The purpose of death
Death is indispensable to nature and evolution. Without death there would be no emergence of new individuals with genes better adapted to the changing environment. Without death there would be no room for new species to emerge.
Without death there would be no mating, no birth, no parenting, no family warmth. Death is the price we pay for the enjoyment of love between man and woman, love between parent and child. Even if medical technology allowed us to abolish death tomorrow, we could have no more children, or the world would become impossibly overpopulated.
The fear of death
The fear of death is to some extent instinctive: nature has given us the drive to survive. While we live we are not separated off from nature and the universe: our molecules are continually renewed every single day. All that really persists is information – information on how to maintain the structure that we think of as us. But most of us strive to keep this set of information intact for as long as possible.
We also have consciousness. Again consciousness is not an integrated thing: our minds are as fluid as our bodies, a constant succession of changing thoughts and desires and feelings. Yet it too is never separated from the world of matter: when we are awake, we are constantly interacting with the external world, perceiving and acting. Even when we are asleep our minds are humming with material activity, with millions of messages flying between our neurones. There is a thread, a continuing screen on which these mental events are projected. That screen is our consciousness. And we are just as afraid of losing this as of losing our bodily existence.
Ending the fear of death
Death is not something we should fear. When we are alive, we are not dead. When we are dead, we are aware of nothing. So it’s only because of the brief transition between life and death that death poses a problem. We should not live our whole lives in the shadow of such a brief moment. To live in fear of death is to die a living death.
As the Roman poet-philosopher Lucretius wrote:
Death is nothing to us and no concern of ours . . . When we shall be no more, when the union of body and spirit that engenders us has been disrupted – to us, who shall then be nothing, nothing by any hazard will happen any more at all. Nothing will have power to stir our senses, not though earth be fused with sea and sea with sky . . . Rest assured that we have nothing to fear in death. One who no longer is cannot suffer, or differ in any way from one who has never been born. [De rerum natura, iii:828-840; 864-867]
Acceptance of belonging.
The fear of death is rooted in the belief that we are separate from nature, that spirit is superior to matter, that matter is something alien and threatening. This is what produces the panic at vanishing into darkness, at being sucked down into cloying, clinging earth. Pantheism can free us from the fear of death. Matter is not alien: it is the living substance of our very selves. We are as magnificently material as rocks or trees. Our bodies are part of nature and part of matter. Our minds are constantly interacting with matter and with nature. We are totally embedded in this world, inseparably and permanently part of it.
At our death the temporary separation of our genetic structure and our consciousness is ended, and we are more fully united with nature and the cosmos, and the matter of our bodies is recycled into new life. During the process of dying we should relax into this realization, float and drift in the sea of matter. Such an attitude is far more calming than to worry whether we are headed for heaven or eternal torment – or whether we’ll be reborn as a cockroach or a king.
A realistic prosect of survival.
If we still hanker after some kind of personal survival after death, we must find a realistic approach, compatible with the persuasive evidence that our minds are not separate from our bodies and do not survive after death.
Yet we can hope for a kind of personal survival – survival through the creations and memories we leave behind ourselves in the real world.
The return to nature of our bodies, and the survival of our works and memories in other people’s minds, add up to a kind of survival which would satisfy most people. They would almost certainly stimulate greater kindness and consideration, better efforts to improve the world and to preserve nature, than the selfish hope of heaven.
Key resources on death and dying:
Suggestions, comments, criticisms to: Paul Harrison, e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
© Paul Harrison 1997. Posted 18/7/1997.