Disclaimer: This blog post, unfortunately, contains spoilers about the movie Departures (2008).
Table of contents
- An encounter with death sharpens and ubiquitizes its presence
- Even death can be made beautiful with calmness, dexterity, and tenderness
- We already have a relationship with death that is yet to be instantiated
- Death makes you reconsider life
- Engaging in mental simulation of the death of frameworks
First, you need to check out Departures, it’s such a great movie. As I watched it, I found myself contemplating the scenes and the dialogues in a rather vigorous fashion. After watching it, I also thought a lot about what I should change in my perceptions of the world in light of such contemplations. These are some mental models that were either obtained or reconstructed from this exercise:
- You can make death beautiful with calmness, dexterity, and tenderness.
- Death makes you reconsider life.
- Mentally simulating the deaths of your mental models to improve Cognitive Agility.
Yesterday, I watched Departures. It’s a 2008 Japanese drama film directed by Yōjirō Takita and starring Masahiro Motoki and Ryōko Hirosue. According to Wiki:
The idea for Departures arose after Motoki, affected by having seen a funeral ceremony along the Ganges when traveling in India, read widely on the subject of death and came across Coffinman. He felt that the story would adapt well to film, and Departures was finished a decade later. Because of Japanese prejudices against those who handle the dead, distributors were reluctant to release it—until a surprise grand prize win at the Montreal World Film Festival in August 2008. The following month the film opened in Japan, where it went on to win the Academy Prize for Picture of the Year and become the year’s highest-grossing domestic film. This success was topped in 2009, when it became the first Japanese production to win the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film.[a]https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Departures_(2008_film)
The movie’s theme is obviously about death, but it’s not told from the perspective of someone who lost a beloved one, although that is part of the storyline. Rather, it is told from the perspective of morticians who have to provide funeral services to the deceased, such as purifying, changing the clothing, applying make-up, and delivering the body to its final destination.
The main character is a cellist who had to go back to his hometown along with his wife because the orchestra he played at was disbanded and he couldn’t handle a place in the city with the loan he took out to purchase the cello. In his hometown, he found a job that was advertised as providing departures, which he initially thought was from a travel company. It later turned out that it was a company providing funeral services, or in other words that better reflect the title of the movie, provides departures for the deceased. Nonetheless, he accepted the job because the salary was much higher than he thought.
An encounter with death sharpens and ubiquitizes its presence
The main character encounters his first deceased body for the very first time. It is of an old woman who died 2 weeks before but is only now discovered. The body is in bad shape, half of the flesh is rotten and surrounded by a swarm of flies. When the main character gets closer to help his superior move the body, he ends up vomiting.
Physiologically, seeing a corpse makes us aware of the possibility of becoming one, and thus triggers the fight-or-flight response that empties your stomach to deter your predators (like you’re not already a bad meal without the vomit). The odor secreted by the corpse also makes your lizard brain think you’ve ingested something poisonous or contaminated which also contributes to the gag reflex.
We then see that he goes home to his wife with a disturbed countenance. As he sits down to eat the dinner that his wife prepared, he looks at the chicken whose eyes are open and staring at him. Except I think it’s not precisely the chicken that’s doing the staring, but it’s death itself. Having been in close contact with the reality of death, specifically, someone who was touched by it, was enough to leave a mark on his psyche, making him perceive death more vividly than ever before.
This perception is further ingrained on a whiteboard that is his mind as he explained in a previous scene that his grandmother died when he was very young and his mother passed away when he was studying abroad, so he had never seen a body before.
His brain, upon being reminded of the dead body, triggers the same physiological response from earlier, which is just another way of saying that he pukes again. His wife, being the supportive wife that she is, pats his back to ease up the nausea. He puts her palm to his face, desperately wanting to be drowned in the warmth of another human to make his perception of death fade away, even momentarily. He then makes love to his wife, performing the act that only the living can enjoy, to remind himself that he is, in fact, alive.
