A. J. Grunthaler
One thing that we can all be certain of is that at some point—today, tomorrow, or in the not too distant future—every single one of us will die. And this is true not just for ourselves, but for every human being who has ever lived or is currently living. Although we can imagine a possible future in which technological advances extend life far beyond the limits that we experience today, it seems unlikely that our species will ever be able to prolong life indefinitely. In this sense death represents that ultimate and necessary culmination of our human experience. The meaning of life, in other words, cannot be separated from the meaning of death.
Death is usually defined as the cessation of biological functions that sustain the life of a living creature. That seems pretty straight-forward in itself. But death is not just a matter of biology for members of our own species. It’s wrapped up with emotions, beliefs, and rituals that give death a significance that is far greater than most of the other events that occur in the lives of human beings.
Objectively, death would seem to be the greatest of all the misfortunates that can befall any individual. It signifies the end to our human project—to all the dreams and plans we had for our lives. Given a choice, most of us would probably chose to prolong our lives, even if we had to endure considerable pain and suffering to do so, because with the continuation of life there is always the possibility that things can get better. Death, on the other hand, represents the termination of all of our hopes for this life.
But does death actually represent the end of our human project, or is it simply the gateway to another possible form of existence? All of the great religions of the world posit the continuation of human existence in another form after death. The religions originating in the Middle East—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—all ascribe to the belief that the soul (the non-material, animating spirit of the human being) continues on in the afterlife. Religions like Hinduism and some forms of Buddhism have a belief in reincarnation or rebirth—the idea that the self or the soul takes on another physical form after death.
The idea that some aspect of our human personality or identity could continue on after the death of the body is the source of considerable consolation for many people. Perhaps this is the reason why we invest so much effort in devising dignified and often elaborate rituals at the end of life—funeral masses, wakes, shivas, cremation ceremonies, and the like. The goal of these rituals is certainly to celebrate the life of the person who has died, but they perhaps serve the even more important function of providing those who remain behind with the hope that the departed loved one still exists in some form.
But we also must consider the possibility that the belief in continuation of life after death is a fantasy or illusion created by our species precisely because death is so terrifying to us. So instead of accepting that death represents the end of who we are, we create the myth of an eternal soul that somehow is able to live on after the body has ceased to function. For atheists death represents the complete and total oblivion of the self. According to this view when the body dies, our personal identity dies with it.
Whether one believes in the continued existence of human beings after death or not, death traditionally was understood to be such a traumatic experience that in the past it was recognized that one needed to be prepared philosophically and emotionally for the reality of one’s own demise. This practice came to be known in antiquity and the Middle Ages as the ars moriendi—the art of dying. In the Middle Ages this practice often involved visiting charnel grounds where the bodies of the dead were allowed to decompose and the creating of gruesome works of art known as danse macabre (the dance of death) to remind Christians of the inevitability of death.
|Dance of Death by Michael Wolgemut (1493)|
While today we might view the regular reflection on the inevitability of our own deaths as somewhat morbid, consider for a moment our contemporary attitudes towards death.
In the past, people often died in their own homes, cared for until the end of life by family members. And after death, those same family members would wash and dress the bodies of their loved ones, which were then often laid out for viewing in the family living room. Aromatic flowers were customarily brought into the house to try, as much as possible, to cover up the smell of the rotting corpse. Those same family members might also have been responsible for digging a grave for their dead relative, putting the coffin in the ground, and covering it with dirt.
Today, most people die in hospitals, cared for by total strangers. They’re embalmed, dressed, made-up, and laid out in funeral out by morticians. At cemeteries we have professionals now to dig graves, but it’s rarely customary any more for family and friends to be present when coffins are placed in the ground and covered with dirt. So once again, total strangers are paid to do this task.
Far from being morbid, our ancestors probably had a more sensible and psychologically healthy attitude towards death. In the 21st century, we might try to delude ourselves that death is what happens to other people—to old Aunt Sally, to famous men and women in the obituary section of the local newspaper, or some child dying of malaria in Africa—but death, in fact, is what happens to all of us. We can’t escape it no matter how much we may try to delude ourselves to the contrary. So our best bet is to try to appreciate the reality and inevitability of death and to reconcile ourselves as much as possible with it.
After all, what alternative do we have?