The Coronapocalypse Part 4: The Denial of Death

When I was seven years old, I asked my parents for a pet cow.  They bought it for me. I don’t remember if I was surprised at the time but as an adult it still surprises me. Sure, we lived on a farm and there was plenty of room but a pet cow? For a seven-year-old? I don’t really remember why I wanted a pet cow. But, I got one.

The problem with seven-year-olds is that they are seven years old. It took me all of two days to get completely bored with the chores of feeding and tending to the cow. My parents were none too pleased and told me that if I didn’t take care of the cow they would get rid of it. They weren’t lying. The following year we had the cow put down and butchered. We got about six month’s worth of dinner out of it.

The act of eating my pet cow didn’t strike me as particularly odd at the time. We also had chickens on the farm which we had eaten. One of my earliest childhood memories is watching a chicken that had just had its head chopped off run and jump over a fence that was about twenty metres away. How it knew where the fence was is a philosophical problem that still troubles me to this day. In any case, seeing animals killed and then eating them was just part of life on the farm growing up. I had been rabbit shooting. I had eaten freshly killed kangaroo. It was all perfectly normal.

I’ve always been something of a troll, especially when I was younger, and I’ve always had a fascination with how people react to stories that challenge something at the subconscious level. Every now and then I like to pull out my pet cow story and other gruesome farm tales to see how people respond. I’ve noticed these stories always seem to get a rise out of people who were born and raised in the city.

There’s another story I have that usually gets city people out of joint. Actually, this one is a thought experiment. I call it: The Meat Eater’s Licence.

The idea is simple: in order to be able to purchase meat, you first must get yourself a meat eater’s licence. How do you to that? Easy. You have to kill and butcher one animal with your own hands. You’ll show up at the meat eater’s licence facility and will be shown what to do and how to do it as humanely as possible. It can be a rabbit, a chicken or whatever. We’ll probably have to steer clear of larger animals in the interests of not violating RSPCA regulations. If you decide on the chicken, you’ll be given a hand axe and will cut the chicken’s head off. Once it has finished running around like the proverbial, you’ll do what my parents made me do as a kid and sit there and pluck its feathers and then you gut it. Job done. Now you have your meat eater’s licence and are free to buy as much meat as you like for the rest of your life.

When I started to run this idea past people just for fun, I was surprised by the strength of the reaction it got. Even though it’s just a thought experiment and hasn’t a snowflake’s chance in hell of being implemented, it seemed to touch on something deep. People would loudly insist that they would never do it. That they would rather become vegan (free idea for you vegans out there: badger your local politician to implement a meat eater’s licence).

One guy reacted especially strongly to the meat eater’s licence idea so I threw in the pet cow story too. He was mortified.

“How could you eat a pet”? he asked.

“How can you eat an animal you’ve never even seen when you yourself admit that you couldn’t bring yourself to kill it?” I answered.

My meat eater’s licence had accidentally touched on something very important. I’ve often thought it represents a divide that separates city folk from country folk. But now I believe it has to do with more than just what’s for dinner. It has to do with death in general.

The question of killing and eating an animal that you knew first-hand is an interesting one. For those who grew up in the country or had backyard chickens or rabbits, it’s simply not a big deal. As a child it doesn’t cause you any discomfort or emotional issues (at least it didn’t cause me any). It’s just part of life.

But now that I reflect on it as an adult I would go a little further than that. Killing and eating an animal that you knew makes you more grateful for the animal’s sacrifice and somehow for life in general. By contrast, there is something about buying pre-packaged meat that leads to the opposite attitude. The animal is reduced to body only. Not even a whole body. Just parts of a body. In the background are the industrial farming practices that every now and then make it to the news with all the horrifying images that come with it.

I can sympathise with the vegans for wanting to put a stop to that but I disagree with their solution which is to get rid of all meat eating. My solution would be to put meat eating back into its proper context. An animal had to die. A life was given. Death had to occur so that you might live. You should have to own that and be responsible for it if you want to eat meat.

