By unhappy coincidence, quite a few people that I have been acquainted with in various ways have died recently.
I would not have witnessed any of this had I acted upon suicidal thoughts I was having myself, about 12 months ago.
I wrote a chapter on death in my book, The Asylum of the Universe, a good few years ago. The book was published 5 years ago and the Death chapter was one of the first I wrote – probably 3 or 4 years before that. I have felt inclined to revisit it recently.
The one major difference is that I no longer hold onto the belief that life is worth clinging to, no matter what. More than anything, I think this represents me making a transition from middle-age comfort towards older decrepitude and a growing realisation that very old age has little to offer, especially the way the world continues to shape up. I therefore offer this chapter I wrote 8-10 years ago, unedited, in this context, but for no real reason. If it opens up any useful discussion anywhere, then that will be a bonus.
I overheard my wife chatting on the phone to her sister the other day. She was updating her on my father-in-law who has had a serious stroke recently. Last year he had his second kidney removed due to cancer. He has also had three heart attacks. She also mentioned my in-laws’ cat in the same conversation. It is 18 years old – around 90 in cat years, I am reliably informed. It seems to suffer some form of dementia. It will stand leaning against walls for ages. It walks into things. It is a nothing but skin and bones. You can stand on its tail and it doesn’t notice! The thing is, I wasn’t sure whether they were talking about the man or the cat when I heard my wife say that he probably cannot have too long left; that he has no real quality of life; that death will be a blessed relief. Hmmm!
It doesn’t really matter who they were talking about, does it? A blessed relief!! To whom would dying be any sort of relief? I struggle to conceive of a relieved corpse, so the relief must be that of the people relieved of the duty of care for the now-deceased. This is one of the main arguments for euthanasia, if I am not mistaken. And as for real quality of life, how much of that is there when you’re dead? It is the same line of argument that says, “Better dead than red”. Bollocks is it!
I do, of course, understand that people can decide that they have had enough and choose to terminate their own lives. These people fall in to two main categories: the religious and/or spiritual who wish to hasten their migration to the ‘other side’ for many reasons, including that curiously compelling concept called ‘martyrdom’; and the suicidally depressed whose mental state inflates their perception of life’s problems to the exclusion of life’s joys. The former choose to deny the finality of death, while the latter, if not also in this group, see the empty void, the nothingness, as preferable to the continued negative experiences that are swamping them at the time. It essentially boils down to a fear of living being greater than the fear of dying.
Although I fear death, in the sense that I would prefer to live forever than be non-existent, there can be absolutely nothing to fear in being dead. Epicurus, as so often, explained it well (centuries before Jesus):
It is religion that engenders fear of being dead – as it generally invokes concepts of judgement. We rarely feel comfortable being judged, but when the verdict of the judge is perceived to have eternal consequences, it is no wonder believers are nervous about it!
I find the concept of martyring oneself for a cause an interesting one. Belief in an afterlife must certainly make it a lot easier option to face up to. As I lack such beliefs myself, I tend to feel a sense of pity for these poor misguided fools who make the ultimate sacrifice in the hope of supposedly bettering the lives of other believers while securing themselves a place in paradise. But hang on minute. Where is the sacrifice in taking a short cut to heaven?
This is the religious con trick, currently so beloved of Muslim fundamentalists, but utilised by many religions throughout history. Making such a sacrifice out of a selfless sense of love for others is far more impressive I would suggest. I could accept the oblivion of death in order to perpetuate the lives of my kids, as they are my only stake in the future beyond my own existence. I cannot imagine sacrificing my life for anyone else.
Empirical evidence for life after death tends to focus on observations from ‘near death’ experiences. Research has revealed a fair degree of common features reported from people in these circumstances. These include seeing bright lights, sensation of levitation, feelings of serenity or, alternatively, fear and out-of-body sensations and visions. Research has also uncovered, however, a range of scientific explanations that include hormone releases, residual effects of psychedelic drugs, and ‘reflexes’ in the sensory autonomic system, lucid dreaming and psychopathological symptoms.
So what forms of ‘life after death’ are on offer to those that are prepared to buy into various religious ‘deals’?
