On Sunday 1st November 2009 The Sunday World (local paper in Northern Ireland) carried a controversial photograph on its front page. It was of a dead young man hanging on a rope from a bridge by his neck. The police said it was suicide even though the “victim” appeared to have been beaten up and had his hands tied behind his back. I realise this is a very sensitive subject obviously for the mans family and friends and I sympathise with all concerned but the issues I am discussing here are less about the death itself or the rights and wrongs therein and more to do with how we view death and how such a gruesome photograph came to be on the front cover of a national newspaper.
First of all how do people see death? Obviously with great trepidation, it is the greatest of all taboos and yet it is ever present all of us will witness death if we live a reasonable amount of years and yet it is something that we find great difficulty handling or coming to terms with. I will look at this subject from many perspectives, personal, collectively and how I notice other individuals dealing (or not!) with death.
I was born into a society where death was an ever present entity, which it is in most places but in Northern Ireland during the troubles it was something that happened daily and as a child growing up there was much talk of it in all aspects of life. Like most young boys I loved war films, action men toys and all things to do with war and on the streets where I grew up soldiers patrolled daily which added a new dimension to these war games I was playing. So lets look at death. We see death all the time in many, many forms in movies, books, video games and of course older relatives dying brings a more tangible experience of it.
Lets look seriously about how most of us view death. From what I know from my own experiences we played war games and death was just that part of a game. The average person does not witness death wholesale even growing up in a country were there was a conflict death was not happening on the scale that it did in world war scenarios or in more recent conflicts such as Rwanda or the former Yugoslavia. I am not trying to say to people who experienced loss that it was not important just that it didn’t happen with the same impact from a statistical perspective, I am trying to be matter of fact rather condescending. So we grow up with death as an idea that we see in movies, books, games, maybe your pet may die in these cases death is not much of a shock it is expected and willed often because it is simply not real. This is then a very detached sense of an incredibly real and potentially life shattering event and put simply this is a form of denial in fact it is the worst form as society attempts it stop itself from being effected by the inevitable it teaches its children to do the same “don’t look and it’ll go away” sorry folks not so we need to accept and understand death.
Society doesn’t want to look at anything that may cause grief/pain/upset this is the ultimate denial and it is in fact dangerous. People need to realise that these things are there it’s going to happen once you realise you’re not immortal it gives you an edge because you become very aware of how much time you have and will therefore tend to use it more wisely. There are also a lot of people who get involved in crime and hurt other people they do this simply because they don’t know how else to act they were just born into a bad situation and don’t see it as being good bad or indifferent it just is, they don’t know any other way. I always remember watching how established employees would treat the new starts they would ask them to do something and when those who had just started messed up everyone would laugh at them. No matter how simple a task appears it really is only simple if you know how to do it, I am setting this as a kind of example which will become clearer as my point progresses.
Take a scenario partly taken from real events that happen all then time but I am not using any actual example. A young man late teens say is involved in crime stealing, fighting, drugs that sort of thing. This is the way life has always been for him and he also has this unreal sense of death I was talking about earlier (which we all have to a degree.) He ends up very drunk, becomes involved in a fight and kills someone with a knife. Think about it fighting IS socially acceptable it’s everywhere Boxing, Wrestling, if a criminal gets beat up supposedly liberal people say he deserved it and of course our own governments send armies to foreign lands to fight so that the range of examples being set along with movies and other forms of media and all this happening inside a detached individual who feels immortal now that’s going to be potentially explosive.
When I say the person feels immortal I am not talking about thinking you’re superhero immortal I mean in a very real sense we all feel that way. Smokers don’t think they’ll get any smoking related illnesses or they must not on some level, think about it, Then when it happens it’s a shock but the stats clearly state that there is a high chance of it happening so we must be conveniently disregarding the stats and facts because we really have detached ourselves from the world and think we’re somehow special.
So going back to the newspaper report people complained at seeing the dead body hanging there on the newspaper and about the fact the police didn’t cover the body before removing it. Why? Because people don’t want to see bodies they know people die but seeing it is far too real it’s another level of understanding sight makes something concrete it is the only sense that has any real impact in this way. You’d think that after all we had to put up with here in Northern Ireland we’d have got to some basic acceptance of death, but know. I read some very dark poets and talk about subject matter that many consider taboo I have a deep respect for death it is part of life in fact life could not be possible without death. I am not saying lets all go top ourselves or lets go murder people lets just be aware of it and stop this fucking charade we’re all far too sensitive and not preparing yourself mentally for a situation, any situation, means you will not be ready for it when it occurs.
When people start on the road to alcoholism and other serious life effecting addictions it is usually not much of a problem, I’ve been there and even when it clearly is a problem they’re usually too far gone to be concerned about it. I remember saying to people that it was the only thing that keep my mad head quiet and that was very true but it was also creating another type of craziness that I was not looking at that’s the old denial trap for most people it’s too late my sister died because of alcoholism but I was not an alcoholic when it happened to her I needed to become her shadow to understand it, it’s quite perverse really in retrospect and life is very much that way full stop we don’t know the impact something has until we live it, or strangely (in this case) die it!!
Should the paper have published the picture? I think yes we seem to have a suicide problem here more than in most places the reasons are never black and white it could be a combination of many f actors but the fact remains we need to toughen up emotionally. While some would say not reacting is being emotionally retarded I would disagree it’s being careful despite our views on all that is pervasive in our collective consciousness most of what we consuming with our minds has been here around since pre historic times in fact it’s a waste of brain space to keep most of it and this compulsion to repeat
All of what I write is from a purely observational point of view I only know what I see and I go quite in depth rather than just skimming the surface. I asked a friend recently had he read my latest blog and he said with a screwed up face “Yeah and I thought ach Séamus why don’t you just tell me a nice story.” Bless… he has denial… ah well at least I know he’s human.