A look at death from contemporary, religious, philosophical, and personal perspectives.
Death is the one question that modern science still has yet to answer in the most preliminary way. Religion answers questions about death, but this is largely ignored. Philosophy touches on the subject, but this falls short.
In modern western society, our thoughts on the subject are so thoroughly deficient, that we are not only unprepared, we emotionally flee.
It also produces many outcomes in the modern mind which are mainly on the subconscious level.
The fear of death highly influences our emotions and decision-making. Ernest Becker, contributor to the publication, Death: Current Perspectives, would prefer to use the word terror instead. Terror demonstrates how tightly gripped the subject of death is in all our decision making, and is not restricted by ethnic or socio-economic boundaries.1
The fear of death is followed by the avoidance of death. David Gordon, author of Overcoming the Fear of Death, believes that avoidance permeates our lives.
“Our lives are poisoned by a fear of death, and much of our culture represents a response, however inadequate, to this fear. Most of us are afraid to contemplate our own ending, and when anything reminds us that we too shall die, we flee and turn our thoughts to happier matters.”2
This dreadfulness is directly responsible for many mental illnesses. Noted Psychoanalyst Gregory Zilboorg remarks:
“No one is free of the fear of death… the anxiety, neuroses, the various phobic states, even a considerably number of depressive suicidal states and many schizophrenias amply demonstrate that ever present fear of death.”3
It has built some of the greatest monuments, produced incredible works of art, powerful works of literature, and marvels of engineering. The late controversial philosopher, writer, and political activist Arthur Koestler observed: “If the word death were absent from our vocabulary, our great works of literature would have remained unwritten, pyramids and cathedrals would not exist”.4
Our anxiety is so great that even the words death,, or died is avoided. A study of any newspaper on any given day demonstrates this. For example, my local newspaper, the Winnipeg Free Press’s November 25th, 2007, Obituary section lists seventeen notices with only four that included the words ‘died’, or ‘death’. The dominant words were ‘passing’, or ‘passing away’. This weakened version of death takes away the significance of the event.
One of our greatest apprehensions about death is being buried alive. Edgar Allan Poe, the revered horror writer of the middle 1800s, was consumed by the this. In his popular short story, The Premature Burial, he worked on this fear and that the idea “should be forced to slumber”, otherwise “they will devour us”.5 Although his works are fictional, they may be representative of his life and his unfortunate early demise.
This theme was also in his Cask of Amontillado, where one of the central characters was tricked and sealed in an ancient cave, forced to resign to the reality of death while still conscious — a powerful and scary metaphor that has been a classic horror story over the centuries.
Countless western philosophers have attempted to address the meaning and purpose of death, such as Martin Heidegger, who concluded in the mid-1900s, “It is only in full… awareness of our own mortality that life can take on any purposive meaning.”6 This becomes more clearly defined in the teachings of Albert Camus, who had a major influence on the hippie generation. Camus taught that life is absurd and meaningless; any attempt to understand it is futile. He urged readers to revolt against the meaninglessness of death. His idea of revolt is to be aware of the crushing fate that awaits us, “but without the resignation that accompanies it”.7 It is a pessimistic outlook on life that basically teaches that life is unfair and sad, but we must make the best of what we have, even if one has to pretend.
Another popular contemporary writer during Camus’s time, Aldous Huxley promoted that one should, “Ignore death up to the last moment; then, when it can’t be ignored any longer, have yourself squirted full of morphia and shuffle off in a coma.”8 Which he followed, writing to his attendants for LSD at the last moments of his life.9 Death was an important part of his psyche, culminating in his final piece of literature entitled, Death and Shakespeare.
Jim Morrison, lead singer for the Doors, who named his band from the inspiration of Huxley’s book, The Doors of Perception, was influenced by Huxley and also author William Blake, who wrote that the “road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.”10 Morrison mysteriously died at the age of 27 due to heart failure — arguably his pursuit of happiness led to an over-indulgence in stimulants that cost him his life.