• Christians and Muslims are particularly keen on heavenly paradises for the worthy and eternal suffering in hell for those that do not make the cut.
• Christians have had cute notions of sprouting wings and metamorphosing into angels, if you are lucky enough to go to heaven, or sprouting horns and, possibly, a wicked sense of humour if you go to hell.
• Buddhists, Hindus, Sikhs and Wiccans have a fine range of reincarnation options on offer.
• Ancient Egyptians had a special offer, whereby if you subjected your corpse to mummification you could get to ride with the Sun. Sounds exciting!
• Zoroastrians get to spend three days with either a beautiful maiden (if you are good) or an ugly hag (if you are bad), before descending to a mildly unpleasant sort of hell. I am not sure if the women get exactly the same deal or what!
• Ancient Greeks and Romans had access to an underworld populated by the dead, but which could be visited and returned from in certain circumstances.
• The Vikings had Valhalla – a heaven available only to those that died heroically in battle. A cool army recruitment tool, don’t you think?
• The Jews have ummed and ahhed a bit. Death as a form of limbo before resurrection has been popular, as has re-incarnation. Kabbalists and the Orthodox Jews are still quite keen on this.
• Mormons have three degrees of ‘heavenly glory’ available: CELESTIAL – the ‘gold standard’ heaven where you get to actually sit with God; TERRESTRIAL – ‘silver’ heaven, which is another dimension somewhere here on Earth for honourable people that failed to embrace God; and TELESTIAL – more like the wooden spoon than ‘bronze’; it is like a holding pen for sinners and deniers of God, and they will be the last in the queue for resurrection.
The devious, as well as the deluded, can manipulate people who buy into these brands of nonsense to the point where they will opt for martyrdom – invariably for political ends. There is no denying the impact that martyrdom can have as a political gesture. I am not sure that Jesus qualifies as a martyr, but his death has certainly had an impact on the world.
The same is certainly true of some lesser-known martyrs. Emily Davison was the suffragette who died under the feet of the King’s horse at the 1913 Derby. In her autobiography, Emmeline Pankhurst wrote:
“Emily Davison clung to her conviction that one great tragedy, the deliberate throwing into the breach of a human life, would put an end to the intolerable torture of women.”
I am not sure she managed anything quite this ambitious, but between them Emily and Emmeline certainly changed the lives of women quite dramatically for the better. It does however prove that it is the dramatic that grabs the attention and forces people to take notice. Check out this image for example:
You may, possibly, recognise it as the image from the eponymous album by Rage Against the Machine. When I first saw it on this album cover, I simply had to find out what was going on. The guy is just sitting upright, perfectly still and in control as he burns to death!!
Hòa Thượng Thích Quảng Đức, was a Vietnamese Mahayana Buddhist monk who burned himself to death at a busy Saigon road intersection on 11 June 1963. Thích Quảng Đức was protesting against the persecution of Buddhists by South Vietnam’s Ngô Đình Diệm administration. Photos of his self-immolation were circulated widely across the world and brought attention to the policies of the Diệm regime. Malcolm Browne won a Pulitzer Prize for this iconic photo of the monk’s death, as did David Halberstam for his written account. Thích Quảng Đức’s act increased international pressure on Diệm and led him to announce reforms with the intention of mollifying the imm Buddhists. This self-immolation is widely seen as the turning point of the Vietnamese Buddhist crisis which led to the change in regime.
The difficulty I have with such gestures is that for every instance that hits the headlines and that leads to change, there are countless other examples of martyrdom in vain – because nobody noticed or nobody cared. Dozens of other Buddhist monks incinerated themselves and achieved very little. It was Malcolm Browne’s photo that had the impact, not the act per se. The 9/11 Twin Towers attack had plenty of coverage, but any claims to martyrdom disappear under the blanketing act of mass murder. And as yet, it is hard to discern anything resembling progress for anyone from these acts. So, all in all, I will stick with the conclusion that martyrdom is for the thoroughly misguided and gullible.
