Human attitudes toward death are often negative: the transition is met with fear among many, and outright terror by some. Positive emotions, such as relief from suffering and the hope for something better afterward, are occasionally associated with it, but the general feeling humans feel toward death is a negative one, as if it were an undesirable event that should be procrastinated as much as possible. We fight it until the very end, even though death is guaranteed to win. It’s not our fault that we’re this way; we’re biologically programmed to be so. So we have a deep-seated tendency to put everything we have into keeping death away from us as much as we can. This has a negative side effect: when we cannot hold it back any longer, and when death rushes in, many people around the dying person take an attitude of defeat. This attitude toward death and aging I find very harmful. That said, acknowledging the certainty of death, I’ve often wondered if the process is deserving of a different and somewhat unconventional emotional response: pride, not in the vain sense of the word, but in a self-respecting and upright sense. I don’t mean to suggest that one “should” take such a counterintuitive attitude toward death, but only to suggest the thought experiment surrounding what if one did take pride in one’s mortality. What, exactly, would that look like?
Death is a big deal: an irreversible step into something that is possibly wonderful but certainly unknown. If any process can be called uncertain and risky, death outclasses anything else that we do, by far. Moving to another country? That’s nothing compared to dying. Death is a major transition, and the only reason we do not associate it with courage is because it is completely involuntary and universal: everyone, including both the most and least courageous, must do it. But if lifespans were infinite and death were a choice, it’s not one that many people would make. Death, in this light, could be viewed as immensely courageous.
Before I go any further, it’s important to state that suicide is generally not courageous, at least not in the self-destructive form that is most common in this world. Self-destruction (whether it results in death or merely in lesser forms of ruin) is the ultimate in cowardice. That said, choosing to die for another’s benefit, or to escape life when terminally ill, are different matters, and I don’t consider those deaths “suicides”. Suicide, in the most rash and revolting form, is an overstepping act of self-destruction driven by bad impulses and fear or hatred of one’s own existence. To attempt to give up on existence or eradicate one’s self is not courageous, but that’s not what I’m talking about. When I say that death is courageous, I do not go so far as to say that forcing it to come is a courageous act, but more that offering oneself up for it, if this “offer” were not an inflexible prerequisite for physical existence, would be considered extremely courageous. To venture into what is possibly another world, and possibly nonexistence, with no hope of return? Even with the best possibilities of this journey being far superior to anything this existence can offer, few (even among the religiously devout and unwaveringly faithful) would take it. I’m not even sure if I could bring myself to do it. For a person freed from death’s inevitability, whether or not to die would be a very difficult decision, and probably one that even most religious believers, solid in their belief in an afterlife, would procrastinate for a very long time.
That said, modern society does not view death as a process that may be full of promise. Instead, our society’s attitude toward death is negative and mechanistic, so far as it views death as the ultimate in failure. We describe a car or computer as “dead” when it fails beyond repair, and (accurately, biologically speaking) describe a cell as dead when it can no longer perform necessary biological functions, such as self-repair and reproduction. That which is “dead” has failed beyond hope and is now of such low utility that, on account of its mass and volume, it’s now a burden. This analogy applies to the human body– its failure is the cause of biological death, and it is utterly useless after death– but to the human person? The comparison, I think, is unfair. After a life well-lived, the soul might be in a victorious or brilliant state. We really don’t know. We know that we have to deal with a corpse, and that a person is no longer around to laugh at our jokes, but we haven’t a clue what the experience is like for that person. Being mostly selfish creatures– I make this observation neutrally, and it applies to me as much as anyone else– we reflexively view death as a negative, mainly because of the incredible pain that others’ deaths bring upon us. We don’t know what it’s like to die, but we hate when those we love die.
The image of death in our society is quite negative, and possibly unfairly, but it is natural that a society like ours would despite death. We view the suffering it causes every day, and even if it might have incredible subjective benefits for those who are dying, we never see them (and those who have seen them, if they exist, don’t blog). Our view of dying is even more disparaging. We view death as something that overtakes people after a long and horrible fight that has exhausted them. In the traditional Western view, a person dies when there is nothing left of that person. Dying isn’t treated as the graduation into another state, but the gradual winding down into nothingness, a reversal of the emergence from oblivion that is held to exist before conception. This view of death leads us to view the dying and dead as frail, defeated, failed creatures; rather than beings that have bravely ventured into the unknown– an unknown that may even entail nonexistence.
This attitude of pride in death may seem untenable. As I alluded, can something be courageous when it’s utterly involuntary? I’ll freely admit that such an attitude may seem bizarre. But equally and differently bizarre is the idea (unspoken but implicit in the modern Western attitude toward death, despite being passively rejected by most people in the West) that death certainly leads to nothingness, or to divine judgment; or, for that matter, any claim of certainty regarding what happens after death. For this, it’s the incredible uncertainty in death that makes going into it, in a way, courageous. Or, at least, it must be possible to go into death with courage.
