“One can survive everything nowadays, except death, and live down anything, except a good reputation.”
- Oscar Wilde
Death remains our fiercest taboo.
Uniquely on this planet, humans are able to anticipate their own death. A friend recently asked if we think enough about it, so I felt obliged to offer my own thoughts.
Death lurks in the darkest recesses of our collective psyche. The major world religions have all devised strategies for side-stepping death. According to the Jewish Talmud, the soul maintains a relationship with the body for a year after death. The righteous then gain entrance to Paradise (Gan Eden) and the wicked are cast into Geihinnom (transliterated to Greek as Gehenna). At the coming of Messiah, Orthodox Jews believe the soul will return to the dust and the body resurrected.
Christianity incorporated this belief in a life after death, refining notions of Heaven and Hell and the concept of a Judgement Day where the worth of souls is weighed and measured to determine whether one is doomed to burn in Hell or live forever at God’s side. Islam also claims a reward of life after death if one lives according to that religion’s values during life. Hinduism and Buddhism don’t go that far. Instead they recycle mortal life until Moksha or Nirvana is reached, at which time unity with the universe itself (another form of life everlasting) is achieved.
The totalitarian political ideologies of the 20th century – communism and fascism – attempted to override our fear of death by creating greater fear of the State. Both failed to frighten us enough, and so failed as ideologies themselves. The ideology that survived the 20th century – capitalism – instead uses Money, as the key secondary reinforcer, to substitute for religious salvation. By chasing money, we forget to chase life’s meaning, and instead can live in a drug-addled haze of false hope.
If religion and politics have both failed to solve the problem of death, perhaps we should turn to philosophy. The Ancients focused on what made for a just or a happy life, in the belief that this would assuage the eventual pain of death. Epicurus bravely tried to define death out of existence as it being merely “the deprivation of sensation” and so not to be feared. More recent thinkers have welcomed death as freeing us from the burden of life (Schopenhauer) or that death is as meaninglessness and non-existent as life (nihilism and its postmodern variants).
Psychology also attempts to help us accept death. Erik Erikson suggested that human existence has eight stages, the last of which is characterised by a conflict between feelings of integrity at a life well-lived and despair at its imminent end. Acceptance is brought about by the wisdom to acknowledge that on balance the positive was enough. It is a hopeful thought, that in the end we will be able to sigh, smile and breathe our last with contentment. I like the idea, but wonder if it is possible.
Humanity also still yearns for something more. Science Fiction is full of tales of DNA rejuvenation, human/computer interfaces and other fantastical devices for indefinitely prolonging life. Barely a month goes by without a feature in one of the glossy Sunday supplements of age-defying new medical therapies just over the horizon that will allow mankind to live forever. Craig Ventner recently hit the headlines when he created a synthetic cell, and one of the first questions journalists asked was whether it was a way to eternal life. The Grail Myth and its Elixir of Eternal Youth never quite disappears…
But for all these attempts to understand or evade Death, we can forget something more vital. We are a Death Cult. Our awareness of death has forced mankind to think, to adapt, to evolve, to strive to outwit the Reaper. It is the ultimate mother of invention. Our lives are seen through the prism of our mortality. Fear of death has built modern civilisation.