How Death May Feel

SHE who was once my colleague, Dorothy McL —, who crossed over Lethe last year, imparted to me in the early days of our acquaintance one of those narratives in which mortal life seems to launch out on death, and then to turn its prow and come back to shore. She had all but died after a surgical operation. The watching nurses, and her sister, had not thought she could survive the night; and she herself had been clearly conscious that she was dying.

She said that it was the most heart-satisfying experience she had ever known, and that at first she gave herself up altogether to the profound pleasure she was feeling. But gradually she began to be troubled by her sister’s grief. For her sister’s sake she made a monstrous effort at recovery; it succeeded, and she reentered mortal life. ‘But I was convinced,’ said she, ‘that I was making an enormous sacrifice; I thought so at the time, and now, when years have gone by, I think so still.’

Her account is quite in keeping with many others we receive from persons who have approached death after an anæsthetic, and either a severe illness or an operation. They usually report death as an indescribably agreeable experience. ‘A floating out,’ they sometimes call it, thus bearing witness to the verisimilitude in the imagery of the boat in ‘Morte d’Arthur,’ and that in Arnold’s poem, ‘The Life of Man.’

There is nothing in these reports about that swift rush of memory through the whole previous life which is generally believed to take place when drowning. Yet such rushes of memory are common in dreams, which so often seem to be constructed without a proper recognition of time; so much so that an English engineer maintained, in an odd book a year or two ago, that in sleep we move with perfect ease both forward and backward on the timetape, and visit the future as readily as we do the past.

Doctors tell us that death is calm and painless in ninety-five out of a hundred cases. Maeterlinck argues against the association with death of sickness and pain. These, he maintains, belong to life’s debit; death emancipates us from them. Keats, the fiery, pugnacious youth, the ardent and accepted lover, found it in his heart to say, —

Now more than ever seems it rich to die.

Any association of love with death seems to brush aside all childish notions of dreadfulness. The survivor of lovers whom death has parted looks forward to death as a reunion. ‘Is there ony room at your head, Saunders? Is there ony room at your feet?’ Romeo, with confident brevity, says,—

‘ Well, Juliet, I will lie with thee to-night.’

The lovers in Heine’s song are so well pleased with the privacy of the grave that they disdain to join in the noisy and crowded resurrection.

The dead stand up, the judgment calls.
They rise in airy swarms;
We two stay still where the grave shade falls.
And I lie on in thine arms.

Sometimes, lying on the ground at the foot of a tree in summer, and having strayed far enough away from the teasing vibrations of self-consciousness to feel a gliding in of cosmic relaxation, one can imagine an almost imperceptible death; a final drowsing-off of some outdoors-living old age like Walt Whitman’s into so complete a sleep, lying thus, that such a sleep, by hushed and lulling degrees, would blend unnoticed into death; and the body, never discovered by bustling coroner or officious passers-by, subjected to no funeral, would nestle back into earth with æolian sighs of comfort and security.

I entertain the notion that death, in unwinding the tapes and unsealing the legal wafers of personality, may very likely impart an intoxicating sense of expansion, such as Browning describes in another regard: —

... a long-cramped scroll
Freshening and fluttering in the wind.

Certainly a sensation of newness and freshness, a sort of divine gloss all over the vegetation of earth and over those experiences of daily life that formerly seemed humdrum, is peculiar to those who have been mistakenly convinced that they were ill with a fatal malady. It is very like the penetrating refreshment of the senses which mystics find after their spiritual excursion. Apparently the loosening of the body’s hold upon us, even when it is due only to a mistaken belief, has some vitalizing power over life, enriching the capacity of the body itself for wonder and for joy.