By Basil E. Gala, Ph.D.
In Search of Meaning
My older brother George, 85, is depressed and thinks he’s dying, although doctors have not found that he has a terminal illness. We live in the same house and I take care of him as we have been close brothers throughout our lives, our wives having divorced us many years back. I tell my brother don’t think of death; think of life. Death is nothingness; you can do nothing with it. You can do something only when living, so think of life, even if you can do just one little thing, smile or say a loving word to those dear to you.
Giving such advice to people at death’s door is too easy. They know they’re terminally ill or terminally old and are of no use to anybody; they feel they’re a burden on their families or society. Every move they make may be painful. They’re tired of being tortured in hospitals or nursing homes, stuck with needles, given medicines, and having their diapers changed. They’re ready to welcome Dr. Kevorkian or at least the hospice people. What would you do or say in that situation? Would you summon up a smile and keeping on living a while longer or quit eating like my father Elias, his method of ending his life, very frail but not ill at age 100.
I tell myself that I will face death and dying without fear. I will accept the torments of a terminal state of life and I will keep on working to the extent I’m able to work in that condition. Even if I cannot produce any useful output, I will remain there calm and content as an inspiration to those around me, much like a monument of stone or steel. Will I do that? The day when I shall be tested is coming close.
One day we’re born and cry from the pain of it, clearing our lungs to breath air. We slowly acquire functions, drinking, eating, getting rid of wastes in diapers, later learning toilet control, smiling, laughing, grasping, throwing, feeding ourselves, learning to speak, read, write, and do arithmetic, on to high school, college, and work training. We love someone and parent children. Then we age, slowly losing function, finally ending up being fed and wearing diapers again if we survive long enough. Eventually, we lose the power to move, to remember and to think; painfully again we return to the condition from which started–back to darkness.
As darkness is the absence of light, so is death the absence of life; it has no other substance, although depicted in imaginative drawings as a robed and hooded skeleton holding a scythe. To understand death we must, therefore, understand what a living entity is and what is consciousness and identity, the inner state of being associated with systems that live. At the most elementary level, a living object contains DNA, giant molecules holding instructions and controls for the production and operation of life, at least here on Earth. We don’t know what sort of mechanisms life employs off the Earth. Inanimate objects are passive, lacking purpose and adaptability; living objects act on and transform passive objects to survive, grow, and multiply.
Those alive fear and resist death, the process of becoming an inanimate object, unless they’re mentally ill or deluded. If human, customarily they also deny that such a devastating event can happen to them or their loved ones. Yet, those who aspire to philosophy, loving wisdom, should accept death, when necessary, with calmness and dignity, avoiding denial of death in its many forms, religious or secular. The prospect of death, which humans with reasoning, unlike other animals, can clearly expect, should be a mirror on our past and remaining years on Earth, giving us a compacted and vivid image on what we have done, inspiring us to pursue moral goals, based on our highest values, and stimulating us to live more meaningful and worthwhile days, down to our last one.
A successful TV series, “Run for Your Life,” with actor Ben Gazzara, portrayed a dying man who travelled and lived life to the fullest helping others.
It’s easy to make statements about facing death with equanimity and a firm purpose to keep being useful and enjoying life, but it’s hard to do that when your very own body and consciousness is at risk of disappearing; it’s easier to shake with fear and loathing of losing you mortal coil. To understand death and life, the concept of consciousness is more important than DNA, chromosomes and genes. Consciousness is awareness of things through numerous sense organs, with sensations both internal and external. Consciousness relates to something. I’m aware of a pain or a pleasure; I’m aware of light, of colors and shapes. Then we have our voluntary reaction to these stimuli. I can image a machine possessing consciousness, without DNA, unrelated to the evolution of organisms on Earth. If such an intelligent machine, perhaps not that intelligent as we are or far more intelligent than we are, is behaving in a purposeful, autonomous, and effective way for its survival, I have to accept it as conscious, for the same reasons I accept you as conscious when I meet you.
After all, the human body is a biological machine that has evolved over billions of years to perform certain functions and produce useful output. When it has worn out and no longer has any value, it is ready for recycling. I own a 1982 Mercedes 240D with 340,000 miles on the original engine and transmission It chugs along very well and gets me around town, albeit irritating those behind with its slow acceleration. I service it regularly and fix small breakdowns. The car is useful still and economical, an old friend of thirty years, but I don’t expect it to go on forever. I just try to get more mileage and performance out of it, as I do out of my body; when no longer of any use this machine can be recycled and I can move on to the next thing, whatever it may be.
Some futuristic investigators are considering the prospect of transferring our consciousness with our memories and our identity to a smart machine, thus extending the span of our consciousness indefinitely.
For intelligent machine, human, or amoeba, death means permanent loss of consciousness and dissolution. Consciousness, when involuntary and unnatural is a distressing and alarming event. We don’t mind going to sleep when we’re very tired at the end of the day. The unconsciousness of sleep after a long day’s hard work is most welcome to us. We rise the next morning rested and refreshed, ready for new adventures and accomplishments. Eight hours have gone away like a moment’s wink. But if we faint from loss of blood or some other shock, that’s dangerous and important to ourselves and our doctors. Death is even more fearsome, not at all like losing consciousness from fatigue, excessive alcohol, or other drugs. That kind of state is forever, as far as we know.