Even death can be made beautiful with calmness, dexterity, and tenderness
The protagonist then becomes involved with another deceased. This time, it was someone’s wife. He and his superior arrived 5 minutes late and was greeted with rudeness from the husband. His superior goes through the encoffining process, purifying the body by wiping it. After changing the clothing, he proceeds to apply make-up to the deceased’s face, based on the dead’s portrait. As the main character observes how his boss goes through the embalming process, he also monologues: “To bring the dead back one more time and to grant them permanent beauty requires calm and dexterity. But above all, it requires tenderness in one’s hands.”. This is the theme of this scene.
After everything is done, they leave the deceased’s house, but the husband catches up to apologize for his rudeness earlier, and also to give them a gift for their service. His remark about his wife: “That was the most beautiful she ever looked” re-iterates the theme above, but an acknowledgment from the deceased’s family reminds us that the act of beautifying the remain is not merely to satisfy the encoffiner’s selfish venture to encounter, embrace and accept death, but it also provides the very last beautiful and soothing memory to the family, which arguably is the more important function.
Observing someone creating such beautiful memory out of death, and noting the characteristics of the process being employed, inspires us to adopt the same attitudes towards death, or any particular unfortunate event: with calmness, dexterity, and tenderness.
We already have a relationship with death that is yet to be instantiated
The main character goes home to his wife sitting on her bended knees looking at the television. Her facial expression tells him, and the audience, that she’s mad. The wife then shows him a video featuring him as the model for the encoffining process, which was the very first job that he had to do. They naturally go on to have a dispute, with the wife expressing her disapproval for her husband’s new job. She thinks it is embarrassing, but embarrassment is felt only from that video, which doesn’t reflect the nature of his job. What she disapproves of, is the implication of the day-to-day aspect of being a mortician.
There’s a piece of dialogue between them that I am particularly interested in:
“I just want you to have a normal job!”
“What is normal? Everyone dies, I will die, you will die. Death itself is normal!”
“I don’t care about your philosophy, just leave that job.”
She has always been supportive of him, even when he lost his job as a cellist in a big city and they had to move back to his hometown. So why wouldn’t she support him this time? The answer, I think yet again, lies in death.
Death is something people actively avoid thinking about, let alone having a relationship with. The fact that her husband is a mortician means that he very often has to deal with death. Set aside how that may take a toll on his psychology, such frequent confrontation also means that she who stands beside him also will have a relationship with death, either through conversations or behaviors of her husband. After all, you can’t sustain a marriage without getting involved with each other’s day-to-day jobs.
There’s a difference between contemplating death and coming into close contact with death, as the last line in the above dialogue implies. Every now and then, each and everyone one of us has thought about death, but to engage in a continual exploration that takes place in both reality and mind over an extended period of time would be an entirely different story. She can’t stand being in close proximity with such a morbid concept on a daily basis, so she gives him an ultimatum. Either he quits his job, or she will leave.
Our main character refuses to give up his job because his engagement with death has opened him to a new perspective in which life is seen in sharp contrast with death, and that only makes him appreciate and savor life even more. To him, his beloved’s response was expected, but not justified. Implicit in the dialogue is the idea that labeling death as abnormal is not justified, because it happens at every minute of the day, every day. We ourselves will die someday. So it means we already have a relationship with death that is yet to be instantiated. Death is always in our schema (for database and software engineers out there).
Once we’ve accepted and normalized it, we can start looking at life with a more holistic lense, incorporating even the morbid part that’s eventually going to catch us all, like an annoying 10-year-old kid determined to impose permanent imprisonment to all creatures just to satisfy his vanity (perhaps that’s why the main character in Pokemon was named Ash Ketchum).
Death makes you reconsider life
Here’s a personal story: as you may know, I and my dad had tested positive for Covid and recovered recently. Due to his existing health conditions that require medical attention, he was admitted to an actual hospital, while I went to a quarantine facility. After being released home, he described to me what happened at the hospital. Those who were exhibiting symptoms would spend their days lying on the floor of the hallway breathing through an oxygen tank because the hospital is overloaded. They would lie besides other dead bodies that are only discovered by their neighbors after a period of time without movement. Coffins were opened and in a ready state so that the staff can easily carry the bodies into.
He spent his first day on the very same floor and was only transferred to a private room for patients who do not exhibit any symptoms. He mostly spent his time alone in that room, often in starvation. My family shipped meals into the hospital, but he often did not receive them until after half a day had passed. There were days, he said, that the hunger made him tremble and his eyesight affected.
