What is the meaning of death?

  • October 29, 2012 · 7:00 PM
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What is the Meaning of Death?

The Bells of Hell go ting-a-ling-a-ling
For you but not for me:
Oh! Death, where is thy sting-a-ling-a-ling?
Or grave, thy victory?
(WW1 British Pilots’ Song)

This discussion need not concern how to define human death, although that question is of much interest to medical ethicists and legal practitioners. Let us assume that there has been a permanent cessation of all organic activities within the body. Granted that, the question for this discussion is more focussed on the meaning of human death.


When we ask about the meaning of death we might be asking one or more different questions:
1. What do we commonly understand by usage of the word ‘death’; or perhaps
2. What is the purpose or intent of death; or perhaps
3. What is the inner significance of death?

A consensus (however unlikely) on the first possible question - a common understanding of usage – would help us with the other questions.


• Some argue that human life and experience is itself is an illusion, or an episode, within the framework or substrate of the other state before and after life (which we might call death). This form of death may involve existence as a distinct entity or as a blended part in a grand infusion of consciousness. In this understanding of the word, the purpose of death is to return us to a higher and more durable state than life. Argument and evidence for this view of death is not immediately evident. Let us call this perception “death as a substrate”

Though lovers be lost love shall not;
And death shall have no dominion.
(Thomas)

• For many, human biological death is not final, but a transition where the ‘soul’ or essence of a person continues in another plane of existence or reality, or where the soul is re-incarnated back into this reality but in another living form. In this case, the meaning of death is in the transition to another form of being. Such a continuance is a matter of belief, as there is no empirical evidence to support the survival or transmigration of a soul after human biological death. Let us call this perception “death as a step”


One short sleep past, we wake eternally,
And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die
(Donne)

• For others, death is final; there is no soul or spirit which continues or reappears. In a way, this is also a belief without evidence: the non-existence of a soul, or spirit has not been documented or demonstrated. However, whether non-existence requires proof is a rather difficult topic. Let us call this perception “death as a stop”.


In every clime and under every sun,
Death laughs at ye, mad mortals, as ye run;
And oft perfumes herself with myrrh, like ye
And mingles with your madness, irony!
(Baudelaire)

Whether a substrate, a step or a stop, it is considered normal to resist death (even though resistance is futile). Those who embrace death – for example, martyrs – typically view death as a step towards another and better existence. Those who choose death by suicide may or may not view death in any particular way; it appears as if it is life they reject.


Our understanding of life is key to our understanding of death: human death is an essential component of our understanding of human life. Perhaps our humanity is partially at least dependent upon our mortality. Does death prove we are or were alive?

 

Does a belief in the existence of a human soul or spirit affect how we view death? The views of death as a substrate or a step seem to suggest that the soul has an existence independent of the physical; whether there is a requirement for the soul’s immortality could be a subject for discussion. Those who view death as a stop presumably also conclude that the soul is mortal, and perishes with the body.

 

Does our view of the meaning of death correlate to our apprehension of a deity? A deity is often involved in belief systems involving an afterlife, but is not a requirement for belief in an afterlife. Certain religious belief systems require a particular view of death as a transition to a better or worse state. Where death is perceived to be final, deities are required less often.


Exploring the meaning of death should keep us all busy for at least two hours. If members wish to be prodded with introductory questions, please consider:


• Do you view death as a substrate, a step or a stop?
• Is death essential to our understanding of life?
• How important is a belief in a deity to our understanding of death?

Join or login to comment.

  • A former member
    A former member

    An interesting topic! I wonder as to the nature of death as it has a decisiveness to it. Once one's physical body dies one cannot return to it. But as for a spirit that is an interesting dilemma, as how many people actually have lived inside another persons body? If the spirit transcends this physical existence one should be able to find some proof of it...?

    November 2, 2012

  • Dr S. Ranga S.

    Good and interesting. David is a fine Moderator.

    October 29, 2012

  • Jonas W.

    "Labor Pains

    I am sick today,
    sick in my body,
    eyes wide open, silent,
    I lie on the bed of childbirth.

