Your pet gets sick, nears the end of its life, and becomes severely debilitated. It limps, it moans, it struggles to see. You look at it one day and finally decide: it’s time to put it down.
To put down a pet isn’t literal, of course: it’s a euphemism for killing it. But the phrase is nonetheless a descriptive one. Cradling its head in their hand, the veterinarian injects the animal with a lethal dose of sedative. It becomes limp, and losing the support of its legs, falls lifeless to the table. It has physically been put down.
Now, we aren’t so different at the end of our lives. A high dose of morphine is enough to kill a dying person as they struggle with their last breaths. The muscles relax, the tension fades, and the body goes limp. We sink back into our deathbed for the big sleep.
Why, then, do we put down an animal, but not a person? It may simply be a matter of posture. An animal remains upright: your cherished poodle, no matter its distinctions, won’t be lying in repose. On the other hand, people stay reclined on their backs. And when mortality comes knocking, we don’t get up to answer the door.
But there’s probably a deeper reason why we don’t put down people. And that’s for the simple fact that it too directly and explicitly refers to the physical aspect of death.
Throughout our culture, we find attempts to repress death in its corporeality. We douse the body in preservatives and hide it in adorned caskets. Or else we burn it to ash and keep it in urns. For a culture with such practices, a phrase which mentions the physical consequence of death can be nothing but unacceptable.
So we don’t put down a person: at least, not when we kill them. Because we do lay them: specifically, we lay our dates. To reference the corporeality of death isn’t allowed: but when it comes to sex, we celebrate it. A guy wishes to prove his sexual potency, so he says to his friends: I got laid last night. He doesn’t shun the physical aspect of the occasion: rather, using the language of his culture, he highlights it.
Does it mean anything that we put down our pets, but lay our dates? As is usually the case, the language we use points to deeper significance.
It does seem, as these two phrases imply, that our culture has downplayed the corporeality of death and emphasized the corporeality of sex. A decrepit person we rarely see, much less a purifying corpse. But the average internet user has seen fulsome genitals and breasts and orgies of the wildest sort, sponsored by his favorite porn site.
When it comes to the body, we’ve amplified its place in sex and minimized its place in death.
In psychology, that which an individual represses always returns in symbolic form. The same is true of societies. Could it be that, in our culture which flees from mortality, the blind eye turned to the body in death has resulted in a morbid fascination with the body in sex? Does our emphasis on the body inform more than just our porn habits, but extend to the rise of such phenomena as body dysmorphia and specialized medicine?
One thing is certain: we have certainly been denying death. And even the most beautiful and elaborate ceremonies cannot cover up this ultimate challenge, thrilling unknown, and final frontier which presents itself to humanity.