In most hunter gatherer societies, the killing of an animal was accompanied by a ceremony that gave thanks to the animal for its sacrifice. There was also a lot of skill and effort expended to capture the animal. When we killed our backyard chickens, we knew which one we were eating by name. We had memories of feeding it and of its personality. Again, this was never a problem. Quite the opposite. The chicken had had a good life by chicken standards. It lived on a farm in the fresh air, was well fed and got to run around and live its life. The life of a chicken.

By now you might be thinking: what’s all this got to do with the corona event?

To revisit the story from earlier. My conversation partner said he would rather go vegan than kill an animal himself. He was, however, perfectly happy to keep eating meat that was killed for him. Another way to frame this is that he was happy to allow death to occur somewhere else where he didn’t have to see it but he couldn’t bear to see it with his own eyes and definitely not inflict it with his own hands.

In my role as amateur historian, I would say this attitude of hiding from or avoiding death became very prominent in our society after world war two. I think there are a lot of factors at play. An obvious one is that the extraordinary amount of death in the preceding decades had caused deep psychological scars. Another is the mass migration of people to large cities where there is simply less death around you as a daily fact of life and your odds of killing your dinner are about zero. As somebody who grew up on a farm but now lives in the city I still notice this because a lack of death also equals a lack of life. There is simply more life going on around you out in the bush.

There are two other factors I want to highlight. They relate more closely to the corona event because they have to do with human death, the medical industry and the public bureaucracy.

Firstly, there was the establishment of national health services and the massive expansion in the medical industry after world war two. In Australia nowadays, 6 out of 7 people who die will die in a nursing home or hospital.

Secondly, the increased size of the health bureaucracy led, as it inevitably does, to more and more regulations. In a classic example of regulatory capture, many of these regulations worked in favour of funeral services so that it is now mandatory in some states of Australia for a family to organise funeral services through a licenced company and where it is not mandatory the regulatory burden is simply not worth the effort for grieving relatives to deal with.

Both of these factors have led to a massive shift in the way in which we are exposed to the death of relatives and friends.

It is well known that spending time with a dead body helps the grieving process. In the Irish Catholic tradition the body would be kept at home for three days during which time family and friends were encouraged to visit to see the corpse and pay their respects. Family members would also be involved in the transportation and burial of the body.

Nowadays, all that is handled by a funeral company. In most cases the amount of time loved ones will spend with the dead body is very short and the system does not make it easy for longer periods to be organised as hospitals and nursing homes do not want to keep the body around and many people are simply unaware that they can take possession of the body and take it home. (Whether people would do this even if they knew is another question).

Although I am not a religious person, it seems to me that this is one area where the decline of religion has left a gaping void. We got rid of the time-honoured ceremonies and traditions that aided the grieving process and replaced them with, well, nothing much.

In a fashion typical of the modern world there is a now a disorder called prolonged grief disorder which is apparently suffered by 15-20% of people who do not grieve properly and suffer long term complications. The cure? Antidepressants.

Surely this is just a symptom of a larger problem in our society: we have forgotten how to grieve. Because we don’t know how to grieve, we have never learned how to deal with death. It seems to me this problem has been getting steadily worse in recent decades.

In relation the corona event, an interesting exercise is to find some news reports from the Hong Kong flu in 1968. Bear in mind that the Hong Kong flu was several times more lethal than covid when you adjust for population size and demographic shift. Despite that, the newspaper reports at the time were almost jovial about it. People had been ‘put on their backside’ by the illness which had done an ‘awkward Grand Tour’ of Europe. Any death counts were factual and unemotional. Compare the tone of those articles to the hysteria around the corona event and I think you get a feel for a cultural shift our society has gone through in the past decades.

