Theater of Cruelty

"The bones that are here are waiting for yours."

What does death teach us? A small book about fear, reconciliation and the unknown
Forfatter: Bjørnar Berg
Forlag: Flux Forlag, (Norge)
DEATH / Our critic here compares his own experience with the death of his parents, with experiences described in Bjørnar Berg's book What does death teach us?.


I was shot once. It was a shamanic ceremony, I was shot and died. The setting surrounding the ceremony and the way it was carried out made it feel like a very real election. I kind of died. The purpose of the ceremony was to choose to come back to life or not and through this choice to appreciate more the miracle that life is, despite crises and sorrows. I think such symbolic experiences of dying have their place, also in a modern society like ours. Philosopher Bjørnar Berg's collection of essays What does death teach us? reminded me of this experience. Berg wants to create space for reflection, not just about death, but about life. The time we have as alive is short, the encounter with death makes us realize this. When death is so hidden from us, perhaps we don't live life to the fullest as we could?

Reconciliation with the father

Berg's book is based, among other things, on experiences he had when he followed his cancerill father through the last months of his life. The author had had a complicated relationship with his father, and there were periods when they did not speak. During the death process, the relationship changed; the father softened, and a reconciliation could take place.

We share the experience with others deathone, Berg and I, although not like him I was reconciled with my father when he died of cancer 13 years ago. I sat in the palliative care ward and waited for Dad to break the silence, but he didn't. He died as silently as he had lived. I didn't know dad and didn't get to know him better when he died. From the time he was diagnosed to the time he died, it only took six months.

I also share Berg's opinion that there is too little talk about death, and that it can do more harm than good to hide it away as we do. I am grateful that Berg has taken the time to write such a book. It invites reflection and contemplation.

My favorite book for several years now has been Japanese Death Poems (1998) by Yoel Hoffman, where we are introduced to the tradition of writing a death poem, 'jisei'. Jisei were often written in the very last moments of a life. In the book are hundreds of Japanese death poem translated into English for the first time. Several of them are accompanied by a comment describing the circumstances surrounding the poet's death. A typical circumstance is like this. A Zen monk wakes up and says to his relatives: Tomorrow at 12 I will walk on. They make a feast, the monk shaves his head, puts on his best clothes, writes a death poem and sits in the lotus position and dies at 12. But how far away from our modern awareness of death or deathuconsciousness is not such an insight into one's own death?

Gerd Altman. Pixabay

Our own mortality

What does death teach us? is divided into twelve chapters where Berg takes us through various existential questions related to death. He wanders in the Chapel of Bones located in the city of Évora in Portugal, a chapel filled with the bones and skulls of around 5000 skeletons. Above the entrance to the chapel is written: "We bones who are here, are waiting for yours." The monks who built the chapel wanted the inhabitants to remember death, memento mori.

I had written a lot to my mother, as if in the form of a letter, when I created an idea about her and her ever-growing dementia.

Berg also deals with ethical aspects of euthanasia, reflects on near-death experiences and shares thoughts and theories about life after death. Repentance and reconciliation are also important themes in the book.

The father's death binds the collection together. My experience as a reader is that Berg writes better and more deeply where his own understanding grows in step with the book.

The closing chapter, "Now we live", therefore stands out as the strongest for me. There, his own philosophizing and reflection are most central. Here, he connects shutting off thoughts about one's own mortality together with our vulnerability in an insightful way: "We need to accept vulnerability. Basically, it means accepting our own mortality – that quality of ourselves that sooner or later forces us to be completely vulnerable and to let go of all control.” In the face of death, the masks tend to fall, and many only then allow themselves to show their most vulnerable selves. But why wait until death comes, asks Berg.

To travel into death

Death is a mystery, and there are many mysteries connected with dying. It's been over a year since mom died now. In the last week of her life, I was with her day and night in the hospital. The day after the last performance, I went to see her in the nursing home. I was lying in bed with her and holding her gently, gently because she was in so much pain, when she asked if I could start packing her suitcase. She needed underwear and a passport, she said. I understood what she meant. She was to cross the river and travel into death. What kind of intelligence made her recognize this? She who didn't even always know who she herself was? Was she close to the Gnostic knowledge of the Japanese monks? Within a few weeks she was dead. I continued to write to my mother as I watched over her in the last week of her life. I didn't have to reconcile with Mom; we had untied all knots. But we still got closer than ever. I had written a lot to my mother, as if in the form of a letter, when I created an idea about her and her ever-growing dementia:

“You lie so motionless next to me, mom. Only the breath moves you still. From time to time you look at me with that long, piercing gaze. All words are gone. Your hand is also limp now, the one that used to hold so tightly around mine, lies powerless on the duvet. Last night I crawled into your bed again. Carefully I put my arms around the thin, thin body and followed you with Morpheus a little way into the valley where you are hiking. There the songs emerged from the shadows, like living figures they rose in the darkness. The songs found their voice in my body, and I sang them to you. We were sung that night. The flowers that slept beneath the earth awoke, we saw velvet grass, knight's spur and maidenhair as our blood burned in our veins and our hearts settled.

He died as silently as he had lived.

Luck came and luck went that night, and two little light shoes were put on the mat, they were so tired, both of them, but now they will sleep all, all night. The songs came, the melodies came. You played our piano last night, as you did when I was little and going to sleep, I heard the same notes rising from the living room to the bedroom. Every note came, every pause, every effort. Dad came home last night and the flikcan in Havana sat waiting in his window. They all came together and followed you further into the valley, they took your hand and will not let go, as I must.”

I sang to my mother all night, songs she had taught me when I was little. I could only follow my mother a short distance, but the songs followed her on. Mama was sung across the river.

Nina Ossavy
Nina Ossavy
Ossavy is a stage artist and writer.

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