Photo by Jeanne RiceYou can interview the fuck out of death. You can stare it in the face. Poke around at it, look it up on the Web, take its calls, talk to its friends. You can name it and fix it in your smudgy black ink. You can joke about it, you can lampoon it, but in the end, the joke's on you.
Even fearless reporters die—and are afraid to die—because you can interview death and do research on it and put distance between you and it, but in the end it's not someone else's problem, or someone else's viewpoint or someone else's way of looking at things or someone else's "project." It's yours. It's mine. It's ours. Fuck!
It was a simple enough assignment. I was going to interview people at random about their beliefs about the afterlife. I'd ask the questions and then run the responses, along with a picture of each person taken by photographer Jeanne Rice, in the health issue. Yes, this very issue that you hold in your sticky little hand.
The questions were to be deliberately open-ended. What do you think happens when we die? Why? Have you felt this way your whole life? Considering these are your beliefs how does that make you feel about life? And finally, the piece de resistance, the kicker, the in-yo'-face, bring-down-the-house, show-stopping rabble rouser: Are you afraid to die? Which, if you think about it, is a pretty scary question to be posed to you by a complete stranger with an ominous-looking tape recorder.
We started in downtown Santa Ana. Our destination: the Art Santora Building, a space where artists rent studios. As we crossed the street I mentioned to Jeanne that I was beginning to feel nervous about approaching strangers and asking them to open up on the subject of death. Sure, I'd interviewed strangers before, but there's a big difference between talking to the Save Ferris Fan Club and interrupting someone's cobb salad to ask what she thinks happens to her body when she dies.
The Santora was pretty empty. After breaking into the bathroom with an ATM card, I spoke with the first artist I saw, an atheist who believed in nothing after death, due to lack of proof to the contrary. "I think you just end and that's it. It makes me want to live more because if this is all there is, then I'm going to live it to the best that I can. That's why I do what I do. I mean, I could work in a Pizza Hut, but there's nothing fulfilling about that, whereas with my art, I can express what I want to express and have other people look at it and maybe have it mean to them what it does to me," he said.
To be honest, I was a bit surprised by this very exacting viewpoint from an artist. But to be even more honest, I was a bit heartened to find someone who practically shared my own viewpoint.
The next artist I interviewed was about 20 years older but had nearly the same picture of life after death: "I think we return to all that made us. For me, there is no heaven or hell or afterlife."
This was all very strange because I was under the impression that unlike me, most people, especially in Orange County, believe in something more.
We decided to change locations, fearing that perhaps scratch any artist and you'll reveal an atheist. But Jeanne's camera decided to take a crap at this moment, so our next stop was a camera store. Time being of the essence, I talked to the clerk. "I think we decompose and go away," he said. "I don't have any strong beliefs toward any sort of God system or extended life, and I think we're pretty lucky to get what we got. To imagine that we get to live forever somewhere else just seems silly and without proof."
Time to change locations again.
So far, I'd interviewed three white artistic men who believed that when you die, well, you die.
The first person I spoke with at the Lab in Costa Mesa was a 17-year-old female student. "I think that there's no actual life after death, but I think our energy has to go somewhere and our bodies just disintegrate."
Finally, picking out an 18-year-old clerk at Urban Outfitters, I found someone who believed in something more. "I think we go to a heaven-type place, a better place, and just watch over the people on earth, kind of guide them," she said. "I believe in guardian angels and stuff, and I believe that our friends that passed away watch over us and guide us in our decisions. I think this place is a peaceful place where everyone's dead so they have no reason to try to be killers or angry anymore."
Inside the Gypsy Den Caf & Reading Room, I saw no reasonable prospects. Okay, fine: I chickened out because people were reading and drinking coffee and looking like they really wanted to be reading and drinking coffee.
I was walking out when Jeanne stopped me.
"Hey, what about her?" asked Jeanne, pointing to a woman sitting in the corner of the coffeehouse. She was poring over something like Scantron sheets.
"You think she'd be good?" I asked doubtfully. I was put off by something —the boxiness of the blazer, the rigidity of its shoulders, its blindingly bright redness. We needed some creative, imaginative answers here, not soccer mom-isms.
But what the hell (or what the nothing), I thought. We approached her, and she agreed.
"Oh, does it have to be tape recorded?" the woman asked nervously when I put the tape recorder on the table. She looked at me and then to Jeanne for an answer.
"Well, I think she just wants to be sure she doesn't misquote you," Jeanne offered.
"Oh, well, okay," the woman told Jeanne.
Yoo-hoo! Over here! The one doing the story! Right here, sitting right here next to you, helloooo!I wanted to say, but I sat on the impulse.
"So, what do you think happens when we die?" I asked.
She looked away, obviously vexed. "Aw, man, that's a tough one. This is really hard. I believe in reincarnation. I believe that. And I believe in the idea that we're all joined together in one life force—like families and those that have passed before us? We all end up together in a higher place, whether you want to call it 'heaven.' I also believe in the possibility that rather than reincarnation, there's genetic memory.
"I've experienced a lot of death in the past few years of loved ones, so I've thought a lot about it for myself, and at this point, I'm not afraid of death. It's almost like I welcome it," said the woman, still looking at Jeanne. "I don't want to die. If I knew I was going to die tomorrow, of course I'd be upset. When I say I'll welcome it, I just mean I'm not afraid of it anymore because I figure those who I love so much are already there—wherever that may be. Look at all those people who have died before us, all this great company."
Jeanne and the woman began comparing near-death experiences—what it was like being pulled out of their bodies, watching themselves and the people in the room. How is it that people can not believe in something more, they both wanted to know, with all this evidence of spirits around us all the time?
"But you're open to it; you're open to feeling it," the woman told Jeanne. "You haven't shut it out. Probably because you've experienced death near you."
A part of me felt like intruding: Wait a minute! I've experienced the unimaginable, gut-wrenching, heart-rending, innocence-robbing, hope-crushing, worlds-crashing-down, soul-blackening, lights-going-out horribleness of death, too, and I still don't believe in anything more, so don't try to pull some kind of spiritual rank on me.
Then something weird happened.
As we were getting up to leave, the woman asked why I'd chosen her. She thought it was very strange because she'd just been sitting there thinking about death when Jeanne and I walked up.
"Um, well, uh, um, I don't know," I said eloquently.
See, the truth is that I didn't choose her. On the contrary, I'd not chosen her. It was Jeanne who picked her out of the crowd at the Gypsy Den, and who, in doing so, found a mirror of her own views.
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Is that, perhaps, what I'd been doing all day? Was I somehow finding people whose views about death more or less corroborated my own. Was that possible? Was it just a strange coincidence?
We can say that everyone is entitled to his or her own beliefs about the afterlife, but of coursewe think ours make the most sense and of course we don't really understand how others can differ. We live in the shadow of death and daily are only dimly aware of that fact because we build bright little belief systems to light our way through to an end we don't really understand. And though we can see and recognize other people's belief systems, we'd really rather not be forced to confront them too often. Who can live every moment in the face of death?
As soon as we got in the car, Jeanne and I started talking. We talked about anything and everything, but it wasn't so much what we were talking about but the act of talking, of pushing away the silence, that was important. The talking began the minute we pulled out of the Lab parking lot and continued for the entire drive back to Jeanne's car, which was in a parking lot where we'd met hours before, when it was still daylight and there was less on our minds.