Death: its presence and future

1. Born to die.

Some German theorist came up with the idea that primitive peoples lived in fear of death which was always a mysterious, even incomprehensible, visitation to the tribal community, requiring avoidance and always met with fear. He must have been thinking of the faculty at his university.

Actually, the archaeological and anthropological records are quite clear. Primitive peoples know what death is, prepare for it, and deal with it with ritualized routines of burial. it is simply another event in a universe filled with events; and eventually, as the individual well knows, every individual of the community will die. The good of the day is to be done in the day because one does not want to leave a duty undone; it is the community’s survival that gives meaning to the individual’s life; performance of one’s duties for the good of the community prepares one for a death worthy of a member of the community.

In our culture, however, some are so convinced that death will never touch them personally, one suspects that the fear of death is the primary motivation behind their choice of what is at base a hedonistic lifestyle. When among them, one discovers very quickly their fierce opposition to any mention of the possibility of anyone’s demise: ” don’t mention that! “, ” I don’t want to think about that! “, ” that is so morbid! ” – one wonders why our society doesn’t simply outlaw any mention of death; but of course to some extent it does – that is why so many Hollywood movies have happy endings even when the logic of the narrative moves inexorably toward the hero’s death; in fact embedded in the culture Hollywood appeals to, is a moral denial of death. People don’t die, they ” pass away “, they ” go to a better place “, they ” are no longer with us “. At the very worst they ” breathe their last “.

Of course in such narratives one’s enemies are allowed to perish in the most gruesome manners imaginable – shot hung stabbed – beaten to a pulp – strangled immolated crucified – blown to smithereens – beheaded disemboweled impaled – drawn-and-quartered – whacked gassed nuked – wiped from the face of the earth – and killed killed killed. Grammatically, such narratives cannot speak of an enemy without asserting he or she as (at least in potential) the direct object of the verb ” kill “. It is in this issue where we see the denial of the selfhood of other human selves most graphically displayed; one thinking along these lines cannot imagine himself or herself dying, but finds it very easy to imagine the death of the enemy who is perceived as merely and only a thing to be destroyed.

This trenchant opposition to the possibility of one’s own death structures the worldview of many, like the operating system of a computer always running in the background regardless of what ever other program is in use. it decides long before time how they meet every moment of his or her existence, how they prepare having children and how they raise children, and how they prepare to leave the world to the children so raised. And the terrible truth is, of course, that they never prepare the world to be left to the next generation; since they deny the possibility of their own death – what next generation? Such generally assume that they will outlive their children, who, after all, are only brought into this world as a source of entertainment for them. No wonder they so cheerfully send their children off to war; even the death of the child is but performance of a theatrical tragedy, that one learns to live with, and even enjoy, secretively, as the catharsis of one’s own fear of death.

Such people live each moment not as if it were the last (although that is frequently asserted, since some acknowledgement has to be made of the ceaseless sequence of moments), but as if there were never to be a last moment, as if this were the only that ever existed, and the only that ever could exist, that could ever be realized; as if this moment could not end. This is the “eternal now” that we hear asserted as the time for our greatest enjoyment in life, frequently claiming that this theory derives from “Oriental” philosophies such as Buddhism – which, as a Buddhist I not only deny, I revile. A Buddhist does not deny the passage of time, but rather learns to live with it. That is true of any who have confronted their own mortality reflectively, of course. The “eternal now” is the wet dream of one in love, not with life, but with the fear of death. A reflective, reasoning person learns to live life on its own terms; the hedonistic recidivist refuses to learn to live. Indeed, now one hears the reply: “we don’t need to learn to live, we just do!” But that can only be true of animals incapable of rational self-awareness. Humans always must learn how to live; our infancy is too prolonged, our self-sufficiency outside the womb obviously too inadequate, to assure our survival. We are not, and cannot be, by nature “individualists”. The supposedly free individual is doomed to an early death. The claim to self-centeredness is a denial of one’s own childhood, and thus a direct denial of the process of maturation. Maturation is a temporal process, and its inevitable telos is death. No wonder some deny it. Their existence would be perceived as wholly atemporal, if it weren’t for the inevitable frustrations and crises of survival. Life thus reduces to a meaningless sequence of immeasurable enjoyments randomly sectioned by annoying events of purposeless frustration and disappointment. Too many believe that such a life, but with as few frustrating events as possible, constitutes “happiness”. Yet, paradoxically, this is not really living, it is mere passage of time. Every period of unbothered enjoyment is but intermission between crises. Those not attending to their own history may not remember a spouse dying, or even denies that the spouse ever died (one psychological benefit of belief in an afterlife). But they can no longer cherish the remembered pleasures of the espousal. Because these pleasures were expected as their due, and hence, when they occurred, they were as meaningless as the pleasures of defecation – which comparison some have actually asserted. Although they yearn for atemporality, the inevitable crises of life assure that their existence is mere counting of empty time. And yet despite this, the final moment of the last count remains denied. But for some, better the meaningless count of “eternal nows”, than the complex, and tentative, living of time as the making of meaning which we always find among those who acknowledge and accept their own mortality.

