Death, Denial and Other Ways to Talk about the End of the World

A silhouette in a dark room with one light. Contemplating death
Photo courtesy of Justin Duyao.

I am fascinated by death. While most people around me dedicate their lives to avoiding death—not to mention thinking about it—I’m drawn to books like Kataryzna Boni’s Ganbare! Workshops on Dying, Roland Barthes’ Mourning Diary, and Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking

I’ve also found myself writing about death a lot. I’d much rather write about other things. I’m in love, for example. Why not that? The trouble is, things around me keep dying. My childhood dog, most recently. Joan Didion, just before that. And so it seems I’m trapped here, for the time being, somewhere between living and dying (if those aren’t somehow the same thing).

Growing up in the Christian church, I spent more than enough of my life wondering what happens after death. Where do we go, what do we become (or unbecome), what’s left over, after all this? Given that our planet’s equilibrium is disintegrating before our eyes, however, I wonder if it might be more interesting to wonder what happens in death. 

In the midst of death. In death’s midst.

What is death, after all? Is it dying? Is it whatever (un)becomes of us in the end? Is it that last breath, just before the very end? Or is there something to those moments before that last breath—the weeks, months, and years—all the business of dying that precedes death? 

Though #Death is by no means trending on Twitter, meditations on the end of our lives, our species, and our world have always played an important role in the stories we tell. Especially now, as the effects of climate change negatively affect more and more communities on the planet, how we conceive of, tend to, and act to prevent death matters more than ever.

The End of the World

According to recent scientific consensus, Earth should be able to support some form of life for the next 1.5 billion years. Around that point, our gradually brightening sun plans to vaporize our planet’s water. 

“If humans last that long, Earth would be generally uncomfortable for them, but livable in some areas just below the polar regions,” says Eric Wolf, doctoral student at the University of Colorado, Boulder. 

Between now and then, however, we have more pressing problems to deal with—like the 11 years we’ve got to rein in gas emissions, if the world wants to avoid the worst projectable damage from climate change, according to a new study.

There seem to be a few different timelines to account for—each of which complicate the notion of there being a singular, once-and-for-all “end of the world.” First, the Earth’s runaway greenhouse effect that will continue long after we quit burning fossil fuels to eventually vaporize all of our planet’s water—well after you die, but long before our 1.5 billion years are up. Second, a mere 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) increase in the average global temperature, which has the power to intensify wildfires, floods, and hurricanes worldwide within the next decade.

“At current levels of emissions,” NPR’s Scott Neuman whispered in my ear, while writing this essay, “there’s a 50% chance that a rise in temperatures of 1.5 C by the end of this century will be locked in by 2033.” 

In 2033, I’d like to turn 36. I’d like to have paid off my student loans. I’d like to have seen more of the world. 

Also in 2033, former President Trump will turn 87 years old, Lord willing; if alive, Martin Luther King Jr. would have turned 104; if alive, Andreas Libavius, who first theorized that fossil fuels form from the fossilized remains of dead plants, would have turned 458. Meanwhile, the material that makes up most of the planet’s fossil fuels—algae, bacteria, and plant matter—will turn 419.2 million and one. Give or take

Time is a funny thing. So is planetary death, if you think about it from a plant’s point of view. 

The End of the World (from a Plant’s Point of View)

I knew my grandma had died long before anyone told me. At first, I thought I was dreaming the sound of my mom crying, numbed by the two walls between her bed and mine. Then I opened my eyes. 

I listened to my parents shuffle around their room, for a while. I heard them open their door, watched the shadows of footsteps hesitate outside my door for a while. Eventually, my mom came in, sat on my bed, and held my hand. 

It was a Saturday, I was 16, and the mother of my mother had died in her sleep.

My family—Mom, Dad, Boppa, Uncle Mike, etc.—took turns that afternoon performing the same ritual: walking into my grandma’s room, sitting on the edge of her bed, and folding her hand between ours. 

I’d held that hand a million times before—in the Japanese gardens on her birthday, on a stroll through Albertson’s to find cookie dough, during prayers, heads bowed, eyes squinted. 

I’d watched her long, fragile fingers perform a million tasks. She had been a nurse, years ago. She played the piano. She wrote letters. Even after a degenerative disease robbed her of dexterity, legibility, the ability to make music—she kept doing it. 

All that to say, it was unthinkable to hold her hand, after she’d died. To feel it so lifeless, so still. But that’s how she died—in her sleep, perfectly still. 

When it was my turn to sit, that’s how I found her. Motionless, immobile, the very antonym of alive—like a priest on the other side of a confessional screen. So, like I might with a priest, I took advantage of that indifference. I told her about the girl I liked. (Carley Compton.) I told her what I wanted to be when I grew up. (Ernest Hemingway.) I told her I was sorry—God knows what for. I told her I’d miss her. I told her I’d take care of everyone.

