We don’t want to think about death. This is astounding because we know that death is waiting for us all. We also know, as life insurance actuaries will quickly tell you, from the age of 16 to 64, the proportion of people who die double every couple of years. Yet most of us avert our glance at the impending shadow, pretend that we are immortal and go on heedless. This is childish and silly. We need to give thought to death and recognize it as the capstone, a very significant event of our life.
The naïve faith in the omnipotence and omniscience of medical knowhow is profoundly misplaced. Paralleling the acrimonious debate in the US about when life begins, the definition of death itself anarchic. For the expediency of organ harvesting, which requires that organs must be from a live body, we have adopted the convenient definition that a person is dead when the brain doesn’t function. So you can be dead while your heart beats on, all your respiratory and digestive functions work, the vital signs are present, and, bar the surface areas of your cerebrum, even the rest of your brain is active.
We pretend to know the cause of death and have implicit trust in postmortem analysis as the final arbiter. The truth is that, just to cite an example, even for alcohol, the toxic substance most incriminated in murder and violence, its concentration in a blood specimen to determine a person’s inebriation at the time of death, as lawyers well know, is open in medical science to wildly different interpretations.
More widely known and painfully experienced is the friends’ and relatives’ anguish when doctors try to extend a dying patient’s life by the so-called ‘heroic’ measures, which, in many cases, add hours to a person’s life by brutal mechanisms that would never have been accepted by the person if he or she could have objected. The pernicious premise of life at any cost is based on the false idea that disease must be fought and death defied no matter what the benefit is to the person involved.
Our reluctance to look at death ends in hurtful consequences. There are preposterous death rituals, from ghastly and disrespectful burnings in the east to astronomically expensive burials in the west. A scant few besides the wealthy execute wills; fewer still do any significant estate planning and leave a morass of complications and tax burdens for their heirs. Most important of all, families do a poor job of preparing for the death of a loved one and needlessly inflict an avoidable trauma on vulnerable members, such as an aging widow or an adolescent child. Francois Mauriac spoke of death as “one grace assured to people,” but often it is disgracefully and unnecessarily cruel on the caring ones they leave behind.
Tagore, the great Asian poet, said simply and profoundly that death belongs to life as much as birth does. We must learn to look at it without fear and anguish, and hopefully with equanimity and acceptance.
My deliverance, alive, from a crushed car may ease the transition to a saner view of what the alternative might have been.