Muerte. Décès. Tod. Morto. 死. Death.
This word inspires reverence and fear across all cultures. But what does it actually mean? Sure, we know what death is; most of us have met it indirectly in the course of our lives. But how often, if ever, have we gone to the trouble of refining what we mean we speak and think of it? I want to do that now.
If you have several hours to spare, I suggest you ask Google some questions regarding death. A simple one like “What happens when I die?” throws up some good stuff. For instance, I found ifIdie.org, a service which allows you to write notes to family and friends which can only be read after you’ve snuffed it. I also found out what happens to the body after you die. Now, my partner studied forensic science, and part of the course involved looking at the bodies of people who died in various ways, and who were in differing states of decomposition. As a result, she assures me that dead bodies are far more aesthetically horrifying than anything you see on TV or in the cinema. As usual, she was correct. Google “dead body” and you’ll see what I mean.
Some more links: The Stanford Encyclopedia has an entry on Death that digs into some interesting questions. Maria Popova’s BrainPickings throws up some great meditations on death from a whole variety of people; I suggest you check them out. This Psychology Today piece identifies two stages prior to “actual death”, and lists some characteristics of each:
“The individual facing eventual death may go through two main phases prior to actual death. The first stage is called the pre-active phase of dying and the second phase is called the active phase of dying. The pre-active phase of dying may last weeks or months, while the active phase of dying is much shorter and lasts only a few days, or in some cases a couple of weeks.
– Person withdraws from social activities and spends more time alone
– Person speaks of “tying up loose ends” such as finances, wills, trusts
– Person desires to speak to family and friends and make amends or catch up
– Increased anxiety, discomfort, confusion, agitation, nervousness
– Increased inactivity, lethargy or sleep
– Loss of interest in daily activities
– Increased inability to heal from bruises, infections or wounds
– Less interest in eating or drinking
– Person talks about dying, says that they are going to die or asks questions about death
– Person requests to speak with a religious leader or shows increased interest in praying or repentance
– Person states that he or she is going to die soon
– Has difficulty swallowing liquids or resists food and drink
– Change in personality
– Increasingly unresponsive or cannot speak
– Does not move for longs periods of time
– The extremities—hands, feet, arms and legs—feel very cold to touch.
Not all people show these signs. These signs of death are merely a guide to what may or often happens; some may go through few signs and die within minutes of a change being noticed.”
Now, in this mini-quest to understand death, I also read the Wikipedia entry for death. It’s interesting and recommended as a jump-off point. But after reading this, and a smattering of other articles, I began to discern the central dichotomy concerning death; what happens after. There’s two schools of thought: nothing or something.
The nothing-after-death camp is equated with the idea of eternal oblivion. After death, there is no sustained existence, no continuation of consciousness, no presence or manifestation in this reality or a higher or lower realm. You go from being to not being. The end of our physical being is the end of our entire being. Our candle is put out and all is dark.
The something-after-death camp argues the opposite, but it is split into many competing factions. Various cultures, philosophies, schools-of-thought, religions and communities argue for various things. Some believe in re-birth. Some believe in an afterlife whose makeup is determined by an accounting of deeds committed in this life. There are too many interpretations to list, but the main point of the something-after-death camp is the somewhat incongruous statement, death is not the end of life, just the end of a particular state of being.
At this point, I had intended to state my alignment, to declare which camp I was a part of. But whilst weighing it up, another interpretation of what happens after death came to mind.
In Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, Lyra and Will venture into the underworld. Accompanied by an angel and two Gallivespians, they go in search of a spirit. During their journey, they realise that finding their way back to reality also offers an opportunity to release the spirits of the underworld back to the Earth. Some of the spirits are aghast; being released back into the world will be the end of their existence. Although they exist only as spirits, they still exist, and they don’t want to give that up. So some of them turn on Lyra and Will. But the spirit of a young woman comes to their defense:
“ “But now this child has come offering us a way out and I’m going to follow her. Even if it means oblivion, friends, I’ll welcome it, because it won’t be nothing, we’ll be alive again in a thousand blades of grass, and a million leaves, we’ll be falling in the raindrops and blowing in the fresh breeze, we’ll be glittering in the dew under the stars and the moon out there in the physical world which is our true home and always was.” ”
After all, that’s one of the key tenets of the physical world: matter and energy cannot be created or destroyed, only transferred or transformed. And if that’s true, it follows that we don’t cease to exist, we just cease being organised. We simply go back to the world. The remnants of our body are re-absorbed into the soil from whence they came and we again become nutrients of the future.