And, as far as I know, she heard and understood me completely. Of course, for all intents and purposes, she didn’t—but what matters is I walked out of that room feeling lighter than I did when I entered it.

In the Middle of the End

What is it with that urge, anyway? To set things straight, settle the score, tie nice little bows on the ends of things? It’s almost like the living can’t move on until they’ve had the last laugh. 

I’ve always found the Catholic faith’s insistence on the neatness and consistency of last rites particularly fascinating. Their ritual “Commendation of the Dying,” for example, is even a little surprising, if you think about it, as if congratulations are what the dead and dying need most.

To compensate for the apparent meaninglessness of death, human traditions across cultures seem to elevate—if not inflate—the importance of death as an essential component of the cycle of life. Whether a tradition involves a handful of dirt, bagpipes, torn clothing, fire, water, or song, they all seem to center the importance of life, as a way of pressing against the incommensurability of death. 

I’ve always hated that—the insistence that “everything has a purpose,” “everything works out, in the end,” and “everything is going to be okay.” In my mind, that habit of bypassing existential dread takes away from the immediacy of death. It also nurtures a kind of ignorance toward death, on both an individual and planetary level. 

Maybe this is why I enjoy irreverent films like Adam McKay’s Don’t Look Up (2021) so much. Categorized as an “American apocalyptic comedy film,” it hilariously married what, in my mind, should be completely incompatible genres. And yet, considering how much we fear the end of life, maybe it makes sense to counterbalance apocalypse with comedy a little more often.

As ridiculous as it was, the satirical gist behind Don’t Look Up wasn’t really all that playful, in part because of how it riffs off of its foundational genre. Precursors like Deep Impact (1998) and Armageddon (1998) offer heroic exceptionalism and earnest hopefulness—when Morgan Freeman is in charge, the free world is “ours” and nature can’t have it back. Instead, Don’t Look Up follows our contemporary (and characteristically “American”) indifference toward issues like climate catastrophe, injustice, and even war to its logical end. At the same time that the film poked fun at the absurdity of our moment in time, it also tricked us into staring directly at it, in all its dystopian glory—the irrationality of our partisan gridlock, the inhumanity of our prioritization of profit over people, and so on.

Sometimes, the hardest part of solving an issue is acknowledging it exists in the first place. While most disaster thrillers sidestep this part, skipping to a happy ending without even a glance at the reality of the problem, Don’t Look Up locked eyes with it, held its gaze as long as it could.

We can all agree death is kind of a big deal, which means we should also agree that widespread, decided ignorance toward planetary death seems a little ridiculous. 

Notes on How to Die

I’m told thanatography is either “an account or story of a person’s death experience” or “a treatise on death, its symptoms, or the changes it brings.” I’m not sure which came first. I also can’t decide whether the vivid, painstaking description of Christ’s death on the cross is thanatography or just indulgent.  Either way, when it comes to death, I think there are reasonable and unreasonable ways to talk about it. 

It might be a hell of a lot nicer to talk about nice things, in the moments before death, like our great big collective epilogue—i.e. paradise, nirvana, Zion, Valhalla, Elysium, Happy Valley, Oregon—some everlasting, ephemeral “onwards and upwards.”

I also believe that wide-eyed, level-headed honesty about the permanency of death lands better when you set it right on the table. That isn’t to say we can’t sign off with a warmly cordial “Sincerely,” “Best,” “With gratitude,” or “Warm wishes.” Take one of the final lines of Don’t Look Up: 

Just before the film’s cheeky epilogue—which depicts Earth’s handful of survivors exiting their escape pod, only to be eaten alive by aliens immediately after—Dr. Mindy (Leonardo DiCaprio), his family, and a number of their friends sit around a dinner table, drinking wine, telling stories, and savoring their last moments together. 

As the walls begin to shake, and the world’s end marches steadily toward them, Mindy says my favorite line of the film:

“We really did have everything, didn’t we? I mean, when you think about it.”

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Justin Duyao is a writer, editor and creative director with experience in journalism, art criticism, copywriting and creative editing. He holds an MA in Critical Studies from the Pacific Northwest College of Art (PNCA) at Willamette University, as well as degrees in English Literature, French and Religious Thought from Harding University. He is the recipient of a Make | Learn | Build grant from Oregon's Regional Arts and Culture Council, as well as a Writing Fellowship from the Hallie Ford School of Graduate Studies at PNCA. His art writing has been published by Oregon ArtsWatch and Variable West, and he has non-fiction essays published in Dismantle Magazine, Weathered and the Clackamas Literary Review, among others. He lives in Portland, Oregon. LinkTree: