Ferengi were portrayed in an anti-Semitic way, and what other ethnicities might be said, stereotypically, to have big noses. As I crossed campus to my office in the philosophy building, it felt like spring. I noticed black capped chickadees at the feeders outside the Union, and I imagined I felt the sun’s warmth on my cheek, wan though it was. As I considered unzipping my down jacket, I decided I’ve lived in Maine too long if a 30 degree day with snow on the ground counts as “springlike.”

When I returned to my office, I listened to a vague, brief message from my Hospice volunteer coordinator. I dreaded calling him back, because I knew what it was: my hospice friend had died this morning. I was shocked: I had just spent the afternoon with him a few days ago. He was animated and sharp. He told me about long car trips with his wife back in the days when he was a high school teacher. She would read student essays out loud, and he would tell her what to mark them. She would argue with him, and it would make the time fly by. When you spend a lot of time with dying people, you begin to believe that you can tell when it’s going to happen. What a joke. I was not ready for him to go. I thought we had many more afternoons, listening to the Bach station from the coast, sipping tea, and talking about his life.

On Monday night, I co-led a humanities workshop with my colleague on death and dying. Truth be told, I did that for my chair, and was not looking forward to staying so late on campus, missing dinner with my family, and losing work time. But we found we had gathered a strange assortment of faculty, administrators, staff, and students, who all, for their own reasons, really wanted to be there. One faculty member was dealing with the loss of his father. Another faculty member, in communications, was working on a project in which he had to read narratives of parents about the moment they lost their child, and he had nowhere else to go with his strange feelings of grief.

Our own body is in the world as the heart is in the organism: it keeps the visible spectacle constantly alive; the body animates and nourishes the world inwardly, and forms with it a system. (Maurice Merleau-Ponty)

One of the things we were trying to get across, via Merleau-Ponty, Heidegger, and others, was a fact that is often hidden from us: our bodies maintain our life world. So a crisis with the body can become a crisis of our entire world. From the point of view of phenomenologists, we can never understand death until we understand what it means to be a lived body.

Our bodies are the center of our activity in the world. Think about it: we may say that “the paper is lying on the desk next to the clock”, but we don’t say, of ourselves, “the arm is lying on the desk next to the clock”, although it might well be. And it is because of the centrality of our bodies to our experience that they are so intimately related to our selves. Indeed, there is hardly a distinction to be made between body and self. Yet, at the same time, our bodies are in constant communion with the world that is not us. The body is unavoidably socially expressive, but it is at the same time what is being expressed. Following Wittgenstein, the contorted face, the redness, the loudness, is the rage, not just the expression of the rage. The body is thus essentially personal, and essential social, and essentially physical, and we must try to understand it in all these dimensions.

Of course, this spatiality — personal, social, and physical — is imbued with temporality. We are always in time, and perhaps one of the reasons aging makes us nervous is that our bodies seem to be the most permanent, intimate parts of ourselves. If my body (as I know it, as it is familiar to me) goes, what is left of me? As human being, our mortality is always a part of the horizon of our being. Heidegger has written, “as soon as man comes to life, he is at once old enough to die.” In that sense, no death is “untimely” because death is the condition of life. We talk about death all the time (“did you hear? Whitney Houston just died.”), but it is always in terms of what Heidegger called “the they”, never as our own, ineliminably personal death. This is captured perfectly by Marcel Duchamp’s grave:

"Besides, it is always other people who die."


I recently reread Forever by Judy Blume. Near the end of the novel, Katherine is teaching tennis at a summer camp, and becomes friendly and flirtatious with a fellow instructor, Theo, despite the fact that she has a boyfriend back home. When Kat’s grandfather dies, she seeks Theo out and tries to have sex with him. He tells her that she is having a normal reaction to death, trying to prove she’s alive, but he doesn’t want their relationship to begin that way. On the one hand, I think Theo’s resistance was honorable, the right choice. On the other, I wonder if he wasn’t making a false distinction between Kat’s self and Kat’s body.

Another recent read was a Spice Brief, an erotic short, by Anne Calhoun, called What She Needs. I was reminded as I read it of how well erotic writers — good ones, that is — bring our attention to the features of embodiment I’ve outlined above, to the fact that we don’t just live through our bodies, but live with and in communion with them.

In a very different, and more uncomfortable way, mystery writers also call us to attention to our bodies. Corpses are socially expressive. They have many of the same features of other bodies. In a very real sense, the person is still with us when we behold the corpse, even if the “self” is not. Good writers can communicate the social and expressive power of a corpse in a way that reminds us of our own finitude and embodied selves.

So, I’ve been thinking about death all week. From both theoretical and personal perspectives. Death calls to mind the many ways I am grateful to writers who explore, and thus encourage me to explore, the features of bodily existence that I too often take for granted.


14 responses

  1. Thank you for this beautiful post. Speaking selfishly from my own point of view, a friend of mine is now in hospice care and it comforts me a little to think of him still being meaningful and affecting the lives of the people caring for him. I’m still somewhat in a state of shock and bewilderment at the thought that this person will no longer exist soon, it’s like having supporting bricks removed from the foundation of my life.