He went home a different man. His appetite went up greatly. Before he ate very conservatively, but after the experience, he started eating more and seemed to enjoy the food more. He would sit me down for lunch or breakfast to talk about our experiences during the time when we were separated. I think because he saw death in its full presence and ubiquity, life is highlighted in ways that changed him, for the better. He exercises more, he eats more, he reads more, he engages more. He lives more.
I suspect this is simply a consequence of asking the question “Am I living?” subconsciously in every action one takes after having encountered death. When you have seen death with your own eyes, or more precisely, when you have seen that indiscriminating destruction which consumes absolutely everyone it touches, how do you make sure that you’re not already consumed? Surely, you can easily verify your own conditions by assessing your breathing, your physiology, and the fact that you’re standing on your own feet. But what precedes all of that is a simple question: “Am I living?”.
Engaging in mental simulation of the death of frameworks
I don’t know if I’m weird (most likely yes), but I tend to engage in this habit of daydreaming. Over the years, I’ve found myself daydreaming about my own death over and over again, often in different forms, but always with lucidity. This is the part where your tilt! reflex would likely kick in and make you wonder if this person is gonna hurt himself, or worse, hurt others to realize his fantasies. If you google “Fantasy vs Imagination“, you would see a lot of attempts to clarify, but the overarching theme is that fantasies are far removed from our understanding of how the world works, and I can assure you that no details about my own death and funerals are, by that definition, fantastical.
They are not philosophical conversations about the conceptualization of death either, but purely vivid mental images of how my death would occur, and how others would respond. I had died more than a dozen times in my mind, each episode consists of an entirely different storyline and reactions, but never once I imagined rejecting or fearing death (maybe that’s why I had been able to daydream about it in the first place).
However, I think that’s just a particular instance of the category of experience that I tend to daydream about. Mentally simulating what would happen when I die is a way to destroy the frame of reference “I am young and healthy and therefore I have a long life ahead.”. Once you’ve played out the physical and emotional consequences of your own death, you can no longer deny the possibility that death may occur unexpectedly, even to the fittest of us.
This destroys the old framework and replaces it with something along the line of “I may be young but my death may be at any moment.”. And it doesn’t exist merely as an abstract sentence that you manipulate, but the new framework actually incorporates all of the emotional and physical consequences that you’ve played out by simulating your own death, which actually alters your behaviors like it did my dad’s.
Our brain and body are poor at distinguishing between imaginations and reality, as demonstrated by a 35% increase in muscles’ strength from imaginary exercise. In a similar way, daydreaming about death is also a mental exercise to expand your capability of handling death. It’s not that I’m drawn to the darker aspects of life, as explained in part eight of my quarantine diary: what I am drawn to is transformations, and it’s often in the metaphorical death and destruction of oneself that transformations are born.
To me, death is not just about the physical death, but it should be more productively conceived as a form of destruction of existing mental models and frameworks that are insufficient so that more coherent mental models and frameworks can be formed. That’s why mentally engaging in simulating the “death” of not only your physical body but also what you hold to be true, serves as an important function to our cognitive development.
As I write this section, I realize that I am arriving at essentially the same connection that Cedric Chin wrote about in his recent blog post on The Importance of Cognitive Agility. Before Lia DiBello helped a team to understand lean manufacturing by running a simulation, she watched them burn, meaning failing to meet the goal of reducing inventory and maximizing profits using the manufacturing method they’ve always been using:
The idea here isn’t just that ‘learning by doing’ is superior to ‘learning by powerpoint’ (and in fact, the primary focus of the paper was on the pedagogical implications of using ‘constructive’ instruction vs ‘procedural’ instruction); the idea that is relevant to us is that — in order for learning to happen — participants had to have their old mental models destroyed through visceral failure, in order to make way for new models
Therefore, you can think of mentally simulating the deaths of your frameworks is a way to improve Cognitive Agility. This is a rather personal way to look at Cognitive Agility, but I think that’s the most notable change in my perceptions. After conceptualizing the relationship between my habit of daydreaming and Cognitive Agility, I will perhaps engage in the said habit in a more mindful way, with a more elaborate model of seeing how it can help my cognitive development.