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.
• 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
• 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!
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?