Death: does it really exist?
Here’s a recap of our recent discussion on Death: does it really exist?
There are two schools of thought about the distinction between living and non-living. One sees these two states as totally different and contrasting. The other sees existence in continual flux between organic and inorganic states of varying complexity. In the latter view, death is not a reality, just a change in state. Nonetheless, religions and philosophers (including all of us) have spent a good deal of time and anxiety thinking in terms of death as a reality. Our frame of reference is usually our conscious sense of ourselves as individuals with a limited time in which we are aware with those aspects of the world with which we’ve grown familiar.
Nonetheless, we recognize that we have an impact on others and leave an impact on the world, regardless of how small this may seem. In interacting with friends and family, we influence them, their memory, their character, their aspirations, and view of who they are. In contributing to our community, our work or other institutions we’re involved in, these are changed because of our efforts, our ideas, and our impact on them.
In the above sense, we endure in the minds and hearts of others after we die. Our influence transcends our life span and has an impact on history after we’re gone. The world will be different because we were here, and we transcend the limits of our time while alive.
Some felt the study of our family genealogy was a way to uncover the connection and influence of those that preceded us.
While most associate death with anxiety or fear, it is only in anticipation of loss, regret over unfulfilled expectations and concern about discomfort that seem to be the sources of anxiety. Once dead or in accepting the inevitability of death, there is no need for fear. Fear or other reactions are clearly meaningless once we’re dead.
Religions provide various ways of helping people understand and give meaning to death. In the Hindu tradition, the soul is viewed as going through a series of rebirths and is rewarded for achieving spiritual and moral development in the form of higher life forms in one’s next life. Others find it comforting to have faith in an afterlife and resurrection in which one may also find eternal comfort and happiness, especially if one lives a life consistent with religious teachings.
Despite these ways of helping us feel more comfortable with death and dying, our society in general is quite phobic about death. We protect children and teens from being exposed to dying relatives, so their fantasies and fears about it are not based on experience. We know that dying at home used to be quite common, and now it is relatively rare. Funerals can be a great source of understanding, if they are used for meditating on the significance of the life of the deceased and the lessons we have learnt from our interaction with him or her.
In India, there are 12 days of grieving, a cremation and then a celebration because the spirit is on its journey to reincarnation. This process allows relatives and friends to have closure, emotionally. In other traditions the ceremony and customs around death may be shorter or longer, but grieving beyond 6 months is not considered normal and the rituals encourage an earlier return to one’s worldly routine and emotional detachment from the dead person.
We discussed out of body and near-death experiences along with communication with the dead as curious phenomena whose significance we couldn’t judge. Do they tell us about the soul or some non-corporeal aspect of our being?
We also looked at death from a broader perspective than the individual, that is, from the standpoint of a civilization or culture. Clearly, many social processes (marriage, reproduction) are designed to perpetuate the clan or species. Even if not all individuals decide to have offspring or if some die before reproducing, it may ultimately serve the needs of the broader community that some die prematurely, for example, defending against enemies of the clan.
We also wondered if death is always tragic. While some felt it is for those who survive, we also noted that in some philosophies (including that of Emerson), there is a celebration of death as an event that allows the individual to return to his or her life-source in another world. In addition, some believe that, while the body degenerates, one’s thoughts return to an Over Soul or collective consciousness.
We ended with the so-called theodisy question about how could a just God allow for death of innocents and suffering by the good? How can there be a benign deity if there is such unfairness and injustice in the world? How can we avoid thinking that death reveals the ultimate meaninglessness of life and forces us to consider the existential premise that life is ultimately absurd?
Despite the challenges that Death raises, the group seemed able to accept mortality as a natural part of life, that life could be meaningful despite its temporal limits, and that its meaning was tied to the quality of relationships with others.
There were also clear differences in how we viewed the afterlife and the need to find comfort in faith vs. accepting life’s end as final. What seemed to be apparent is that, even if death is final, it has transcendent and trans-personal qualities as seen in our ability to influence the lives of others with whom we have had important relationships. In this sense, we see that death is not final.
Look forward to seeing you next week.