I believe our society is now in complete denial of death and this denial of death reared its head with the corona event. There are many examples but the most poignant one in my mind was the absurd discussion around the elderly that was used to justify the lockdown measures.

I don’t believe it’s done consciously, but our treatment of the elderly is also a part of our society’s desire to avoid death. We hide the elderly away in aged care facilities and nursing homes. This might be done with good intentions; old people don’t want to be a burden on their families. The outcome, however, is to remove ourselves not just from the death but from the years leading up to the death. We no longer have the same first-hand experience of what it looks like for a person to become old and die. What would once have been a normal, everyday part of life is now almost invisible to us.

What it looks like to get old is that you rack up a series of chronic illnesses. Health problems that you once got over now stick around. You no longer get over them. You carry them with you. Eventually, something like a flu virus comes along and becomes the straw that breaks the camel’s back.

The corona death statistics bear this out exactly. More than 90% of the people who ‘died from corona’ had at least one co-morbidity. About 50% had four or more co-morbidities. The average age of death was about the average life expectancy. In other words, the people dying from corona were old people at the end of their life. This is perfectly normal. Almost every respiratory virus shows the same pattern.

And this is where things get really weird. Because if you pointed out this simple fact in public you were accused of wanting old people to die, which is a complete non sequitur. The tone of it and the obvious irrationality of it reminded me of the discussion mentioned above about killing your own food. That’s when I suspected that the larger issue of our problem with death was at play in the corona event.

Once again, Nassim Taleb deserves a special mention here because he was a primary culprit and in his case the absurdity is greatly exacerbated because Taleb had previously identified a category of fallacious reasoning he termed, in his usual inelegant style, paedophrasty: invoking pathos towards children to try and win an argument. Apparently, he couldn’t see that to do the same with the elderly is simply gerontophrasty and is no less fallacious for singling out the elderly rather than the young.

Gerontophrasty has been everywhere during the corona event. A thought-stopper. A moral high ground from which to beat back all dissent. Who wants to be accused of wanting old people to die? Who’s going to fight that battle in public?

As it turned out, the measures we have taken completely failed to protect the elderly. The majority of corona deaths occurred in nursing homes. In England there were about 10,000 excess deaths of people with dementia in April alone. That’s just the people who tested negative to corona. How many others tested positive and died. They died because conditions in the nursing homes deteriorated and because family members were not even allowed to visit. The lockdown which was justified as necessary to protect the elderly failed to do so.

I don’t believe the lockdown was ever really about protecting the elderly. It was about protecting ourselves. Avoiding death or at least doing what was necessary to avoid blame for it. A cheap moral posturing that hides a deeper problem in our culture: denial of death.

Denial of death is denial of life. The measures we have taken for the corona event have been a denial of life. We have locked healthy people in their homes. We have made healthy people wear masks. We have put a stop to life in the interests of avoiding death. None of that is a coincidence. It’s a systematic, ingrained part of modern western culture.

I think we deny death because we have never learned how to grieve. I also think we deny death because to ruminate on death is to question what you stand for in life and we no longer know what we stand for. I’ll return to that larger question in the final post in this series.

In the next post, I’m going to take a look at the issue of what it means for sars-cov-2 to be “new”. We’ll investigate the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, the difference between folk language and scientific language and how that tiny little insignificant word “new” flapped its butterfly wings, the skies darkened and the corona hurricane rolled in from the west.

All posts in this series:-

The Coronapocalypse Part 0: Why you shouldn’t listen to a word I say (maybe)

The Coronapocalypse Part 1: The Madness of Crowds in the Age of the Internet

The Coronapocalypse Part 2: An Epidemic of Testing

The Coronapocalypse Part 3: The Panic Principle

The Coronapocalypse Part 4: The Denial of Death

The Coronapocalypse Part 5: Cargo Cult Science

The Coronapocalypse Part 6: The Economics of Pandemic

The Coronapocalypse Part 7: There’s Nothing Novel under the Sun

The Coronapocalypse Part 8: Germ Theory and Its Discontents

The Coronapocalypse Part 9: Heroism in the Time of Corona

The Coronapocalypse Part 10: The Story of Pandemic

The Coronapocalypse Part 11: Beyond Heroic Materialism

The Coronapocalypse Part 12: The End of the Story (or is it?)