  2. This was a beautiful post, one I will pull out mentally and reflect on. How do we honour our dead — is it in how we live? How we keep their memories alive? I liked the swirling juxtaposition of the many books you’ve read recently and your thoughts on them and death.

    My aunt, a nurse by training, volunteered at a Hospice and she told me no one changes as death nears. Is that a good thing or a bad thing? I’m sorry your friend has left your life. Thank you for sharing his story.


  3. I am sorry that your hospice friend has died Jessica, and thank you for this thoughtful post and reflection on embodiment.

    I am reading it instead of going to an afternoon-long lecture event on the latest Ovarian Cancer research. I am dressed and ready to go but have let my feelings over rule my head (I said yes/I should/etc). As an Ovarian Cancer survivor/person living with chronic illness I often struggle with embodiment and its determination of my lived life and right now my feelings tell me I don’t want to go to this seminar and confront that undeniable reality again.


  4. My condolences Jessica and thank you so much for this post. I am right now at my parents’ place–my mother is seriously ill and is currently unconscious in the hospital’s critical care unit. Her illness was a complete surprise and we are slowly going through each day waiting, waiting, waiting, waiting.

    I too have been thinking about bodies, death, mortality, and immortality. My mother loves poetry so today at her bedside I read from Whitman’s Leaves of Grass including “I sing the body electric”. For Whitman the body is all–we are bodies, social bodies, physical bodies, our work is but an expression of our embodiment.

    I sing the body electric,
    The armies of those I love engirth me and I engirth them,
    They will not let me off till I go with them, respond to them,
    . . . .
    And if the body does not do fully as much as the soul?
    And if the body were not the soul, what is the soul?
    . . . .
    I have perceiv’d that to be with those I like is enough,
    To stop in company with the rest at evening is enough,
    To be surrounded by beautiful, curious, breathing, laughing flesh is enough,
    To pass among them or touch anyone, or rest my arm ever so lightly round his or her neck for a moment , what is this then?
    I do not ask any more delight, I swim in it as in a sea.

    There is something in staying close to men and women and looking on them, and in the contact and odor of them that pleases the soul well.
    All things please the soul, but these please the soul well.


  5. I’m sorry for your loss, Jessica.

    There are other forms of death. Such as:

    1) when there’s no idea whether a body is still alive or not. So until the body is found, there’ll be no closure. An absolute, such as a confirmation of life or death, is needed in this respect but, most likely, cannot be delivered in any of our lifetimes. You can’t grieve because you’re confirming death that isn’t there. You can’t enjoy the body’s legacy because you’re confirming life that isn’t there. You can’t go forward because it’d be a betrayal otherwise. You can’t stay still because you owe it to yourself and family to live your life. It’s this legacy that erases the actual legacy of a living body.

    2) when a body’s mind goes, everything that makes the body ‘human’ fades. Memories, personality, quirks, speech, interactions – all are eroded until all’s gone while death is still some distance away. When you look, you see a living but empty shell of someone you knew so well. The body that no longer recognises you, even though it gave birth to you, while it talks to you – as if you’re a stranger – about the non-existent memories of the body’s child that the body doesn’t seem realise was actually you. You could not help but feel jealous or envious of those with dying people who’re still alive in mind, and you feel crap for even feeling that. It’s this legacy that erases the actual legacy of a living body.

    It’s a limbo in each case that brings out grief and guilt yet it feels wrong to experience those because in one case, the body – although there’s the death of a mind – is still living and in another case, the body’s absent. How should one react when a body’s not going through a natural progression of life and death? When a body dies, expectedly or unexpectedly, we can react with various reactions that all ends with grief and a goodbye, which will give us a sense of closure that can eventually help to get on with our lives.

    So, what about those who’re stuck in a limbo with a body that’s between life and death that probably won’t come for a while if ever, and would have to live with the memories of that limbo that may erase the body’s pre-limbo legacy? It’s a bus stop. Waiting for the damn bus to arrive, but probably won’t. How could one make peace with this?

    I mean, what could a spouse do when his or her spouse’s been in a coma for twenty-odd years, for instance? Can one even divorce a comatose spouse? How does one deal with the involuntarily absent or comatose spouse’s growing children? How can we even normalise something like this for children? What do we say when we’re asked how many siblings we have? Can we say four to treat the absent sibling as a corpse? Or should we say five to support our belief that the absent sibling’s still alive? Which is right? Which is honest, even?

    What social, physical, legal, moral and emotional obligations should one have to the living but empty shell of a body or an absent body? How long can we stay in this limbo before we’re judged harshly by the society for abandoning the living corpse to save ourselves and our families? One year? Five years? Ten years? Until we die?


  6. I’ve done hospice in the past. I always tried to predict the death mainly because family members are anxious around that. On some levels they know what will happen and dread it, but at the same time, part of them are moving on and cannot do so until the event of death. The fact is, even if one knows the exact moment and is fully prepared, grief and emotion still take over one must be in that process.