This representation of the 1960s promotes the idea that since death is inevitable, simply ignore this reality and live life to the utmost pleasure with few restrictions as possible because this is your one shot at life. This insatiable pursuit of happiness by Morrison and many contemporaries has been existent for at least 2,800 years. One of the first records of this wave of thought can found in writings as early as 800 BC. It was written in the Biblical book called Isaiah, “Let us eat drink and be merry for tomorrow we die,”11 which stressed the senselessness of life and any attempt to understand it was meaningless.
Ernest Hemingway, considered the heir apparent of Mark Twain as a literary American giant, based one of his foremost books, “The Sun also Rises”, from a reading of the 2,800 year old or so Book of Ecclesiastes. This book is found in the Bible. The unknown writer of Ecclesiastes parodied that all life lacked any meaning. Some book reviewers clearly correlate the analogy of Ecclesiastes with Hemingway’s philosophy on life:12
“What evolves, then, over the course of Hemingway’s forty-year career as a writer is a comprehensive code for living which acknowledges death as the end point in life. The characters to whom Hemingway is most sympathetic are those who exhibit grace under the pressure of an acute awareness of death. These characters usually live life in the present and live it to its fullest extent, enjoying the sensual pleasures that life has to offer; characters who are eating, drinking, and being merry with the knowledge that tomorrow they may die.”13
Hemingway celebrated life in the same way, and when he was unable to enjoy life any longer due to physical limitations in his early sixties, committed suicide.
Specialists in the realm of death and dying believe that the anxiety of death is only one of several features concerning death. Death Attitudes Among Mid-Life Women as found in the Journal of Death and Dying, has it broken into seven categories, death as:
- a concern
- a physical reality
- and dimension of time.14
It correctly suggests that death is a complex subject. However, with the exception of the seventh category, they all relate to a form of anxiety and loss. It doesn’t go into the meaning or purpose of death itself.
Gregory Campbell III, has researched extensively on the subject and has observed some common trends:
“When analyzing the “over 50 death fear,” the students thought it was related to the fact they are so close to death the fear increases. The truth of the matter is the group of 30 to 50 year olds are the ones with the greatest fear of death. They have contributed their share of toil on the planet and now it is time for their reward (retirement, relaxation, etc.). To suddenly be confronted with death is a real tragedy. That is the responsible agent for the heightened fear. Also, as so aptly brought out in class, the individuals at this age oftentimes try for that one last fling in order to try to beat out the suddenly-realized approach of the end of their life. Men around the age of 40 may resort to affairs (to prove their vitality), major changes in lifestyle, daredevil acts, and other abrupt changes in behavior.”15
“…wherever or however death comes, Americans try to handle it with cool, efficient dispatch. Death in America is no longer a metaphysical mystery or a summons from the divine. Rather, it is an engineering problem for death’s managers—the physicians, morticians and statisticians in charge of supervising nature’s planned obsolescence. To the nation that devised the disposable diaper, the dead are only a bit more troublesome than other forms of human waste.”16
“…People are now relying less upon religion and must now rely upon themselves for death explanations. If one takes the Heaven and Hell concept away people will concentrate on this life rather than the afterlife. The focus will become the avoidance of death which leads to the problem Americans have with it.”17
These thoughts by Campbell reflect the important role of religion on the discussion of death. Most contemporary minds are unfamiliar with the fact that the traditional dominant western religions were formed and have evolved to resolve the tension of death and the afterlife. The next section deals with this aspect.
The Jewish writers, especially the Talmudic one provide the most detailed answers. Death is the strongest thing made by God and cannot be overcome.
“Ten strong things have been created in the world; a mountain is strong but iron can break it; iron is strong but fire can melt it; fire is strong but water can extinguish it; water is strong but clouds can bear it; clouds are strong but the wind can scatter them; wind is strong but the body can carry it (as breath); the body is strong but terror can break it; terror is strong but wine can drive it out; wine is strong but sleep can counteract it; death, however, is stronger than them all.”18
The Jewish Sages speculated on death and gave important details on life and the hereafter. Questions such as, “is death the opposite of life?”, “how shall the body be re-formed?” “Will the body be clothed or naked when it first rises?” “What old corpus material is required to allow for resurrection?” “Will the corporal defects in this world be transferred to the next world?” “Who will be resurrected?” These were discussed in-depth.