Should death be feared? I would argue “no”. At this point, I venture into a sort of benevolent hypocrisy by saying there is no point in fearing death, since I certainly have not extinguished my fear of it. I know that my death will come, but I certainly don’t want it to come now. I’m not ready. I don’t know when I will be ready; I hope this won’t be the case, but maybe I’ll feel, at age 90, just as unready to die as I feel now at 27. I’ll certainly admit that I have no desire to hasten the process, and share the general desire to prolong my life that almost all humans have. We naturally have a deep-seated fear of anything that reduces our reproductive fitness, and death has this effect in a most dramatic and irreversible way. We also have an intellectual dislike for the concept of nonexistence, even though nonexistence itself cannot possibly be unpleasant. Finally, what most terrifying about death is the possibility of a negative afterlife.
In order to assess whether fear of death is warranted, we have to attack these valid reasons for people to be wary of it. First, on the biological aspects: death does reduce an individual’s reproductive fitness, but dying is also something we’re programmed to do: after a certain point, we age and die. In this light alone, death in advanced age cannot be viewed as a failure; it’s just what human bodies do. On the more cerebral concept of nonexistence, there is not much to say about this other than the fact that there’s no reason to fear this, since it is not experienced but is the absence of experience. I would not like to find out that I am wrong and that there’s nothing after death; luckily, if there is nothing after death, I will never find out. For this reason, to fear nonexistence makes little sense.
Negative afterlife possibilities deserve a bit of discussion. History is littered with peoples’ attempts, many quite successful, to use the uncertainty associated with death to their own benefit, and to gain political power by claiming (under pretense of divine authority) that behaviors they find undesirable will result in extreme and terrifying post-death results, painting a picture of a world run by an insane, malicious, and wrathful God who almost certainly does not exist. I say that such Bronze Age monsters “almost certainly” do not exist because the world makes too much sense for such a being to have created it, and the explanation that this invisible beast was created by a power-hungry person in his own image becomes infinitely more likely. Still, most extant religions contain vestiges of these coercive and perverse behaviors– assertions of divine sadism and vengeance. As a deist who believes one can reason about divinity by observing human existence, I reject such assertions. Filtering out everything in this stuff-people-made-up-to-get-power category, we blast all certain claims to knowledge of the afterlife and are left with moderate-but-inconclusive evidence and deep uncertainty. But there is evidence, if certainly not proof! Subjective experiences of those who have near-death experience suggest a profound and spiritual nature to death– not the fade-out expected of a failing brain before it winds down for good, but a powerful and quite often (but not always) positive experience– and, although in its infancy, research into the matter of reincarnation is promising. What little we know about existence after death suggests that (1) the vengeful gods invented by coercive religions are cartoon characters, not beasts we shall face after death, (2) it is more likely that consciousness persists after death than that it does not, though we do not have, and probably never will have, sufficient knowledge to rule out either, (3) post-death experiences tend to be positive and spiritual, insofar as we can assess them, and (4) that these observations combined with death’s inevitability make it pointless to view death with hatred or fear.
All that said, I don’t think it’s appropriate or useful for me, on this topic, to expound on what I think happens after death, since I don’t really know. In this body, I haven’t done it yet and, once I do, there will be no reliable way for me to report back. For this reason, let’s take a different tack and consider the concept of pride-in-mortality from a pragmatic viewpoint. If one can view one’s impending death with pride and courage instead of fear and hatred, what does that mean while we are still living?
First, to take pride in death allows for it to be an inherently dignified process. Many illnesses and modes of death are horrifying and I wouldn’t wish those on anyone, but the painful process of dying is probably not all there is to death, just as the pain of birth is certainly not the entirety of life. Death itself can be dignified, respected, and even admired. That we will all do it means that we are all dignified creatures. All living things desire happiness, dislike suffering, and will die. The third of these is a deep commonality that deserves respect. Many Buddhists will agree that, since all people are dying at all times, each of us is deserving of compassion. I’ll take it further. Since each of us is going to plunge headlong into deep uncertainty; for this, if nothing else– and some people make it hard to find a single other thing worthy of admiration– each living being deserves to be admired and respected. I am not the first to remark that, in mortality, we are all finally equal.
All this said, a death’s most relevant feature is that it is the end of a life. To make death dignified and to die courageously is good, but these accomplishments should be considered merely consequences of a much greater (and all-encompassing) project: to make life dignified, for everyone, and to live courageously. That is the much harder part, and it does not make sense to approach one project without tackling the other.