In every culture we know of, whether secular or religious, cosmopolitan or tribal, the ultimate question of life remains the inevitability of death and how to prepare for it.
As I read this poignant and brave piece from Oliver Sacks in The New York Times it reminds me of what Seneca the Younger famously wrote to his friend Marcia in consolation for the loss of her son Metilius, “We are dying every day.” In the first twenty five years of my life many of my closest people died, including my parents. Some of them quite young, even though dying is generally done by the aged. The next twenty five years were relatively much kinder. In these twenty five years I have seen my kids growing from learning to sit to driving a car to the last one of the three. Now as the initial signs of ageing mark my appearance, it does not bother me how it looks, but I do think about what it means. It reminds me that eventually I am going to die. If I am very lucky I will get to grow very old first, watching my body slowly morphing into something very distant from what it is now. And then I will die. Things, like sports, that I love will happen and people will wish that I was there to see them, but I won’t be. We can call it an awareness of death. I will not know new babies in the family or new players or new songs. What I know is that whenever I die, I will leave something unfinished – such is the business of life and death. Meanwhile, I can see no reason to be anything but happy, and death is not, and never has been, frightening. If it didn’t bother me not existing before I was born, perhaps it won’t bother me not existing again.
Death wields a sinister appeal. Nobody hears of an aircraft accident without contemplating the passengers’ terrible final moments. Even little children, sensing a death in the family, innocently but persistently question in order to probe what they sense to be a giant mystery. Death unwillingly intrudes on most people’s thoughts during a day. Death strikes in all forms. Death by accident or killing is the cruel interruption by violence which prevents a human (or an animal) life from reaching death as it should be reached. But even in the most natural of deaths, the body can fail in ways that are awfully painful, slowly and excruciatingly, demanding much stoicism, or it can switch off with little more than a gust of faintness. Hence, it is not unwise to hope for an easy dying,
What happens when we die? Where do we go after death? Do we just cease to exist, disappearing definitively? Is death a door opening unto another existence? Death is the great mystery of life. Amusingly, scientific research into single-celled organisms shows that the nature of life, on a cellular level, does not by design contain a self-destruct mechanism for death, thus making death an unnatural part of life. Yet nevertheless, all that lives on earth eventually dies. All through time, every religion, philosophy, and spiritual scheme has wanted to explain this mystery. Death is not just a time in which one’s heart ceases to beat. In fact, at every stage of a human life, death is a very significant part of life as the inevitable end feared by many and contemplated by all. Its certainty makes it a very popular topic. Death affects many people beyond the deceased. Everyone is deeply affected by someone’s death at one time or another. Through all ages, innumerable beliefs about death have been rife. Interestingly, most of these beliefs hold that the soul continues to live on after death, maintaining that recollections, remembering, and prayers keep the souls of the departed alive. While this has never been articulated with any confirmable certitude, most religions and cultures assert that the soul continues on in some inexplicable manner which is yet to be known. In some religions people live their lives around death, as groundwork for death and the hereafter. Regardless of vast divergence in beliefs and images of death that different people cling to, an individual’s notion of death is very important to him. We all want to arrive at death with something to say. We all crave to see death as something we could be ready to meet when it knocks on our door, something we could be respectful of without being afraid of.
Often when death is not properly explained to the kids, they become fascinated with it in a morbid way. They want to talk about gladiators and fighting to the death. Things like medieval torture and Inquisition death sentences form appealing topics. In the past, death was such a part of everyday life, it was plainly and bluntly discussed. Egyptians, for instance, were completely unafraid of death and suffered no lasting negativity from it. We still crave to have frank conversations about our mortality. We venerate and celebrate our dead, telling stories, and talking endlessly about the glory in their death. Innumerable folklores, legends, books, and movies about those having to deal with death or those with a quasi immortality continue to captivate us. In the absence of the imperative of vulnerability to loss and death, there would be little reason to get anything done. Without an engagement with death there would be no wisdom that time is limited and must not be wasted. Without the inevitability of death, there would be no thought for legacy, ensuring that we are remembered well. Death brings a sense that we are preparing for something thus reminding us to keep our house in order and to leave things better than we found them.
When death is foretold, by a terminal illness or some other cause, people have time to gradually adjust and make peace with death, to set their affairs in order, and to say goodbye to loved ones. However, many deaths occur suddenly, striking without a word of caution. When facing their mortality, many people turn to religion as most religions glorify death, in promising rewards in one way or the other in the afterlife, often making death more attractive than life. Religious thought simply accepts the inescapability of death and tries to paint better alternatives that await the faithful after death. These ideas are a great source of comfort for countless. Perhaps there are, in reality, many paths leading to God and the mystery of death will unfold differently to each person, depending upon their beliefs. Perhaps life is a biochemical accident and the death brings nothing but a descent into eternal nothingness.
What is incontrovertible though is that the mystery of death is so deep that -despite thousands of years of religious doctrines, myths, traditions, scientific research, and countless other theories accounting for death- we today are more confused about death than ever before. What remains a constant is that death and dying have a majestic aura and scope that dwarf preoccupation with wealth creation, career, old-age care, and estate planning. Education for the End of Life remains an extremely important part of a lifetime’s learning. The intricacy we face when coping with the death of loved ones is, to a pedestrian degree, enforced by our discomfort at declaring our own finitude. In this age of re-examination, human finitude seems a good place to start specifically because it is a shoddy issue, because it is an issue that must be dealt with imaginatively because we can never realistically experience mortality.
While we fail to find time and will to do something about the slaughter of innocents around the world, the death of a close one heralds a lapse in one’s indifference. Still, one’s own death seems so abnormal, like an error by the Reaper, a cosmic crime. To sum it up, death is a reality which we are struggling to make sense of. What happens after crossing the bridge of death is sheer speculation. But, what is true is that we cannot do away with death without doing away with life. In reality, life feeds on death. We exist on the substratum of our ancestors’ bones. Our evolution to Homo sapiens is a result of the ceaseless weeding out of the unfit and the unfortunate. It is worth paying homage to all our ancestors, whose dying made our lives possible.