In reference to the existence of the afterlife, the ancient Jews believed that death was not considered the opposite or end of life. Ephraim E. Urbach, a reputable scholar on Jewish thought, claims that the Jewish sages thought death to be the narcotinization of the power of life.19 In other words death attempts to subjugate life to the lowest levels of existence but it does not have the ability to destroy it. A created life is a permanent entity.
The Talmud generally considered death to be an extreme enfeeblement of life, robbing life from most of its power. This is why the dead are sometimes called in Hebrew repha’im, that is, the weak.20
Repha’im is a Hebrew word used primarily for those who have a disease or ill and in need of healing, and sometimes utilized, especially in the 8th century BC, to describe death.
Going back to the first century and into the time of Christ’s time on earth, one finds that the word death is oddly replaced by the word sleep.
Christ described the state of a dead girl as “sleeping”21—which evoked laughter from the audience that surrounded Him. Whether the use of sleep as a reference to death was not used often, or the general public was not familiar with it, or the people understood the term but believed its application to be for the imagination, such as Mary, the brother of Lazarus, who asserted that she knew that her brother would be raised on the last day—a time and place outside her lifetime and senses. Mary did not have any comprehension that Christ could and would raise Lazarus immediately.
The Apostle Paul also used the word ‘sleep’ instead of dead. He tried to posture this against those who believe death to be the terminal end of existence, “But we do not want you to be uninformed, brethren, about those who are asleep, so that you will not grieve as do the rest who have no hope.”22
It is difficult to know why both Paul and Christ used the word sleep on numerous occasions instead of dead. This term confused even Christ’s followers when He discussed with them to go see Lazarus because he had “fallen asleep”. Christ had to further clarify His terminology and use the word “dead” in order for His disciples to understand.23 As previously stated, this phrase was newly coined to separate the thought of death as a terminal end than continued life in a weakened form. Perhaps the use of sleep was a Pharisaic distinctive that both Christ and Paul continued, or Paul had acquired directly from Christ’s teachings.
The Latin translators carefully captured this in their rendering of the controversial passage in Matthew 27:52 “and many of the bodies of the saints, who had fallen asleep”24 referring to the death of others—sleep here is from dormio, which has the semantic range to not only mean sleep but also to be dormant, or inactive.
Any attempt to correlate sleep with death from a Talmudic perspective is difficult. The Talmud is quiet about the correlation of sleep and death in any significant way, only suggesting that sleep is a 1/60th experience of death.25
Jewish thought refrained from defining death using the Greek dualistic model, that man is mortal concerning his body and immortal in reference to the mind.26 Rather they preferred to believe that the soul, known in Hebrew as nepesh, is everything that a person is made of—the physical, emotional, intellectual and spiritual. It is the complete product. Man has to await the resurrection on the last day to be restored to completeness.
One of the most difficult questions each one has to ask is, what happens when the body ceases to function? The best systematic literature at least from the Scripture can be found from Paul the Apostle, who outlined two stages of death and the hereafter. First, after one dies, there is a stasis: an incorporal static state awaiting the end of the world.
The second state is the resurrection from an inactive condition into a corporal being.
The time waiting between an incorporeal, unconscious state from death to resurrection, whether one day or a thousand years, may just feel momentary, as the dead are not governed by time.
This waiting state is a point of controversy within some theological circles, many theologians believe that when you die, there is no waiting time and you automatically begin the next life.
The Jewish writers, including those of the Bible, emphasize the resurrection of the dead over immortality of the soul. When we die, we temporarily remain in an inactive condition. We do not live in semi-form such as a ghost, or wander the earth as liberated spirit or go to another dimension.