    Why do I, so used to the nearness of death,
    to pain and blood and screaming,
    now uncontrollably tremble with dread?

    A nice young doctor tried to comfort me,
    and talked about the joy of giving birth.
    Since I know better than he about this matter,
    what good purpose can his prattle serve?

    Knowledge is not reality.
    Experience belongs to the past.
    Let those who lack immediacy be silent.
    Let observers be content to observe.

    I am all alone,
    totally, utterly, entirely on my own,
    gnawing my lips, holding my body rigid,
    waiting on inexorable fate.

    There is only one truth.
    I shall give birth to a child,
    truth driving outward from my inwardness.
    Neither good nor bad; real, no sham about it.

    With the first labor pains,
    suddenly the sun goes pale.
    The indifferent world goes strangely calm.
    I am alone.
    It is alone I am."

    - Akiko Yosano

    October 29, 2012

    • A former member
      A former member

      For who? The new life or the "creators"... for the latter I suspect only because of possible death of the new life in the life time of the "creators"... for the former that would imply existence before life as we know it...

      1 · October 29, 2012

    • A former member
      A former member

      Any chance you have a link to the Japanese original? or if you happen to know by heart, could you provide the last stanza in the original?

      October 29, 2012

  • A former member
    A former member

    Cathbha, Could you please stop emailing all those videos. So far today I have received 10 from you. May I suggest, if you want to send so many that you CO-HOST with David and have posted on the Event itself.

    October 29, 2012

  • Cathbha

    Dylan Thomas with a stack of Marshalls:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GLumAQ-Y7DY

    October 29, 2012

  • Cathbha

    “He realized now that to be afraid of this death he was staring at with animal terror meant to be afraid of life. Fear of dying justified a limitless attachment to what is alive in man. And all those who had not made the gestures necessary to live their lives, all those who feared and exalted impotence— they were afraid of death because of the sanction it gave to a life in which they had not been involved. They had not lived enough, never having lived at all. And death was a kind of gesture, forever withholding water from the traveler vainly seeking to slake his thirst. But for the others, it was the fatal and tender gesture that erases and denies, smiling at gratitude as at rebellion.”
    ― Albert Camus, A Happy Death

    October 29, 2012

  • Cathbha

    “He knew now that it was his own will to happiness which must make the next move. But if he was to do so, he realized that he must come to terms with time, that to have time was at once the most magnificent and the most dangerous of experiments. Idleness is fatal only to the mediocre.”
    ― Albert Camus, A Happy Death

    October 29, 2012

  • Cathbha

    “But sometimes it takes more courage to live than to shoot yourself.”
    ― Albert Camus, A Happy Death

    October 29, 2012

  • Cathbha

    Because all you touch, and all you see...
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZburtYBXt8g&feature=fvst

    October 29, 2012

  • Cathbha

    It's your meter running, after all.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t2fupqLdYZw

    October 29, 2012

  • Cathbha

    Are you getting enough cowbell?

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ClQcUyhoxTg

    October 29, 2012

  • Cathbha

    Death is indeed essential to our attitude toward and understanding of life - think of the yeast that gave their life for your drink this evening, those who "died for your freedom", those things and people to whom one's "heart has died". those days when one feels "like death warmed-over". Whatever was it about focus that Dr. Johnson said? ;-)

    October 29, 2012

  • Cristalle W.

    I have a nasty cold, so I think I'd better stay home this week. Hopefully someone on the wait list will still be able to make it.

    October 29, 2012

    • Cathbha

      Get better soon! I hope you aren't suffering the creeping lurgi that has been going around.

      October 29, 2012

  • Cathbha

    The preceding was a touch Epicurean/Stoic.

    October 29, 2012

  • Jonas W.

    "They told me that the road I took
    would lead me to the Sea of Death;
    and from halfway along I turned back.
    And ever since, all the paths I have roamed
    were entangled, and crooked, and forsaken." - Akiko Yosano

    October 29, 2012

  • Dr S. Ranga S.

    I shall look forward to the discussion.

    October 29, 2012

  • Cristalle W.

    Good topic for Halloween! :D

    September 30, 2012

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