Reflections on death and immortality

This week saw the deaths of the great mathematician John Nash and his wife Alicia in a car crash and the suicide of terminally-ill businessman Jeffrey Spector in Switzerland with the help of Dignitas. This post is written in their memory, and also in memory of my friends and musical colleagues Gavin Williams, who died last week, and Lindsay Purcell, who died at the beginning of April. May they rest in peace. 

This post is unashamedly long. After all, death is forever. 

From time immemorial, humans have been obsessed with death. Or, more correctly, with the mess that death leaves in its trail. We fear death, not just because of our own extinction (or not, depending on your belief system), but also because of the consequences for those we love. There were so many things we meant to do, so many things to sort out, so many relationships to heal……But whether we are prepared or not, death will brook no delay. “It's too soon!” cried my aunt, on being given a diagnosis of terminal oesophageal cancer that left her with only a couple of weeks to live. After a lifetime of hoarding, she had no time left to clear out the loft.

For our forebears, “too soon” was indeed the risk. Life could be cut short at any moment by disease or accident. And the consequences for loved ones could be severe. The death of a breadwinner left his family destitute – and many men worked in hazardous occupations. The traditional song repertoire is full of women worrying about whether their husbands, away at sea or at war, would ever return. People had reason to fear death.

But in the developed world, we do not have such terrors now. We have widow’s pensions, life insurance, government safety nets. Few people work in hazardous occupations, and if they do, health & safety procedures minimize the risk of fatalities. Diseases such as tuberculosis and typhoid no longer decimate whole populations. Accidents still happen, of course. But we do not now live with constant fear of sudden death. Nor do we fear destitution for those left behind.

The longing for immortality

So do we still fear death? Perhaps, though in our increasingly secular society the conversation seems to be turning to anger. As we lose our faith in life after death, death is becoming the “final insult” in a futile life. Designers talk about helping people “create meaning” from death, but really all they are trying to do is replace the gap left by the decline of religion. Religion has always been about finding meaning in something as apparently meaningless as death. Death either must have purpose, or it must lead to new life. Evidence from science that there is neither purpose in death nor life after it is abhorrent.

Of course, it depends what you mean by “purpose” and “life”. When humans die, their bodies naturally decay just as those of other animals do: their vital elements go back into the ecosystem and provide nourishment to new forms of life. In this sense, therefore, the purpose of death is to enable new life to grow. Death is essential if the ecosystem is to renew itself. But that is scant consolation to the individual facing death. We still do not know the extent to which individual consciousness remains after death.

Nonetheless, people are becoming aware of the vital ecological role of death and increasingly wishing to be part of it. Exploiting the popularity of “green” burials, designers are inventing novel ways of becoming “part of nature” after death. The winner of a recent design competition was a coffin that grows into a tree; also highly placed in the same competition was a capsule that scatters cremated remains high in the atmosphere, from whence they fall to earth in raindrops. Immortality is to be achieved through integration with nature.

Yet there is nothing new about this. Burial in an unlined coffin is integration with nature. So is the scattering of ashes. The ashes of the writer and fellwalker A.W. Wainright were scattered on top of Haystacks, his favourite mountain in England’s Lake District. The ashes of my singing teacher Tony Hocking, who died in 2009, were scattered on the sea near his favourite beach bar on the Portuguese Algarve coast, which he had made his home. The places where people are buried, or their ashes are scattered, become sacred to their memories. Those who opt to have their remains scattered as raindrops make the whole earth their place of remembrance. The permanent association of people with places after death helps to “fix” them in the memories of those they leave behind. This too is a form of immortality.

And there are other forms of immortality. Those who have children have ensured their own immortality, as far as they are able: as long as the line continues, their genetic material is passed on, ever more diluted of course but still present.  Those of us blessed with creative gifts are privileged to create our own memorials, as Robert Louis Stevenson explains:

Bright is the ring of words when the right man rings them:
Fair the fall of songs when the singer sings them.
Here they are caroll’d and said, on wings they are carried,
After the singer is dead, and the maker buried.

