When death comes, it comes in silence.

There is no crescendo of background music like you see in the movies. No orchestra cues the violins to play their tragic and mournful tunes. 

Some religions refer to death as an "eternal sleep," which is about as quiet as it gets. The dead don't see the tears of the living, or hear the sobs from those left behind.

For the dead, it is only silence.

For the living, we have constructed rituals of death that are at times a contradiction. We memorialize the dead, yet for much of our Western culture, that is done from a sense of distance. It is both personal and impersonal, the holding of two thoughts at one time — the dead are here, but gone.

Not all cultures ritualize death like this. We were in Nepal a few years ago where we saw the Hindu ritual along a river lined with a ceremonial complex. From a hospice building, bodies were brought to the river and ritually dipped into the water by family members, then wrapped in a shroud and carried down a paved path along the river to a place where a pyre under a thatched roof awaited. The body was laid on the pyre and the fire lit by the oldest son. Family members then circled the body as the flame consumed it, some crying. The ashes would eventually be swept into the river to float downstream into the holy river Ganges in India.

Our Western rituals are different and less hands-on, but our grief is the same.

But amid the raging coronavirus, even those rituals of death are becoming more distant and impersonal.

Often, people with the virus die alone in a hospital where family isn't allowed to gather. If they are lucky, some tired, but sympathetic nurse or doctor will hold our loved one's hand as they pass.

The silence of death has expanded, embracing not only the dying, but also the communities where they had lived.

•••

This greater distancing of death amid the pandemic is troubling. Even as the nation crosses the 300,000 threshold of those who have died from the virus, many have passed away unseen by most of us.

That's partly due to how the deaths are dispersed across the nation, a few in one town, a few more in another. It isn't a single place where death is concentrated; it's happening everywhere, slowly, a little at a time.

As a result of both distance and time, we have no real grasp on the magnitude of those deaths.

That has caused some to even question the reality of Covid deaths. Social media is full of conspiracy junk that claims the virus isn't real, or that the deaths are exaggerated.

One person recently contacted me with an article that claimed the deaths had been overstated, in his view, for political reasons.

And yet, the facts are very clear — over 300,000 Americans have died from the coronavirus.

To deny this is to spit into the face of everyone who has lost someone to this disease.

•••

In an attempt to grasp just how deadly this pandemic really is, we need to compare it to other historical events.

Here are some of the deadliest events in U.S. history:

•Spanish Flu pandemic 1918-1919 — 675,000 deaths (maybe more)

•U.S. Civil War — 620,000 (there were other civilian-related deaths not counted in this number)

•World War II — 407,000

•Coronavirus — 300,000 (and counting)

•WWI — 116,000

•1957-1958 flu pandemic — 116,000

•1968 flu — 100,000

•Vietnam War — 58,200

If you look at a single-day count, there have been several days this year where more people died of coronavirus than died on Sept. 11, 2001; or on D-Day in 1945; or the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941.

No matter how you slice it, coronavirus is killing a lot of people in a short amount of time.

•••

Given that, why have so many people dismissed the virus as not being very serious? Why have some people ripped public officials who insist on measures to mitigate the deaths, such as wearing a mask in public? 

It would be easy to blame social media for that. Social media is a sewer of misinformation, lies and distortions, but a lot of people are addicted to Facebook, Twitter and similar sites — addicted so much that they have lost the ability to discern what is fact and what is fiction. 

It would also be easy to blame "virus fatigue" for the callow and callous attitude we've seen about the virus. People are "over it," tired of the social distancing, tired of wearing a mask and tired of their jobs being affected. There is a thought — irrational perhaps — that it will just go away if we ignore it.

And finally, our political culture has decided to attack anyone who is an "expert," like doctors and other professionals whom we used to respect. The anti-elitism strain in our political culture has a lot of people doubting what doctors tell them, doubting that the virus is even real and doubting that any vaccine for the virus will be safe and effective. It's a mano-macho attitude, rugged individualism taken to the extreme. Experts have become the villain.

All of those things are true, but I don't think that's really why many ignore the virus and its deaths.

The underlying reason is that the majority of deaths are from our older population, age 60 and above, and our society really doesn't give a damn if old people as a group die. 

Many of those who've died are out of the public mainstream. If they're in nursing homes, they're invisible to many of us. We don't see them at work because they're retired.

And, in a callous way, society expects old people to die, if not from Covid, then from something else. We're just not shocked when we read an obituary of someone who is older.

Contributing to that is the anonymous system we have in place to account for Covid deaths. There is no comprehensive list of names of those who've died. Most obituaries don't mention that a person died of Covid. The most we get is an age, gender and racial profile on the state's Covid reporting website.

The lack of names and faces is making the Covid deaths even more invisible. 

As a nation, we've done a very poor job of managing this pandemic. Our leadership has been weak. Our culture has become callous. 

We've made health care political to the point where wearing a mask is seen as subversive.

We've let voices of extremism drown out voices of reason where some of our leading national doctors get death threats.

We've dismissed the dying because, well, they're mostly old and no longer important cogs in our economic and social systems — subconsciously, we see them as expendable. 

•••

Christmas is coming next week, a time when we celebrate our children and their joy during the holidays. It is a time when traditionally, grandchildren and grandparents embrace and create memories together.

But not so much this year.

There will be over 300,000 fewer chairs at our Christmas dinner tables next week. A lot of grandchildren won't see their grandparents this Christmas.

If the generation that was dying were reversed, you have to wonder if our response to all these deaths would be the same.

Mike Buffington is co-publisher of Mainstreet Newspapers and editor of The Jackson Herald. He can be reached at mike@mainstreetnews.com.

(2) comments

Earnest Darby

We hear the figures on the nightly news, but until we start seeing the deaths we are not going to change our behaviour. The public opinions of the Vietnam War didn't change until we started seeing the horrors of the war. The young girl with her clothes burnt off by Napalm, the officer shooting the vietcong in the head, and the hundreds of body bags

Cheryl Brownstein

Excellent opinion Mr. Buffington. I'm ancient, I'm pre-Salk vaccine. Polio hit kids the hardest. There was a loud demand for something to be done. Don't believe me? Walk through the old cemeteries. Look at the dates. Plus there were no HIPPA laws, so everyone knew who had died and from what. I don't wish this virus on anyone. But, since those we elected to lead have shown us what cowards they are, it's up to us, the people, to slow the spread down to protect our medical systems and our friends who work in them. Wear the mask. Don't get together with people outside of your immediate household. Wash your hands. Don't stop until the CDC announces we are past the danger point. Thank you.

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