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This 97-year-old philosopher suddenly saw his death (and life) in a new light

HERBERT FINGARETTE
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‘Being 97,” a new short documentary film, offers us a reminder our our own mortality, a memento mori, for Ash Wednesday and beyond.

Every Ash Wednesday, millions of Catholics around the world receive a cross of ash upon their foreheads and hear an ancient and sacred warning pronounced over their bodies: “Remember, man, you are dust and to dust you will return.” It’s a stark visual and verbal memento mori, or remembering of death—not death as an abstract problem or an objective reality “out there,” but a lived experience that I will one day undergo: my death. 

If such a ritual seems morose or medieval, a powerful new film from The Atlantic titled Being 97 illuminates precisely what is at stake. The documentary short, which you can watch in full on YouTube, introduces us to Herbert Fingarette, a 97-year-old philosopher nearing the end of his life. Fingarette taught philosophy at the University of California at Santa Barbara for forty years, and wrote books on self-deception, Chinese philosophy, responsibility, and alcoholism. But as a younger man, he also wrote a book titled Death: Philosophical Soundings. After musing on old age, Fingarette sits down to the breakfast table and—now actually dying himself, twenty years later—reflects on that work:

What I said was, in a nutshell, is there’s no reason to be afraid or concerned or anything about death because when you die, there’s nothing. You’re not going to suffer. You’re not going to be unhappy….You are not going to be. So it’s not rational to be afraid of death.

I now think that is not a good statement….It is something that haunts me, the idea of dying soon. I often walk around the house and I ask myself, often out loud, “What is the point of it all?”

Fingarette had already felt the sting of death—he brings us through the difficulty of losing his wife and the loneliness of having lost her—and now, facing the end himself, death was no longer a philosophical problem to be solved but a mystery to be lived out. He experiences the great fear of that future blended with great awe at the present:

Death. It’s a frightening thought….What does it means that I’m going to leave? As I sit out now on my deck of the house. I look at the trees blowing a little in the breeze. And I’ve seen them innumerable times. But somehow seeing the trees this time is a transcendent experience. I see how marvelous it is, and I think to myself: I’ve had these here all along. But have I really appreciated them? And the fact is that I have not, until now. And in a way, it makes the fact of death even more difficult to accept. It just brings tears to my eyes. 

Fingarette’s reflections call to mind a vivid passage in Dostoevsky’s The Idiot. Prince Myshkin tells the story of a man who—like Dostoevsky himself—was led to be shot before a firing squad for a political crime, only to have his sentence commuted shortly after. The interval between certain death and a new lease on life is described as one of both heightened clarity of the preciousness of life and a deepened dread at having to leave it behind:

“He remembered everything with the most accurate and extraordinary distinctness, and declared that he would never forget a single iota of the experience. About twenty paces from the scaffold, where he had stood to hear the sentence, were three posts, fixed in the ground, to which to fasten the criminals…A little way off there stood a church, and its gilded spire glittered in the sun. He remembered staring stubbornly at this spire, and at the rays of light sparkling from it. He could not tear his eyes from these rays of light; he got the idea that these rays were his new nature, and that in three minutes he would become one of them, amalgamated somehow with them. The repugnance to what must ensue almost immediately, and the uncertainty, were dreadful, he said; but worst of all was the idea, ‘What should I do if I were not to die now? What if I were to return to life again? What an eternity of days, and all mine! How I should grudge and count up every minute of it, so as to waste not a single instant!’”

Despite its confrontation with the power and difficulty of the question of death, Being 97 doesn’t seem to go much further than the answer of Fingarette’s younger days: “I think the answer may be the silence answer,” Fingarette admits. “There is no point.” But The Atlantic offers a fascinating behind-the-scenes detail from the filmmaker Andrew Hasse, who is also Fingarette’s grandson, that you wouldn’t otherwise get from the film:

The day before he died, Fingarette uttered his final words. After spending many hours in silence with his eyes closed, Hasse said, his grandfather suddenly looked up and said, “Well, that’s clear enough!” A few hours later he said, “Why don’t we see if we can go up and check it out?”

“Of course, these cryptic messages are up to interpretation,” Hasse said, “but I’d like to believe that he might have seen at least a glimpse of something beyond death.”

What will we see and feel at the edge of life and in the days before it ends? It’s impossible to say. But his story is a deeply human reminder that there is wisdom in facing the fear of death and preparing for its ineluctable arrival—not at 97, but today, and often. We can’t deny or dissolve death, but we can see it, accept it, and enter into it. This wisdom makes us more human. It also opens us up to what’s more than human. The Church’s other great Ash Wednesday refrain—“Repent, and believe in the Gospel”—meets us at death, and with an audaciousness the world regards as foolishness, goes even further: by grace, we can conquer it.

 

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