On Death and Dying or Why War Movies Teach us a Buddhist Lesson

Without any doubt there will be death and dying in a war movie. As a cultural anthropologist it often struck me how different other cultures handle death. In a society like ours,  in which death is a taboo (there seems to be an even greater taboo when it comes to dying) the war movie is one of the rare places where it is shown with such frequency. When it comes to movies in general  there is only the action and thriller/crime genre where you can count on death with the same certainty only not in such abundance.  Else you are left with rare films about illness, very rarely you’d see an old person dying or, more likely, already dead. A few deal with accidents or rather their consequences  like Atom Egoyan does in The Sweet Hereafter.

I did often wonder where my interest in war movies came from, besides from the urge to understand what happened, why it happened and how it felt for those involved. I think that they teach us a lesson in non-attachment. You see characters that you get to know and like and you know that for sure some of them are going to die. And death seems, for our human eye,  not to choose very carefully in whom he spares and whom not. In the war movie we see death and dying in a magnified overdrawn way. There is everything you could see in daily life: quick death, painful death, slow and agonising dying. Nothing is left out. If you go one step further it makes you contemplate your own perishability. A further lesson in non-attachment.

In the Tibetan Book of Living and Dying Sogyal Rinpoche teaches that it is a good exercise to picture ones own death on a daily basis. It is maybe the most fundamental aim in life to have a good death.

I think it is not arbitrary that the late great American journalist Studs Terkel did as well a book on The Good War: An Oral History of World War II as on Death, Will the Circle be Unbroken: Reflections on Death, Rebirth and Hunger for  a Faith.

For anyone who would like to pursue his/her own reflections on this topic a few more or less random reading suggestions:

The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying Sogyal Rinpoche, 1992

The Pagan Book of Living and Dying Starhawk, 1997

On Death and Dying Elisabeth Kuebler Ross, 1997

R.I.P. – The complete book of death and dying Constance Jones, 1997

Dancing on the Grave: Encounters with Death Nigel Barley, 1995

Tuesdays with Morrie: An Old Man, a Young Man, and Life’s Greatest Lesson Mitch Albom, 1997

Will the Circle be Unbroken: Reflections on Death, Rebirth and Hunger for a Faith Studs Terkel, 2001

Swimming in a Sea of Death: A Son’s Memoir David Rieff, 2008

Staring at the Sun: Overcoming the Terror of Death Irvin D. Yalom, 2008

The Year of Magical Thinking Joan Didion, 2005

Noch eine Runde auf dem Karussel: Vom Leben und Sterben Tiziano Terzani, 2007

Das Ende ist mein Anfang: Ein Vater, ein Sohn und die grosse Reise des Lebens Tiziano Terzani, 2006

Der Tod meiner Mutter Georg Diez, 2009

Das westliche Totenbuch Irene Dalichow, 2001

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5 thoughts on “On Death and Dying or Why War Movies Teach us a Buddhist Lesson

  1. Vishy says:

    Beautiful post, Caroline! I have read ‘The Year of Magical Thinking’ and ‘Tuesdays with Morrie’ and loved both of them – the first made me cry and the second made me contemplate on life.

    As you like war movies, I have to ask you this – have you seen ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’ (based on the Erich Maria Remarque novel), ‘No Man’s Land’ (based on the Bosnian war) and ‘Paths of Glory’ (based on the first world war)?

    • Caroline says:

      Thank you, Vishy.I only started Joan Didion’s book. I was so startled about the explanation of the title, I had to stop reading and think about that for quite a while. And it was one of those books, I liked so much, I wanted to keep it for later. Silly. I liked Tuesdays with Morrie a lot. The funny thing is all these books about Death and Dying make you appreciate life much more. After all Life and Death belong together.
      I have seen all three of the movies you mention and also reviewed them. They are very different but all three of them should be considered classics.

  2. […] of my earliest posts on this blog focused on the topics Death and Dying. You can find it here:  On Death and Dying or Why War Movies Teach Us a Buddhist Lesson. Nothing has changed in my perception since then. I still think that the way death and dying are […]

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