Death Speaks: Mark Danowsky on The Letter from Death by Lillian Moats

The Letter from Death, Lillian Moats, Illustrations by David J. Moat, Forward by Howard Zinn, Three Arts Press, 2009

Death finds a voice and gets right up on its high horse to put us meager humans in our place. From this height, Death’s Letter takes the tone of a moralistic edict, with a severely didactic approach, in a rant about the human condition.

That’s right. In this text Death is no abstraction but rather a sentient being not unlike us.

The Letter begins with a history of humanity’s treatment of death by various civilizations. Death then notes that readers will inevitably be wary of picking up this text for fear of being labeled “morbid”.

It seems like Death has finally decided to speak up because we have given the notion of death such a bad name. According to Death, “the fact that you [humans] will one day cease to exist is what you have turned your world upside-down to avoid.” (66)

Apparently, Death has grown over eons of dealing with humanity, particularly encountering us in the end stages of life—and in turn Death has learned lots about human nature. For instance, Death understands that humans are not always good natured when we get together in groups.

Death reminds us of the importance of trying to understand the perspective of others, writing: “It must be your isolation that makes you susceptible to distortions about humanity at large—such as the conclusion that violent aggression is hopelessly hard-wired into human nature.” (85) War is a motif throughout the Letter as well as the idea that we are our own worst enemy, however, to the dismay of Death we have a habit of deferring the blame for our own misdeeds onto hir.

“In the spreading wars over resources, I see no inevitable Armageddon”, says Death, “just another unnecessary Hell advancing on earth.” (84) There is abundant mention of hell in this text as Death reflects on the curious way we choose to think beyond death to the afterlife—and furthermore, we worry about it.

Death believes it is our fear of dying that has led to our present western conception about the nature of death: “The torments you feared from your gods, you’ve devised for your enemies, and have realized for yourselves.” (54) Here Death presents the idea of dying as non-linear, that it “occurs with a simultaneity unimaginable for you who are so bound by time.” (89)

We differ from animals, according to Death, because from an early age we live by narrative and do so in order to explain “ourself to ourself” and to others. We maintain a sense of stability by creating continuity in our lifestyles. Death also denigrates the modern western notion that humans are somehow above all other animals. In Section XVII, Death explains: “The differences I detect between you and other animals do not amount to superiority or inferiority.” (115)

Interesting apothegms are scattered throughout this Letter making it a thought provoking quick read. Just be sure your mind is open and your mood is right.

Why read this text?

What first drew me to Moats’ Letter was the premise: Death speaks. I’ve given some thought to when a person might actually think—hey, this is exactly the kind of text I want to read right now— and my answer is, well, multifaceted. I think my difficultly comes from the genre bending that occurs in the text. Here we have a letter, with mingling social and political statements, told from the perspective of a westernized other worldly, or should I say beyond worldly being. It’s academic in its treatment of the history surrounding the substance, i.e. death, and Moats even provides an extensive list of sources in a reference section—certainly atypical for a fictional text. Reading this text in a classroom setting I can definitely see. Reading this at the beach I can vaguely see myself doing. But the rest of you will have to take a moment to reflect, and consider what sort of situation is most appropriate to sit back, put up your feet, and consider the possibility of death.

More thoughts…

The premise of an embodied Death, who is omnipresent and worldly, who transcends our human time and space, is intriguing—however, Moats’ tries to make this idea carry the whole text. Unfortunately, the overall text reads flat and Death never steps down from the podium. The tone is also academic to a fault. I find myself wishing there was less history and more fantasy. I definitely buy that if Death was going to speak up, war mongering, terrorism, and nuclear weapons are justifiable reasons for doing so—but the mere notion of Death speaking to us is a leap that could use some more context, if only inklings.