2. “To finde Deeth, turne up this croked wey” (Chaucer).

Death is a certainty. To this we all agree. But what do we mean by that?

Death happens to all living entities; but does it happen with immanent awareness to all living entities, such as we see in lowly insects, but not in trees or other plants, not in one-cell creatures? But what do we mean by this? How do we see this? We stick a needle in the back of an ant. It struggles in vain to escape it, or to turn, somehow, and attack it. Its legs and mandibles writhe erratically. Something in us is moved to pity – we will need to return to that. For now, it is clear that the ant has an imminent awareness of the threat of its own demise; perhaps it also feels something we could recognize as pain, were we able to communicate with it properly.

If a one-cell creature responds in like manner to a threat, well, but we can not really see this through our microscopes. Neither can we see the tree shudder in pain as the ax-blade carves into it. So we can think of the ant as having imminent awareness of its own life only because it responds to a threat in a manner similar to the way we know we would, were we to be impaled. And that, of course, is why we feel something akin to pity when we watch the ant die, pierced by our needle.

Yet this still remains only an assumption on our parts. We don’t really know what the ant feels. We don’t have the slightest idea of its experience of this threat, this now inevitable demise. After all, this we do know, that the ant cannot know that its demise is inevitable. We can grant it pain, and we can grant its responding to a threat; but this threat could only be “perceived” – if one could even call it that – in the most vague and general way. We knows this, because in order to recognize a threat as potentially fatal, an intelligence has to be able to make a reflexive connection between three significations: “living“; “intervening threat”; “not living.” Even if it could connect the first two significations, it could never make any connection with the third. What could “not living” possibly “mean” to an ant? And how would this happen?

It is not enough to say here that “not living” is the signification of an abstract idea; in fact, the odd thing here is that it is no idea at all. It’s a negation; within its temporal and spatial domain, living does not happen; there is no possible intelligence there capable of having any ideas, there is no known entities to have any ideas about. While its own occurrence is possible (indeed, inevitable), once it occurs, possibility comes to an end. Its potential is not realized; it cancels out all potential. To die is to enter the realm of the impossible.

Humans have a very difficult time thinking about this, their inescapable future as suddenly becoming impossible; What could it possibly mean? “A hundred years from now, whatever else happens, I will be impossible by then.” A sentence the grammar of which appears silly, even absurd; yet it happens to be as true a sentence as any making claim on a future reality, for any human speaking it. The individual human dies, and thus becomes impossible. No wonder so many believe in an “afterlife”! If my future is impossible, how could I ever have been born?

Well, of course, accidents happen. It always strikes me as comical, the enormous amount of ideological babble spewed across eons and continents, from innumerable humans asserting that human life and intelligence could not occur by accident. Why not? Those making the assertion seem to feel the assertion itself answers the question, but that’s not even begging the question, that’s simply ignoring it.

Human death is a function of our animal nature; thus, to the greater extent, it must be the same as that of other animals. We can narrow this classification a little, by remembering that we are a certain species of primate, all of whom are mammals. Thus, like it or not, we will die as all primates die. Our blood pressure rate soars or drops; our heart beats rapidly as though escaping the confines of our chest – or it ceases all together. Our breathing becomes an irregular, choking gasp. Sometimes our mouths fill with blood, sometimes their mucous membranes dry out and crack. We know that it will become difficult to focus our vision at the last, because the dying person’s gaze becomes fixed and non-responsive to light. We will either feel so much pain that life becomes intolerable, or we will feel nothing at all.

I do not for a moment accept the veracity of those reports of so-called “near-death experiences”, concerning those who have supposedly “died” – in a medically technical sense – and yet have survived to talk about it, usually claiming to see some light at the end of a tunnel, or hearing some voice of a long-dead loved one, etc. The problem with these reports is actually grammatical: there is no such thing as a “near-death experience”, there is life and then there is death – “the undiscovered country, from whose bourn no traveler returns”. No mortal entity, once dead, can ever live again; thus whatever can be reported by the living to the living must have been lived, must have occurred as an experience of life. The “near-death experience” is thus revealed as the experience of one particular mode or moment of living. “Oh, but that is just semantics!” (I.e., it is just a grammatical remark.) But grammar determines the knowable. If it cannot be said, it cannot be known, not in any communicable manner. “Near-death” is a term of art for referring to some moment which is obviously and undeniably NOT-death. “Well, but I am trying to communicate the incommunicable.” Trying to square a circle will meet with as much success.

Are there any experiences beyond the range of the communicable, beyond the range of language? Actually, no. Every human experience can be communicated to another human, by reference to analogs embedded in shared experience. And, just by the way, we should remember that this is one of the important missions for the poet and storyteller, that they help to generate the language with which we communicate our experiences to others, even, and perhaps especially, when the experience has never been communicated before.

