A Primer on Death

I woke from a dream of death to day's amazing/death grass death rice death chairs death death asleep or awake

-- Ikkyu, 15th-century Japan

Life is absolutely wild--unpredictable--uncontrollable--unfathomable. Anything can happen. For instance, in one generation the strongest and most secure nation on earth can defy every expectation and become a crippled colossus where millions are homeless, there's no job security, and the future frightens everyone. But life expresses its anything-can-happen nature most relentlessly by an absolute insistence on its only predictable element, the common fate awaiting all: death.

Death transcends all categories, even the category we call "life." Not only mammals, insects, and plants, but rocks, seas, mountains, planets, stars, and galaxies, all end, all die. Ideas, paintings, books, languages, civilizations--all participate equally in death. (This would seem to indicate that death is not a judgment.)

You, in particular, are going to die. No matter how much money you have. No matter how much you know, or how you exercise, or what you eat. No matter how useful or useless you've been. No matter how much, or well, or badly you loved. No matter which side you were on. (This would also seem to indicate that death is not a judgment.)

There is no way to predict when you will die. There's no way to control or predict when anyone else will die. Your children, and every man and woman you care about, are going to die as you are, and in no special order of age or virtue--no matter what you do or don't do for them, and no matter how much you love them.

This is worth emphasizing, since it constitutes much of what frightens us about death: It could happen tomorrow, or 50 years from now, or before you finish reading (or I finish writing) this paragraph. It could just have happened in the next room, or miles away, to someone you love. And, beyond a few fragile precautions against death's more senseless varieties, there's nothing you can do about it.

Almost anything can cause death if it happens in the right amount, at the right time, in the right place, to the right person. People die of sudden joy as well as sudden fear. People die of mysterious allergies they never had before. People waste away of broken hearts. At the same time, diseases that kill almost everyone don't kill every single one. Drug addicts, alcoholics, and smokers sometimes live into old age, while health fanatics and athletes sometimes die suddenly of conditions their quite competent physicians never guessed at. It is even well documented that in some cultures, people sometimes die when others stick pins into dolls (even though the victims didn't know about it)--and people sometimes don't.

Some die peacefully, calmly. Most do not. Most die messily and painfully, or in fear, or suddenly, or all of the above. (It is worth remembering that this is true of every species of life, and thus seems endemic to the nature of death.)

It is impossible to predict from the way people have lived whether they are going to die peacefully (or at least calmly), or in fear and agony.

Virtually everyone, if they have time to think at all, is surprised when they realize that they are, in fact, dying. This is more than a little odd, since the inevitability of our own death is the only thing we can count on without disappointment.

A few don't seem to fear death. Some of these are sages. Some are car-bomb suicide terrorists. This leads one to believe that "enlightenment" and "psychological development" don't seem to be factors.

Many people who fear death have nevertheless been known to sacrifice themselves, dare death, and willingly die, for others--even for strangers, or for an idea or a cause. Love, at least personal love, does not explain the range of this behavior. Nothing does. In the face of the power and finality of such behavior, theories become quibbles. We only know that sometimes even death becomes an unimportant consideration.

This behavior, by the way, is not strictly human. It can be observed in all manner of mammals, birds, and insects. This seems to indicate that, so far as defiance of death is concerned, something beyond human psychological factors is taking place. You cannot talk about such things as "heroism" or "the transcendent power of a higher meaning" when, in circumstances like war, human beings and ants defy death in identical ways. (Imagine pinning the Medal of Honor on an ant?) That stark similarity of behavior indicates that something else--something trans-human, if you like--is operable when death is defied in this manner. These correspondences in behavior have not, to my knowledge, begun to be investigated.

Some people, medically dead, have been brought back to medical life. A few of these people report seeing lights, visions, or their deceased family and friends awaiting them, etc. Most don't see anything. No one knows what this means. (There are lots of theories. That's different from knowledge.)

Almost all people brought back from medical death report that they were very, very calm in their "dead" state--felt no fear, no sense that they were being obliterated, and often no special desire to return to life. No one knows what this means, either.

Next Page »