The thing about death


The contemplation of death is likely to be more frightening than the actual act of dying itself. The fear of the overwhelming physical pain that probably accompanies death cannot be dismissed lightly but pain is a tangible quantity to some extent; exceed a certain threshold and the pain goes away to be replaced with something else… or with nothing.

But it is precisely this nothing, the negation of the ego, that feels like the dominant concern in thinking about death. Our fascination with the macabre is but one manifestation of this, expressed in a gradual gradient reaching towards that ultimate negation. The wiping off of everything that is implied in you being an entity alive in space and time is bound to be a disconcerting thought to anyone that has consciously regarded themselves as an entity alive in space and time. It carries a certain selfish preoccupation with it and also not a little logical fallacy; after all, why care about what is or isn’t after you stop to be? You won’t be around to suffer through it the way you suffer through the loss of a dear one, so why bother?

But it isn’t so much about the afterlife as it is about the erasing of a personality. Who among us has never wondered about what their funeral would be like? Who wouldn’t give an arm to be a shade hovering above their final rites, looking down on those that showed up to mourn their passing and absorbing some of the prevailing mood? A lifetime spent developing an identity brick upon brick is snuffed out in the blink of an eye; memories that have coalesced around a reasonably stable spine of consciousness are suddenly dispersed like so much spindrift. Relationships, both extant and long diffused, with objects animated or otherwise, cease to hold meaning.

To stop partaking of the world and all that it offers, not for a temporary period like how we do during undisturbed sleep or serious bouts of illness but for ever, is an unsettling proposition that we never quite learn how to appreciate while we live because we know of no legitimate comparison to it.

Some may say that you live on for posterity through your legacy in the minds of others; while that is true and liable to be material for inspiration if so deserved, your legacy by definition is nothing more than a second-hand interpretation of your experiences. Others can only ever assume who you were as an individual, their interpretation arising through a filter that must be colored by their own prejudices and expectations. What you experienced intimately in your interactions with the world, however, dies with you without hope for retrieval.

I have often entertained notions of an exact replica of myself existing sometime in the past or in the future; given enough time, is it that far past the bounds of mathematical probability for such a thing to happen? If such a replica did in fact exist and we had foreknowledge of its existence, perhaps the end of life would not hit such a bittersweet note. Our incarnation in the present day would only be one in an ongoing series of existences and so its termination would not be great cause for anxiety.

Probabilities, however, are just that. Practical reason suggests that a fully matured human life is far too intricate and finely variegated, and a product of just the right set of individual circumstances, for it to come about over and over again. Death makes a whole bank of experience and emotion, personal to you, obsolete as if it never existed. The universe doesn’t care, the world may care for a while if you had something substantial to say, but even that passes with time; the overwhelming majority of men to have lived remain unacknowledged.

There naturally is a big dose of vanity and selfish self-preservation inherent in all of this. The holy books say that one can prepare to meet death with equanimity by chipping away at material concerns, and by subsuming our egos and leading a life of humility. Some assure us of eternal life beyond death, an assertion that speaks directly to the same fear of negation of being. There is old wisdom in this reasoning and it has served man, for better or worse, since he started asking questions carrying a weight greater than that pertaining to his immediate survival.

But this is not about meeting death with stoicism nor is it about a fear of the unknown. It isn’t about how death affects the ones that are left behind either. To the one thinking about death, there is a centripetal tragedy and melancholy in dying. Life of any sort, but individual human life in particular, given all its textures and its developmental trajectory, seems an incredibly rare accident in an inexorable, indifferent cosmos. How can its inevitable ending not be a cause for lament?

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2 Responses to The thing about death

  1. Anonymous says:

    Life of any sort, but individual human life in particular, given all its textures and its developmental trajectory, seems an incredibly rare accident in an inexorable, indifferent cosmos. How can its inevitable ending not be a cause for lament?

    I think you’re placing far too much importance here on human life in general, it’s simply not that special and it’s value is highly debatable in terms of our relationship with the planet. Your article raises some interesting points to be sure, but in the end, none of it really matters.

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