Anyone who has ever read The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, which used to be pretty much every boy in America, remembers the scene in which Tom, Huck, and Joe Harper attend their own funeral:
It’s appropriate the scene should occur in a boys’ book, because the fantasy is destructive of human maturity and the reality principle (which amount to the same thing). Perhaps none of my opinions makes people angrier than my insistence that daydreaming about life after death, whether it takes the form of wish-fulfillment fantasies about one’s own funeral or the delusion that one can ever be released from suffering, is a self-indulgence the dying cannot afford. We don’t encourage our children to believe they can grow up to become superheroes capable of leaping tall buildings in a single bound, and we should not encourage the terminally ill to pin their hopes upon something they will never experience in this lifetime.
To tell them that their suffering will be relieved by death—here, let me help you die—is a lie told for the benefit of the liar, because the dead do not know relief. They don’t know anything. They are dead. The relief is sought by those who must watch the dying suffer, and they will be the only ones to feel the relief. Relief of suffering, like funeral services, belong to living. The dead are excluded from them.
As usual it is Emily Dickinson, the poet laureate of death, who gets it exactly right:
That each can make but once —
That Bustle so illustrious
’Tis almost Consequence —
Is the éclat of Death —
Oh, thou unknown Renown
That not a Beggar would accept
Had he the power to spurn —
We think too much of death and not nearly enough of dying. There is a reason for that. Dying is a mental discipline, which entails many hours of training in (among other things) the renunciation of fantasies that death will be anything other than it is—the cessation of consciousness—and the bitter facing up to the reality of that fact. Those who prefer daydreams of impossible release from what awaits them will leave themselves (and those they love) tragically unprepared for the conclusive Bustle, which is “almost consequence.”