Yet, the state of final death can be delayed indefinitely. Is a frozen body, like a frozen embryo, alive? Yes, if it can be revived after hibernation. The cryogenic movement has people dying from a terminal illness frozen in liquid nitrogen, in the hope of reviving the body when medical science has discovered a cure.
Most people believe that even irreversible death, with the body’s dissolution, is not the end of life. We are taught to believe that by our religion or philosophy. Such belief is based on the dichotomy of body and mind, or soul, well expounded by Rene Descartes, but also many others before him and after him. Socrates talked to his disciples about an afterlife for himself in a place with other thinkers, continuing his discussions on matters of importance. Plato in the dialogue Phaedo justifies the perpetuation of the spirit primarily on the basis of natural cycles. Socrates calmly drank the hemlock in prison, refusing to escape and violate the laws of his country.
If we’re not religious, we need to find other reasons for accepting death courageously and peacefully, even with a smile or a joke. We had no consciousness before we were born, or a few months before that event. Our consciousness appears from nothing and to nothing it goes upon death. Our entire universe also emerged from a singularity, or nothing, and is headed towards nothingness. Why be upset about either situation? Death is a natural process like birth, sex, parenting, and aging—nothing to be alarmed about.
It’s harder, however, for most of us to accept the loss of loved ones. We go into deep grief and into denial, “Oh, no, no, no!” Who has lost a child and taken that event with complete equanimity?
Then some persons seek out death in a variety of ways: engaging in dangerous sports, abusing their bodies with recreational drugs, or picking fights. The men of ISIS have declared that they love death as opposed to the rest of us who love life. They have decided to go to war with nations large and small until they have achieved their death with the promise of paradise. And they have no concern for their remains.
Most of us want to preserve the remains of our loved ones as long as possible, embalm, beautify, and put them in a fine casket and burial site. When the flesh has decomposed, the bones are relics. The remains possess no consciousness, obviously. The body is cold and pale. It has no heartbeat, no breath, and no brain waves. It quickly decomposes. Great people have built pyramids for their dead bodies, monuments, and mausoleums. The Viking chiefs burned the body in a boat together with the chief’s favorite woman, alive. East Indian Hindus practiced sati, the living wife burned on a pyre with the dead husband–but not the reverse. American Plains Indians put the body on a raised bed of sticks and let the buzzards consume it.
When a fallen warrior cannot be identified, we place the body in a tomb for the Unknown Soldier to honor the fighter’s memory. In many societies a hero that falls dead in battle cannot be allowed to be taken by the enemy. As in Homer’s Iliad, brave comrades of the hero surround the body and protect it, so it can be retrieved together with valuable weapons, they body later ceremonially burned or buried.
In some tribal societies, relatives of the dead person ate parts of the body ceremonially to honor the memory of the dead. Jesus offered bread and wine to his apostles at the last supper, symbolizing his flesh and blood as well as his spirit.
In some tribes, the custom was to eat parts, especially the heart, of a worthy enemy killed in battle to absorb his courage or wisdom.
Obviously, the dead body reverts to the elements one way or another, having little to do with the person that once functioned inside it. My parents’ ashes were cremated and I took them to my house in Greece, where they are buried at the foot of an olive tree in the yard. My own ashes will be there too soon enough.
We have ceremonies, rites, and rituals at the funeral of family members, friends, and public figures, not for their benefit, but to assuage our own grief. The best way to dispose of the body is to put it six feet under the surface of the soil, in a simple pine box, or to cremate it. That is also economical; the money is better spent taking care of the living relatives who need help.
Jesus taught, “And whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die.” (John 11:26) Other prophets in all religions have made similar promises to which people have attached themselves for hope and comfort. People say of a loved one who died that he or she has gone to a better place. How do they know that? Nobody knows. We just don’t know, but it’s all right, we’re all headed that way sooner or later.
We don’t like to say a loved one has died. He or she has passed on–across the river to the other side. That attitude is evasion and denial. We have no real evidence of any other side. After-death experiences are subjective and not available for scientific investigation. The declarations of prophets, mystics, and seers are handed to us without any proof of their validity. Believe and don’t question. I do question, especially the perpetuation of consciousness and identity after the body’s dissolution.
Yet, there may be a Universal Consciousness with which we merge, like John Donne’s main. We may be part of that while our body is alive, an isolated part of it which upon death joins the Cosmic Self.
Do we return to a new body again after detaching from the Cosmic Self? Does transmigration of the soul happen? Not being a Hindu, I cannot answer that question positively. It’s sheer speculation, perhaps denial of the inevitability of our own demise.
If we face the prospect of death, as we all do sooner or later, it is better to use that prospect to energize us, to encourage us to work harder and better, achieve more in the life remaining, even if that is only a few moments. We can say, like Goethe at the moment of death, “Light, more light,” shortly after completing his Faust, Part II poem, with this last stanza:
Turn, flames of love, once more
Pure light reveal
Those who their lives deplore
Truth yet shall heal;
Rescued, no more the thrall of evil cares,
Soon with the All-in-All
Bliss shall be theirs.