How We Live, How We Die

I’m going to pretend that I intended to create bookend posts for the week, and hope none of you realizing I’m just flying by the seats of my pants.

In my State of the Writer post earlier this week I talked about looking for books about life in the 1860s, and being quite excited about finding one actually called Life in Civil War America.  It was fantastically on the spot, but it’s not the research book I’m reading right now.  Instead, I’m approaching things from the exact opposite direction.  Rather than looking at how people lived in the Civil War, I’m fascinated with a book about how people died.

The book is This Republic of Suffering by Drew Gilpin Faust, subtitled Death and the American Civil War.  The chapters are simply titled, and currently I’m through two: Dying and Killing.  The second is a look at how two dominantly Christian democracies justified going out and killing each other, tied in with the brutality experienced by black soldiers.  About just the process of killing a man in the first and last war where guns were powerful and reloadable enough to be repeatedly deadly, but inaccurate enough that soldiers needed to be in close enough range to see their enemy’s faces before pulling the trigger.  It’s a chilling outline of the justifications for war and reality of close quarters combat, but with Nickajack not actually set during the war, the information will have less direct influence on the book.

What already has influence some Nickajack editing is the first chapter: Dying.

The underlying theme of the chapter is the early 19th American concept of the Good Death.  The Civil War was certainly not the first war the United States fought in the 19th century.  They’d fought a second war against the Brits, they fought a war against Mexico, but the American loss of life in the Civil War was several orders of magnitude greater, so it directly touched more Americans.  This was also an America that set out less, that didn’t see children moving several states away from parents, or even grandparents.  Deaths also tended to be slow and lingering, giving the dying plenty of time to make right with their god, their family, and enjoy almost a ritualized passing.  This was the Good Death.

The Civil War disrupted much of this by introducing sudden, violent death to distant relatives on a very regular basis.  There was a camaraderie in the war, a banding together in an attempt to bring as many elements of the Good Death to the soldier bleeding out in the field as possible.  Informal letters were written home by those close to the dying, whether by friendship or literal proximity.  Nurses often stood in as surrogate mothers or sisters for the dying.  The stories told are absolutely heart wrenching at times, especially through a pair of songs excerpted in the chapter, one about a nurse kissing a soldier good-bye for his mother, and the other a response from the mother thanking the nurse for giving her son a last kindness as he died.  It quicker the death, the harder it was to make it a Good Death.  Some soldiers lingered for days with sepsis and could personally write their own obituaries home, others were dead in a moment and those writing home spoke of spiritual readiness in the preceding days and weeks if it wasn’t available at the moment of passing.

The Civil War was a kind of widespread death that just doesn’t mesh with modern thoughts.  Nearly 2% of the US population of 1860 was killed during the war, whether through battle or disease related to combat conditions.  Even the tragedies of 9/11 produced fewer fatalities than either side suffered in the Battle of Gettysburg.

This isn’t meant to be a history lesson.  Give the book a try, it’s very well written and it tells a story of the Civil War that hadn’t occurred to me.

And therein lies the problem and my actual point.  It hadn’t occurred to me.  It’s easy to not think about death, it’s common to not want to think about death.  It serves to remind us all of our mortality, something that is uncomfortable to many, myself included.  But that also makes it easy to overlook a society’s view on death as part of it’s overall construct.  While familiar with the tradition, some might say cliched, death bed narrative, I never realized how fully it gripped the lives of Victorian Americans.  But in a novel where people die, it’s important to know how they would feel about dying, what their society has prepared them for.  I learned this lesson the hard way, only after being loaned the book by my father-in-law, and I pass it along now.

And this isn’t just about historically set fiction.  Any substantially built world where death is going to be part of a narrative, the author should have a notion of how the civilization, or civilizations, view death.  If the society has a strong belief in reincarnation, it may be seen as a simple transition.  If the society has a strong notion of a glorious afterlife, it might be seen as a more celebratory event.  Look at similar real cultures as a clue.  Ask yourself questions.  What do the dying want out of their final moments?  What do the survivors want immediately afterwards?  What news may a distant (geographically, not emotionally) relative want?  These are important questions, all explored in that first chapter regarding the Civil War, and all may be important within the world if even one character dies.

It’s a lesson I’m taking forward, and thus a lesson I hope to impart on others as they write.

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