The Coronapocalypse Part 13: The Book

The Coronapocalypse Part 14: Automation Ideology

The Coronapocalypse Part 15: The True Believers

The Coronapocalypse Part 16: Dude, where’s my economy?

The Coronapocalypse Part 17: Dropping the c-word (conspiracy)

The Coronapocalypse Part 18: Effects and Side Effects

The Coronapocalypse Part 19: Government and Mass Hysteria

The Coronapocalypse Part 20: The Neverending Story

The Coronapocalypse Part 21: Kafkaesque Much?

The Coronapocalypse Part 22: The Trauma of Bullshit Jobs

The Coronapocalypse Part 23: Acts of Nature

The Coronapocalypse Part 24: The Dangers of Prediction

The Coronapocalypse Part 25: It’s just semantics, mate

The Coronapocalypse Part 26: The Devouring Mother

The Coronapocalypse Part 27: Munchausen by Proxy

The Coronapocalypse Part 28: The Archetypal Mask

The Coronapocalypse Part 29: A Philosophical Interlude

The Coronapocalypse Part 30: The Rebellious Children

The Coronapocalypse Part 31: How Dare You!

The Coronapocalypse Part 32: Book Announcement

The Coronapocalypse Part 33: Everything free except freedom

The Coronapocalypse Part 34: Into the Twilight Zone

The Coronapocalypse Part 35: The Land of the Unfree and the Home of the Safe

The Coronapocalypse Part 36: The Devouring Mother Book Now Available

The Coronapocalypse Part 37: Finale

8 thoughts on “The Coronapocalypse Part 4: The Denial of Death”

  1. Very interesting essay, Simon, thanks. I do think death is something that Donegal people still do well. My husband’s uncle Paddy lived with us on the farm for the years between his 85th and his 95th birthdays. His 95th birthday was on a Tuesday, and the Saturday morning after, we found him dead in his bed, having had a full dinner at the table the night before. The doctor called and pronounced him dead, of natural causes.

    We then discovered that, yes, the funeral director could come out and embalm him right here at home, and with two or three more phone calls, the neighbourhood grapevine was fully activated. Within an hour, our nearest neighbours had brought the necessary blessed candles, and a full crew to help do a tidy up inside and out, and also to start building the mountain of ham sandwiches which would shore up the hundreds of visitors that would call to our “open house” wake over the next two days. Since we were basically newbies to the local wake scene, our neighbours also organised the nightly Rosaries, and organised “the room” where people would spend time beside the coffin, say a prayer, and then accept the required ham sandwich, while telling a tale or two about “the Life and Times of Paddy”.

    The funeral was held in the nearest town on the third day. The whole thing was a blessed event that I was delighted to be part of. That it had taken place, and then that all who had any interest in Paddy had called to the house or attended the funeral during the two days of his wake, meant that the next time people met us in the town there was no awkwardness, no one dodging wondering what to say. It had all been said at the proper time.

  2. Simon, thanks for these thoughts on death and meat-eating from a fellow Aussie. I fully agree with your ‘meat eater’s licence’ theory. As it happens I have never killed an animal to eat, although i have killed several injured animals, some pets, to end their suffering. I grew up in a third world country so I have seen plenty of animals killed for food, and like you, prefer to eat animals who have led good animal lives.
    We do compartmentalise death very much in our modern middle-class bubble worlds. I am 49 and have never seen a dead human being. In any other era or outside of the sheltered bubble in which I live this would be well-nigh impossible.
    Scotlyn, thank you for that lovely description of your Uncle Paddy’s funeral. That is a wonderful way to make one’s way out of this world:)

  3. Scotlyn – thanks for a beautiful story. I’m glad those practices are still continuing somewhere. 95 is a great innings. I was almost present for the death of my great-grandparents who were of similar age. We lived in the same house with them for a few months when I was young. There were four generations in one house! They both died within a few months of each other but we had moved out shortly beforehand. The community aspect really is key. I was fortunate enough to attend a wedding in India once and the whole neighbourhood would get involved, which was a delight. As you can imagine, in India there is no shortage of weddings so there’s a street party every night of the week there.