    About the body. When I was a teenager, I used to dream often of my death. I don’t know why. But in almost every dream I felt myself leaving my body. During the process, I felt an intense sense of peace and bliss and that I wasn’t separate from existence. What was really shocking though is that I would wake up outside my body often. I mean I’d see myself lying in bed and it was definitely a different experience than having a dream. I’m often aware in a dream that I’m dreaming, so I knew it was different.

    This lead me to explore Eastern religions and philosophies and I started practicing Zazen and Vipassana meditations. I also learned through teachings that Eastern philosophies treat the body as a separate entity or vessel for the soul. This fit with my experiences.

    During mediation, it happened only once or twice that I completely separated from my body but mostly I had more experiences of feeling beside my body or that my body had expanded to the point of having no boundaries.

    Now, I know that chemicals in the brain can naturally create these types of experiences. And I did a paper a long time about about the affect of mediation on the brain. What I got from doing the research for it is that we are probably hard wired to have such experiences. I’m willing to concede this fact and that my experiences were just a chemical reaction in my brain.

    However, even knowing that, my experiences were so real for me that I don’t think of my body in the sense that it’s me. I think of it as something separate from me and have no fears of death. This is my reality even if it will be a false one.


  7. I was thinking about this thread’s discussion of embodiment as I scrolled through the many claims to control a woman’s body being expressed in the various political debates and legislative attacks on contraception and access to abortion that every new day seems to bring. We live our personhood through our bodies and as I read I feel as a woman that my capacity and right to be a person is besieged. I am also old enough to remember what things were like before the 1970’s and as the discussion on the Judy Blume ‘Forever’ review pointed out that was a time of hope and a belief in possibilities and choices; this point of time is feeling not.

    I live outside the borders of the USA and on a day to day level the issues don’t affect me yet I can’t look away. We have our own move towards the right here in Australia. We are probably more secular but we are neither more liberal nor more conservative as a whole than the USA. Abortion has only just come off the criminal code in my state and we have less contraceptive choice than women in similar countries but at least we have easy and relatively cheap access to what is available.

    If women in a large western democracy have their life choices limited through this mandated control of their bodies then the future is dystopian.


  8. Pingback: Reading (About) Bodies: Links on the Body, Feminism and Romance | Something More

  9. @Victoria Janssen: @Julia Broadbooks: @Joanna Chambers (Tumperkin): Thanks, ladies. Writing the post helped me to work through some of it.

    @willaful: I am so sorry to hear this. But yes, I am so glad you took that positive bit from the post.

    @Janet W:

    no one changes as death nears.

    I am not sure I would agree with this. Definitely, a lot of people do stay the same. They face death the way they’ve faced everything in their lives, and if that means NOT facing it, well then… But I have see the other way, too.


    right now my feelings tell me I don’t want to go to this seminar and confront that undeniable reality again.

    Good for you for listening to your body. Maybe you’ll get another chance this year to attend that event.


    There is something in staying close to men and women and looking on them, and in the contact and odor of them that pleases the soul well.

    This is so important to Hospice philosophy. Thank you very very much for taking the time to share Whitman’s beautiful words. I’m thinking of you this Saturday morning and wondering how your mother is.

    @Maili: These questions are the questions of our time. So many of our deaths come in the form of the intensively managed limbo periods you describe. How many of these other deaths have to happen before we recognize that the physical death is sometimes the least important? Thank you for rendering these other important deaths so explicit.


    I’m willing to concede this fact and that my experiences were just a chemical reaction in my brain.

    every one of our experiences can be described this way, but that doesn’t make them less meaningful in my opinion. I’m not sure if you ever saw my review of a novel, Luminarium, that took this question on directly. I don’t think it was 100% successful in exploring these questions (they simulated religious euphoria in a lab) but I appreciated the question.

    Thanks for pointing out the difference in approach of many Eastern philosophies from the Western phenomenological one I outline here. Form the point of view of the phenomenologists, the tendency to separate mind and body is a deeply problematic Western philosophical inheritance.


    We live our personhood through our bodies and as I read I feel as a woman that my capacity and right to be a person is besieged.

    We really do.


  10. @Jessica:


    There is something in staying close to men and women and looking on them, and in the contact and odor of them that pleases the soul well.

    This is so important to Hospice philosophy. Thank you very very much for taking the time to share Whitman’s beautiful words. I’m thinking of you this Saturday morning and wondering how your mother is.

    Very late in my reply–but the sad news is that after a month in the hospital my mother has died. Her cancer had silently and swiftly come out of remission and her immune system had crashed–not even her oncologist had realized what had happened.

    Through her whole time in the hospital I kept reading her poetry from a variety of poets including Whitman, Bishop, Donne, Glück, etc. And I noticed over and over that many of the poems in fact were reflections on what it means to be embodied, human, and mortal. Reading and thinking about this hasn’t made my sorrow any lighter, but it has helped by granting possible views and ideas about what it means to be human.


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