I have known from the age of four or so that eventually, we will all someday die. I used to fear the coming of my fifth birthday, as it brought me one step closer to that dark unknown.
There was no hiding the truth from me! But despite this precocious understanding of dying, the true fear of death did not manifest til around twenty four or so.
Now I have the ability to really feel the truth that one day I will be no more. Death is an occasion that happens to all of us and regardless of who is around us, it is the individual’s body that will let go of life.
The impact of death cannot be taken lightly. I believe that we live in a sort of necessary ignorance, that we will live forever. But sometimes it really strikes me that we won’t.
Perhaps death has the boon of encouraging better choices. If we can afford to live in its shadow.
In the dark moments where I fear and feel what it might be to die, my finite mind races to consolations, clutching in the dark for hope.
i) We do not know what happens: No matter how far scientific knowledge advances, no one can empirically die and tell us what it is like or what follows. As the bastion of science is chipped away and revealed to me to be one discipline of knowledge, rather than the discipline, I fear its conclusions much, much less. Anyone who says they know for certain what happens after you die is over-zealous.
ii) The return to the cosmos: Before coming into the world we were not as we are. After we die, we will cease to be what we are. Therefore death is a return to a previous state of ‘non-existence’. But if we could manifest from that ‘nothing’ into ‘something’ once, is it not possible that something of ‘us’ could manifest again in a different form? Or perhaps the pre-human us, if there was one, had some form of being of itself? We do not know.
iii) The cycle of life: Without something else dying it is immensely unlikely that you would have been born. What would you eat? What would the thing that you ate have eaten? Even if we only eat plants, we are still part of a cycle of life and death, growth and decay. If my living forever prevented someone else from being brought into the world, imagine how terrible that would be. Death is part of our evolution, it allows creatures to emerge into the world and adapt anew. It is also part of our cultural evolution. Nothing is as vigourous or powerful as youth – imagine a civilization made up entirely of the elderly. Immortals would not change or adapt as well as mortals.
iv) It happens to all of us: This is a bit of a negative egalitarianism and not really much of a consolation. But everyone will have to die someday. All of the people in history, many of whom we know and love through their works, had to die. Everyone in the 18th century, for instance, is now long, long gone. Nothing can preserve itself forever in one form. Everything will go.
v) You will become a butterfly or a tree: But first you will be eaten up and shat out by a worm, vulture, fox or some such creature. Not to mention zillions of tinies. Lets not be sentimental or try to give this a happy, psychologically comfortable ending. The prospect is neither good nor bad, it just is. The knowledge of the seasons changing and things continuing on does provide some consolation. But now even this is threatened by human civilization. We can’t become ‘butterflies or trees’ if there are no butterflies or trees left.
vi) It can end suffering: For most in the world, life involves a lot of suffering. All of us will grow old and most of us infirm. Any number of unfortunate things could happen to us, no matter how well we look after ourselves. Life is so vigorous it strives to survive and we have great capacity to endure. But I would not want to age and age and age in a body that was falling apart. Death, though it is always sad, seems the lesser of two evils. I also often think of dystopias, where totalitarian governments have the potential power to torture people for an eternity, and I am grateful for the reaper.
The way the death of a loved one effects us is hard to describe. But it is powerful, so very powerful, and you never know what it is like until it happens. When it happens you may look upon that person in a different light. Even if you fought with them everyday, you might miss them, or realize how important they were to your life.
Death is so powerful. Don’t just read about it and think that will suffice. It is something you must explore yourself, think about yourself and feel for yourself. Anything less is to insult this most powerful, universal force.