    Jo – Yes, how do we ease ourselves out of our sheltered bubble? I think part of the reason the meat eater’s licence story hit a nerve was because it goes straight to the part where you have to kill the animal, which is like getting thrown in the deep end. In real life, you would be eased into it by watching it happen several times and then learning parts of the process in small iterations. A kind of tribal initiation. Similarly, how can we ease back towards a more healthy grieving process. I think there may be a movement towards that now in Australia. Some small shoots are starting to appear. People are not happy with the current system where I think two funeral companies account for most of the market. Fingers crossed.

  4. Hi Simon, great essay.

    I wrote an essay about Corona and the fear of death a while back: Suffice to say it was not warmly received. As a vegan, I agree — if you are going to eat flesh, fine, but at least do the honors yourself instead of exploiting someone else to do the dirty work. Many woke vegans have suggested I watch the film Earthlings, which is an environmentalist animal snuff film narrated by Joaquin Phoenix. I don’t have to watch it because I don’t participate in any of it. Those who do participate in the horrors of Earthlings, a.k.a. people who eat and wear non-human animals, should feel obligated to watch it, I think.

    Generally I have often said the same things as you concerning western culture and the shunting of the elderly into nursing homes, often against their will. As a music instructor, I stopped taking my young students to play for the nursing home residents because it was often extremely traumatic for the young ones. Elders regularly begged to be “taken home” and tried to convince me or the children that we needed to rescue them. Home, of course, had been sold off long ago by the adult children. In my youth, my grandparents often did short stints in nursing homes, and the hallways always featured at least one elder in the hallways begging for help and attention, obviously miserable. This was in the “good” places. I shudder to think what a bad place is and was like. If one has any love for one’s parents, I think it is imperative to keep them as far away from nursing homes as possible. Nursing homes seem to me to be a racket that only benefits a few top administrators and a single CEO. Other then that, they are the typical corporate pyramid scheme with a wide base of the most depraved forms of suffering.

  5. Kimberly – I can see how your blog post might have ruffled some feathers. You don’t mince words :). I have gone through some periods of intense anger over all this and I have been relatively unaffected financially. I can only imagine how you must be feeling as a small business owner. Somehow, the corona event now feels a bit like getting the flu as in there seems to be nothing do except let it run its course and hope for a speedy convalescence.

  6. This is very good and I agree with all of it but nonetheless your explanation only works after the fact of the engineered crisis that was carried out by the media. We had a worse than average flu season about 3 years ago and what do you remember about that? I believe the death toll was slightly higher than this year’s death toll. And yet, nothing.

  7. Onething – not sure if you read the other posts in this series, I reference the 2017 influenza epidemic a few times. Looks like covid will be less lethal overall. I outline my take in those posts too. The short version is I take a Kafkaesque position rather than a conspiracy position. I don’t think anybody really wanted this. An early warning system was setup that nobody was really paying attention to, it went off and the rest is history. Western politicians did try and stop this from happening. I remember when Trump and others were saying “it’s just the flu”. I stopped paying attention to the MSM many years ago. Every now and then I’ll be somewhere and catch a few seconds of the evening news and marvel. It’s like they are reporting from a different planet.

  8. I agree with your meat eater’s license idea. I went through that experience (weekly, chicken, pigs, once a calf) when I was 20 in a rural part of Brazil.

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