(Well, but is there anything at all we can know about that is beyond the range of the communicable? Yes, indeed; too much, perhaps. Unfortunately, there’s no way to refer to any of it except to say, “I don’t know what that could be like”. So whatever follows death itself must remain moot to us, and we mute to it.)

Every human death is the same. Male or female, old or young, decrepit or fit, by way of accident or intent or mere process of aging – death comes to each and every one of us the same.

Many people find this notion intolerable. How many monarchs have forced their subjects to build for them magnificent mausoleums, like the pyramids of ancient Egypt? Enduring evidence of human hubris and stupidity. Open any of these and discover the same decayed remains one expects of the corpse of a peasant. The same dust – chemicals composing each of our bodies the same, this must be the case. “Oh, but we are not to be identified with our bodies!” So begins the argument that the living experience of each individual being differentiated as individual, so the experience of death must be different for each of us. But this simply evades the real issue: it is not the final moment of individual living consciousness that defines the “experience of death”, it is the first moment afterward – which, I’ve already noted, no one can experience and then report to the living.

In Sein und Zeit (1927), Martin Heidegger attempted to make a distinction between “authentic death”, I.e., death as faced, realized, experienced by an individual of courage and intellect, perhaps the very culmination of life, the event granting it real meaning – and “inauthentic death”, just the run-of-the-mill everyday household variety of death happening while no one pays attention to it. Given the distinctions of my own present text, it can be understood that “authentic death” would be that confronted by a civilized person, and “inauthentic death” the curse of cowardice.

But while I respect Heidegger’s evidently civilized desire for a civilized confrontation with one’s own mortality, I must reject the distinction as attempted poesis of myth. Death’s arrival is inevitable, but always surprising. Preparing for it, simply as an individual, as the culmination of one’s individual living – this is simply impossible. The most we can do is prepare what others might say of us after our demise. But that preparation, which is really the preparation Heidegger is discussing, although he is clearly unaware of this – can never be finished, because death itself always cuts it short. That can only mean that such preparation is irrelevant to death. And, indeed, such is the case; what could it possibly matter to one what others say of one, after one has become impossible? And although Heidegger doesn’t want the “authentic” individual to confront death as does the otherwise nameless “one” of generic subjectivity, I’m afraid this is unavoidable. Any individual human dies in just the same manner as dies any “one” (the “Man” or “They” of Heidegger’s text).

Whatever it is (which we living can never know), death is the same for all human beings. One who has attained any awareness of this accepts this fact and devotes life to doing what one can for others, and finding personal satisfactions in community with others. There’s no real point in doing anything on one’s own just for one’s self, which is doomed in the first instance. Even an effort to contribute to a future – which, after all is always closed off to the individual – must be undertaken as an effort to contribute to the future presence of others.

3. The end comes at last

We close the door on death (temporarily), but perhaps open the door to a new way of looking at life. I suppose one could get all evolutionary here and remark the necessity of continuing the species; but this is a weak argument to those who care little whether their species continues or not.

The real point to be made is that the denial of death that leads to the pursuit of momentary pleasures, especially those that generate harm for others (and one’s self, eventually), neither generates an “eternal now,” nor sustains within it. This “now” repeats itself incessantly, becoming a predictable, and rather boring, pattern of seeking pleasure, enjoying it, loss, dissatisfaction, forgetting, seeking all over again.

To accept our own mortality, however, is neither morbid nor despairing. It means we have a moment to recognize that what we do in life will always have consequences in the future. And it also means that we remember, the future is not ours alone. It belongs to our community, and to our progeny.

Those who have children owe it to them, having burdened them with the possibilities, risks, and responsibilities of life, to provide for their future, and not simply their passing fancies. And those without children share precisely this same debt to the children of our community. We enjoy the community’s benefits, we share its responsibilities. And there can be no greater responsibility to the community, than to work for the continuance of the community.

Once we’re dead, it will matter little to us what others say of us; but surely it matters now, that we can see our actions remembered in the betterment of the community and the further development of its children.

The end of life that is death, thus allows us the opportunity to find a telos that is life. We know where we are going. The great challenge is to create the purpose for the journey that will get us there. That purpose can only have to do with living itself, and it would seem the broadest, deepest purpose that we can build for ourselves, always reaches out to others – not to get something from them, but to contribute to their own efforts to create purpose. The search for meaning may find its goal in the continued search for meaning – as shared with others.


3 thoughts on “Death: its presence and future

  1. Simply awesome essay.

    One who has attained any awareness of this accepts this fact and devotes life to doing what one can for others, and finding personal satisfactions in community with others.

    This is the central challenge facing Secular Humanism in the first half of this century. The Abrahamic faiths are dying, and dying quickly, but a true humanist message (a consoling message, if that is the right word) must be forged and implanted in its stead. We need to manage the fear of death, for that is not going away.

    (BTW, you need a Follow Blog by Email widget thing. It would really help not missing your posts in the Reader)


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