The definition of death doesn’t hold much water, really, once all the voodoo juju is shaken out of it. The harebrained doctors have one make-believe definition of it, the self-important scientists have another, and the whimsical believers have yet a third. When one has faith in the existence of death, though, death can be a gateway, a rebirth, or even a redemption. Anticipating death makes up the cornerstone of most world religions, while avoiding it remains the focus of most sciences.
– And that’s O.K. There’s nothing wrong with any of those philosophies in and of themselves, but let’s eschew all that for the sake of conversation. Let’s look at death without any allusion to typical, traditional beliefs. What does death resemble, now? A permanent medical condition?
Nevermind. Let’s just say that death is a simple state of affairs that any doctor can walk up and diagnose, like this:
“Hey, this guy’s dead.”
The doctor means that the poor guy’s lungs have stopped breathing and his heart has stopped beating. That’s clinical death.
Most realists think of death as nothingness, bleak, black, and empty, which is typical of them; because if there’s any way to have less fun and be more boring, the realists will practically kill themselves to show you how. Even so, most atheists and agnostics think this way about death, too, which is disappointing because as anyone can tell you, they throw the best parties, and therefore oughta know better.
“What happens when you die?” you may ask one of them.
“Nothing,” they say. “That’s kind-of the point.”
OK Mr. Sunshine, but nothing is precisely what never happens. There’s always something going on. Besides, lots of things happen when you die. When you look at clinical death, it actually mirrors the very early stages of clinical birth, so-to-speak, which normal people call pregnancy.
In the earliest stages of pregnancy, the fertilized egg (or zygote if we really must) has forty-six chromosomes, as well as its own unique DNA structure. Anti-abortion terrorists are keen to remind us that this little eggy wegg is alive, and they’re not wrong. In fact, scientists pretty much have to agree with them, because the zygote exhibits growth, metabolism, reproduction, and reaction to stimuli.
Apparently, the smartypants bigshot scientists have decided that a thing is alive if it’s got those four attributes.
What the zygote does not have, though, is a lung or a heart with which to satisfy the medical doctor’s requirements. Its respiration has not yet commenced. Its pulse is nonexistent.
“Why, this guy’s dead.”
“Now, you just hang on a second there, Doc. We’re picking up growth, reaction, metabolism and reproduction. This sonofabitch is alive.”
Great. So the zygote is dead and alive. Perfect.
Why not, though? When a guy looks at his arm, he thinks of it as a living part of him, right? If doctors amputate it from him, then no one looks at it quite the same way. It’s dead now. The amputation was, as far as his body was concerned, a little death (or, la petite mort in French, which incidentally means orgasm).
Yeah, why not? After all, when a pregnant woman feels her baby kick, she thinks of it as a living part of her. If doctors deliver it, and amputate it from her, then no one looks at it quite the same way. The baby’s alive now — even though the amputation was, as far as the mother’s body is concerned, a little death (or en francais, orgasm by baby).
Dead and alive, alive and dead.
The dead aren’t really all that dead, anyhow. We eat dead things to stay alive, in fact — but only dead things which have recently become dead. Dead things become more dead over time, and we can’t eat things which have been dead too long.
There’s not enough life in them, you see.
But just wait a damned second. A little death? More dead? Death isn’t supposed to have all these degrees, all these shades of gray.
Silly-headed cynics and so-called realists step in at this point and remind us, “No, jerk. Death isn’t in degrees or shades, and it’s definitely not gray. Death is that certain change that happens in the instant that life stops for an organism. Those four things you mentioned earlier? Growth, reaction, et cetera? The body can’t do those things anymore, so it’s dead.”
Yeah, alright, sure, Professor Killjoy, but from the broadest perspective, death doesn’t mark any significant change at all. It’s just another change in an infinite pattern of changes — or, if you like, it’s another death in an infinite pattern of deaths. Life, in fact, is what we call this infinite pattern of deaths. Look:
Human life begins with an ovum and a sperm combining into a zygote. This means the death of the ovum and the sperm, because they no longer exist as such; their chromosomes have been shared. The zygote then begins cellular division at an extremely rapid rate, each division a little amputation (orgasm) from the parent cell, and these amputations are what we call growth. When enough cellular carnage has occurred, the child is amputated from his or her mother, and soon afterward begins to eat dead things because of the life in them.