Another group that has been in the forefront of public debate in recent times is the terminally ill, especially those suffering debilitating disabilities that need assistance in exercising the option of suicide. Typically, countries that treat their citizens like mature intelligent adults (e.g. Switzerland) have civilised policies that allow people to ‘pass away’ discreetly and with dignity. Equally typically, nanny states (e.g. the U.K.) feel the need to protect their citizens from themselves and evil people who might be a bit too keen to shuffle them off this mortal coil. Obviously, there needs to be safeguards, but unlike the Swiss, the British cannot be arsed to put them in place, so it is simpler and cheaper to simply deny the option.
This suits me just fine, as I am committed to the idea that any level of suffering and indignity is better than being dead. But unlike those with religious ‘righteousness’ informing their ability to judge for other people, I am happy to let sane intelligent adults come to their own decisions.
Death is, of course one of life’s great inevitabilities. Most of us don’t like thinking about it, but of course we do. We don’t like talking about it, but we probably should. Living with my wife has taught me on numerous occasions that talking things through, although difficult, invariably brings greater clarity and makes things easier.
For this reason I have a lot of respect for people facing up to life threatening illnesses, and other potentially deadly situations, that are prepared to open up and share their experiences. Roy Castle was inspirational, and it is the only worthwhile thing that I am aware Jade Goody ever did, sad to say. The artificial celebrity created for the conspicuously talentless and intellectually challenged Jade, allowed her the opportunity to make a meaningful contribution as she shared her trials and tribulations battling cancer with the nation. It was a sad reflection on the society in which we now live that some sick people saw fit to revel in her despair. There was even a website that invited people to guess the precise moment she would take her last breath.
Such sick attitudes only serve to reveal just how casual many people are about death. There is something about the whole notion of death that engenders all manner of strangely contorted attitudes. What should we make of anti-abortionists who murder medics who perform abortions, for example? One idiot of a judge in Kansas has declared that he will consider a voluntary manslaughter or “necessity” defence for psycho Scott Roeder who readily admits to the killing of an abortion practitioner. It would probably mean just a five-year sentence for Roeder and open season on abortionists in Kansas at least.
How we view death, especially other peoples’, is a matter of perspective. To me, my life is of the utmost importance. To my nearest and dearest, my death may cause some transitory consequences and maybe a little grief. To the rest of the world it will be of no real consequence at all.
Death is, after all, an everyday mundane event. According to the World Health Organisation, there are about 154,000 deaths per day worldwide (over 100 per minute). We probably cry over less than one of these per decade. In terms of geological timescales, if we compare the history of planet earth to a 24-hour clock, the whole of humanity has existed for less than the last second – leave alone my own pathetic lifespan of a few decades. So, on the one hand, my life is the most precious and important thing; while on the other hand it is utterly inconsequential. To quote Tim Minchin, yet again, ‘I am a tiny, insignificant, ignorant bit of carbon’.
Those of a religious bent will tend to deny the finality of death and concoct notions of some sort of afterlife as a consolation. Their shows of grief at death reveal their true beliefs. If their belief were profound, surely death would be an event to celebrate or even a cause of envy.
As already mentioned, there is nothing to fear in death, as the Epicurean thinkers and teachers pointed out a few centuries before Jesus perpetuated an old tradition of peddling false hopes of an afterlife. The most eloquent Epicurean writer was undoubtedly Lucretius. His epic poem On the Nature of Things is unsurpassed in its beautiful exposition of the simple truths of the world we live in.
Considering he wrote it around 60 B.C.E., the quality of the scientific observation and deduction are also remarkable. Lucretius described the body and soul as being atomically constituted, like everything else in the universe, and therefore, like everything else, both body and soul will disintegrate and disperse after death. He argues that our mental development tracks that of our body through infancy, maturity and senility, such that we should expect the breakdown of our mental faculties as our body begins to fall apart. He concluded that there could thus be no life after death, no reincarnation, and no punishment in Hades/Hell. He found the notion of a benevolent creator utter nonsense; as such a creator would surely have ensured that his creations would be everlasting. On top of this, he recognised that the world is hostile to human existence, in the same way that all living creatures have ongoing battles for survival. He describes (mockingly I suggest) newborn babies tears on emerging into this worldas admirably prescient considering all the troubles that lie ahead for it.
It is as if they know they have arrived in the asylum of the universe!
Live while you love!