The Jewish sages also discussed what dead bodily material should be available so that they will rise in the day of resurrection and believed it to be part of the spinal column named Luz.27 It is unclear what part this exactly was but they thought it to be indestructible.
It is clear from the Sages that material from the original body is required for the resurrection.
One can speculate, similarly to the ancient Jewish sages, on how God will physically perform the resurrection. One could argue that the resurrection of the dead is the stimulation of a personal cell to reproduce and restore to its previous physical state. God, the ultimate scientist, only needs one cell to transform a person being from an inactive, weak state into a complete one again. Perhaps all our information about our physical selves and our thoughts are stored within the memory of each cell.
In the Bible, in an old writing called the Book of Ezekiel, Ezekiel had a dream about this very concept.28 He saw himself in the midst of a valley of human bones. God asked him in the dream if these bones can live and then the bones proceeded to reconnect, and build layer upon layer back into human form. He saw an army of people that came back to life. The description here sounds like cloning or something above this technology.
But this seems to be an oversimplification of a very difficult and vexing question from a scientific perspective.
Part of the problem of death, and the lack of definition thereof, reflects our finiteness. If we could define it, then we have some sort of mastery over it. But the lack demonstrates that we have no control, nor any comprehension of this power. Even as an overt Christian with hope of the resurrection, the lack of definition and control over our final destination is scary. It is hard to imagine how those with no concept with the hereafter deal with this.
As King David wrote over 2,900 years ago “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil, for You are with me”29 This passage exudes some confidence but fear as well. The “valley of the shadow of death” is not a nice place. It demonstrates that pain, suffering and insecurity are not removed from the religious vernacular when referenced to dying, but a confidence that this is only temporary and we will pass through to a better place. Even Christ, moments before being led away and the events unfolded for His crucifixion, was in angst, and wanted to refuse such an outcome.30
Another factor about death is its timing and nature. None of us know when and how we are going to die. Insurance companies have given proven statistics that detail the odds of when the typical person should live and die but it is too general to be a guideline on every individual’s specific demise. Some will die very early in life, while others very long and some in-between. Death is entirely not consistent, predictable or fair in its arrival.
Death is often described as a special function carried out by an angel. It is called the Angel of Death. Many movies have been created that demonstrate a connection with the Angel of Death such as “Final Destination”—a movie which suggests some people’s responses could passively evade it. The actual words “Angel of Death” only appears similarly once in the Bible,31 the other few times, it is a loose translation of the Greek word for destroyer, or slayer with no reference to angel.32 The concept of the angel of death was probably evoked from a mystical-medieval-Christian legend.
Resurrection and oblivion has been in dispute for millenniums and societies have vacillated between these concepts throughout history. Israel during the time of Christ was deeply divided on the subject. On at least one occasion Jesus went out of his way intellectually to address it, “but regarding the fact that the dead rise again,” and then went on to say, “He is not the God of the dead, but of the living…”33 These quotes offer two observations. First of all that the community Jesus spoke to were not convinced about the hereafter, and secondly, death is a transitory state.
The Apostle Paul used the controversial concept of eternal life to his political advantage while appearing before a hostile judicial court, “I am on trial for the hope and resurrection of the dead!’34 He knew that the Jewish assembly judging him was deeply divided on the subject and distracted them from his case. He succeeded and avoided prosecution. He also discussed the matter with the Roman Governor Festus, “Why is it considered incredible among you people if God does raise the dead?”35 The Governor replied about this statement, combined with a number of other comments Paul had made, that he had gone mad.
Obviously the whole Christian religious movement is based on Jesus rising and having mastery over all elements of death.36 The Apostle Paul not only passionately tried to reinforce the point that Christ rose from the dead but to assert this, he had to convince a contemporary and skeptical mindset that a hereafter even exists, “For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless.”37
The reality is we all have to die. It is not a nice experience for anyone, whether religious or not. But what we do here on earth determines one’s future state. It is the biggest question we all have to answer and it cannot be avoided. Those who do not, risk missing out on something much better. ■