Dead things taste good.
As the child grows, cells are born, grow old, die; are sloughed off, are excreted, are absorbed as more fresh dead stuff to nourish and prolong life. Cells divide, and divide, and divide. The lining of the small intestine is completely replaced over four-to-six days, you know. The outermost layer of skin, or epidermis, every two weeks. The hard structure of the human skeleton, every decade. Even this child’s blood, just like the blood of every living person, is composed of red blood cells which live in the bloodstream for about four months before being replaced.
An elderly man of ninety years, therefore, has lived inside nine skeletons. He has consisted of two-hundred and seventy human bodies’s worth of blood.
It’s all dead, though, remember? We’re, like, hermit crabs or something.
Like our bodies, our minds unfold as a train of deaths and divisions, too. Ideas grow and gestate, eating new information and transforming cold facts into newborn ideas, ideas which split and branch and grow of their own accord, just like a pride of lions flourishing from the carcasses of a few dead gazelles. Sometimes ideas sprout from stagnant knowledge so automatically that our minds consider themselves inspired, but every new thought kills off an obsolete idea.
We grow and learn, shedding skin cells and obsolete ideas along the way like scraps of confetti following a parade, and when at the age of ninety we reflect on our adolescent selves, those teenagers seem long gone, long passed away, and the wistful feelings our memories evoke mimic those felt by mourners years after the funeral.
Death and life, life and death.
We still have no round definition of death, however.
Death seems no more than change and transition, and since change is an eternal constant, death must be occurring all the time. If that’s so, then death as a single event does not exist.
If you think you’re going anywhere when you “die,” I’m afraid you’re horribly mistaken, as far as I can tell. Nobody is going anywhere. Nobody is going anywhere, and neither are the actions we are still making. That the “dead” human mind no longer orchestrates these actions is inconsequential, since the mind was never orchestrating anything from the broadest perspective, anyhow, regardless of how intimately involved in the processes of the universe it seemed.
This will sound like glorious immortality to some and eternal damnation to others, so I guess that if you really wanted to you could call your opinion on living forever ‘heaven,’ or ‘hell,’ but don’t do that. That’d be so tacky.
If all this sounds fantastic, consider that everything we are or will become was already here long before we were born.
All the material needed to put our bodies together had long been available before our births. Our mothers merely needed to ingest some dead stuff and assemble it inside her. The material to put our minds together had been here, too. The elementary ideas, the deeper concepts, and the inner mysteries all, all, all had been waiting for our minds to ingest them and put them to use. We were already here, waiting for assembly, just like The Great Gatsby had been when the Old Sport was alive inside Fitzgerald’s head, but not yet written down.
Cynics and skeptics will say, “An idea is not a thing, Sir,” and I must retort: well, where, exactly would you like to draw the line? If Gatsby exists once he has been written down, what happens if the manuscript is destroyed? — And if Fitzgerald writes him down again, is he birthing the same Gatsby? What of publishing and printing? Are all Gatsbys the same man, or different men?
Consider also the differences between brothers of the same family, raised in the same general time, by the same parents, on the same food, in the same area, with the same values, et cetera, et cetera. One may grow up into a madman and the other a schoolteacher, but from the broadest perspective the difference can only be in human estimation, just like so-called death. If we are arbitrarily, subjectively deciding what death is, then there really isn’t any such thing we can point to after all, is there?
In order to believe in death, one must think just like the doctors and scientists, coming up with their own willy-nilly criteria by which something can officially be called “dead.” You may as well say that death is what we call the future, and birth what we call the past.
The Starship Enterprise notwithstanding, we will always be here, extant, just as we have always been here, and the proof and cause of both is that we can’t help but be here now. There can be no escape. We are captives of existence. And why?
– Because the present time, nestled snugly between the past and future, between birth and death, seems very much alive, and it happens also to look very much eternal.
With much pleasure and measured amounts of pain I remain,