Welcoming Death

Is there a constructive way for us to face our impending mortality?

Posted Sep 23, 2018

“To the well-organized mind, death is but the next great adventure.” 
                              J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone

"All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”                                   J.R.R.Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring

Instead of trying to deny death perhaps it can be welcomed. There are several cultures, religions and philosophies that treat death as a lesser evil than suffering in life. The author of the Old Testament Book of Ecclesiastes welcomed “a time to die” in a mood of profound pessimism. This also is found in Buddhism: the Buddha’s view was that life is essentially suffering and desire is at the root of this suffering. Only the extinction of desire through strenuous spiritual exercises will stop the endless cycle of deaths and rebirths so that the blessed state of nirvana, or permanent extinction, can be attained.

In some cultures it has been respectable to seek death by suicide. During the migrations of a community of Australian food-gatherers the aged sometimes would drop out to die voluntarily in order to relieve the group of maintaining them. Similarly, aged Eskimo women would go out to freeze on an ice floe after their husbands died. Hindu widows would throw themselves on the funeral pyre of their husbands in the Hindu practice of suttee. Suicide was acceptable in the ancient Greco-Roman world. It was practiced by a few philosophers (Democritus) and statesmen (the orator Demosthenes), but it was particularly Zeno and the Greek and Roman Stoic philosophers who justified the practice. Their phrase “Living is not the good, but living well” has an uncannily modern ring. Much later Montaigne and the eighteenth-century Enlightenment philosophers, Montesquieu in France and Hume in England, all considered suicide a valid individual right. Today it is acceptable in much of the Far East but generally the Christian, unlike the Buddhist, is not brought up to believe he has the right to decide for himself to end his life.

Accepting Death

If neither denying nor welcoming death seems appealing to you, you have a lot of company. But there is another alternative: acceptance. Perhaps the ultimate dignity is in facing the inevitable nobly and courageously. In the seventeenth century Edmund Waller, poet laureate of England, wrote “Stronger by weakness, wiser, men become as they draw near to their eternal home. Leaving the old, both worlds at once they view, That stand upon the threshold of the new.”

Acceptance is often facilitated by identifying with something beyond yourself that will continue to exist after your death. Almost universal is the comforting idea that one lives on in one’s children. God promised Abraham not personal immortality, but multiplication of his seed. Some people expand their sense of identity beyond their immediate flesh and blood to their particular ethnic group or culture and even to humanity at large. We have seen how being human came to mean the activities of man’s symbolizing imagination, overcoming death through the continuity of the culture he creates. Some people identify less with other individuals and instead with the cultural values on which they have founded their lives, such as freedom or justice, and for which they are willing to die. It is not as though this set of attitudes is foolproof. In modern society with its built-in impetus for constant change our children may disappoint us. On the other hand, sometimes a dying person attempts to control the next generation from beyond the grave by provisions in their last will and testament.

Some find acceptance of death by identifying with the ultimate reality of the universe. This is the aim of the ancient traditions of Hinduism and Buddhism. In both Eastern traditions the real problem is not death, but endless rebirth into this world of illusion and suffering. Hinduism recognizes the identity of the individual human soul with the ultimate unconditional reality that lies behind the precarious flux and dualities of conditional human existence on earth. Our true selves, our souls, are all part of the same ultimate reality, hence we are all related. The Sanscrit statement, “Tat tvam asi” translates as “that thou art.” In human terms you are your brother. Realization of this will enable merging of the individual into ultimate reality. Buddhism, on the contrary, prescribes extinguishing the individual human soul by relinquishing desire and thus returning to ultimate reality. Somewhat akin is the modern secular scientist who accepts death as a merging into ultimate reality—physical reality rather than spiritual where, by disintegrating into the constituent particles, one’s energy is subsumed into the whole wondrous potential of the universe.

Another manifestation of accepting death is the widespread belief in the personal immortality of the human soul. This belief often is combined with a belief that the destiny of your soul is determined by your conduct in life. If it was a badly lived life you will be reborn as a lesser creature in Hinduism and Buddhism or in Christianity and Islam you will be consigned to Hell for punishment. This way sin can become more terrifying than death.

The belief in a judgment of souls after death appeared first in Egypt in the third millennium B.C. and again in the area of Iran at the time of Zarathustra in the seventh and sixth centuries B.C. The Egyptian Book of the Dead furnished ritual guidance and practical instructions to help a dead person’s soul find its way to the heavenly Kingdom of the West, as did the Greek Orphic tablets for the way to Elysium. Wall paintings in ancient Etruscan tombs were influenced by the Greek and Egyptian visions and show fearsome torments to be avoided. The Zoroastrian version influenced later Christian and Muslim ideas. In them the guidance offered to the soul became increasingly concerned with ethical behavior in life rather than with ritual after death.

A great comfort provided by the belief in personal immortality is the possibility that it opens up a reunion with one’s loved ones. This concept points to a profound truth, even for those who do not believe in personal immortality, that a good death cannot be separated from a good life. The vision of a good old age and a good death is also the vision of a good life in a good society.

Tolstoy in The Death of Ivan Ilych portrayed a man who led a well-calculated, superficially correct and successful life. When Ilych develops cancer he goes through a living hell. Alternately suspecting and denying his condition, he both rages and despairs, but always to himself. Around him is a conspiracy of silence and falsity, insensitivity and cold calculation. He is avoided and abandoned to his loneliness, no one tells him the truth, no one pities or comforts him except one servant. He agonizes over why he has to endure such horror because he led a correct life. But in reviewing that life Ilych searches in vain for many happy memories. As he laments his present torment he wonders if his whole life was really wrong. The realization grows that all he lived for was a terrible and huge deception. No, his life was not right, but then what is right? At this moment his son creeps in and kisses his hand and Ilych has a revelation that he can still rectify his life. For the first time he feels compassion for his son and wife. He decides to release them from their distress and dies.

Though written a hundred years ago, this story has enduring significance. It faces the question of the good death in relationship to a good life. It is also a story of ultimate redemption; that is, Ivan Ilych died to his former narrow self and was reborn at the last minute in a new understanding. Furthermore, the central new understanding was compassion, which is one of the ultimate human values in most of the world’s great religions and philosophies. This story also is a brilliant portrayal of the psychology of a dying person and of the loneliness and falsity that may surround him. Talking about death has probably never been easy. Remember that in the Greek myth no one would tell Demeter that Persephone was in the land of the dead.