The songs we make, the words we write, the designs we create live on after our deaths. In a way, they are our children: even if our genes do not survive us, our memes do.

If we have no children, and no creative talent, we still leave our signatures on the world. Those whose lives we have touched, with whom we have shared laughter and love, pain and anger: those with whom we have worked, with whom we have played: those who have interacted with us in any way, however fleeting: even if they have no conscious memory of us, we leave an impression on their lives. Without us, they would be different. Without us, the world would be different. Even those who die alone and are buried in an unmarked grave leave some trace, somewhere.

For some of us, there is the comfort of belief in a new life after death. For others, such belief is futile. But even if we do not believe in heaven or hell, or nirvana, or any other form of “life after death”; even if we have come to believe that all that happens when we die is that the lights go out, permanently; still we have immortality.

Of course, some are not satisfied with this. Just as people of the past embalmed bodies in the expectation that the owner would be back in due course to claim them, so now the rich and narcissistic preserve their bodies in the expectation of future resurrection. Cryogenics have never been so popular.

Scientists, too, hope to eliminate death. But they have not considered the consequences for the ordering of society. Science may eventually enable us to remain fit and well forever, but will we want to? An eternity of work does not sound an attractive prospect. It would be quite something for death to become the privilege of the rich, would it not?

The fear of dying

I wonder if it is not so much death that we fear, but the process of dying, increasingly drawn out over days, weeks or years. Premature death is now rare: life expectancy is rising fast as medical advances enable us to prolong life, perhaps longer than we would really like. For us, the risk is no longer death too soon – it is death too late.

We certainly fear pain, and dying has always been associated with pain. But this is a feedback loop: we fear pain, and fear increases pain. Cardinal Henry Newman, in his great poem “The Dream of Gerontius”, graphically describes the terror felt by a dying man:

“And worse and worse, some bodily form of ill
Floats on the air with many a loathsome curse
Tainting the hallow'd air, and laughs,
And flaps its hideous wings,
And makes me wild with horror and dismay….”

In Newman’s framing, death is agony. Not just physically, but emotionally. The dissolution of the self is horrifying. This is how we believe our forebears regarded death. So now, we aim to end the “agony” of death. And we are to a considerable degree successful. We can relieve physical pain as never before. We have counselling services to help people work through emotional distress. And the extension of lifespans means people have far more time to prepare for their deaths.

 The current obsession with death smacks not so much of fear, but of people with time on their hands. And, of course, commercial interests looking to take advantage of a projected large increase in demand for “death services” as the baby boomers grow old and die.

A host of applications and services is growing up to meet people’s demand to “design their own death”. Some of them are frankly ghoulish: for example, the Tikker app, which audibly counts down the seconds remaining to the date of death (chosen by the user) is horrifyingly reminiscent of Logan’s Run. And do people really want to meet in a café whose sole purpose is to facilitate discussion of death over a cup of tea? The success of “death cafés” suggests that yes, they do. And some go further. Hosting your own wake is becoming increasingly popular. Tom Sawyer weeping at his own funeral, and Finnegan sitting up in his coffin at the end of his wake to the consternation of his (by then very drunk) friends, are no longer simply creations of fiction.  These days, we celebrate death before it comes to us, not afterwards.

The anger about death that I noted earlier seems to stem partly from loss of control. People who design their own death tend to expect death to occur as they planned. “We didn’t get the death we wanted”, say their relatives when it doesn’t work out quite like that. But death is no more under voluntary control than birth. Just as a woman may find that the home birth she planned is impossible because of medical complications, so a “death plan” too may have to be abandoned, if Death has other ideas. This is not to say that people should not prepare for their death: on the contrary, people who have thought about their own mortality do tend to approach death in a better frame of mind than those who have not. But over-planning carries the risk of disappointment. However meticulously you plan, in the end you may not get the death you want.

However, it is also true to say that the medicalisation of death, like the medicalisation of birth, creates a “spiral of intervention” that may not be in the dying person’s best interests. Death is not an illness to be treated: when death is inevitable, what is the justification for ever more invasive medical and even surgical intervention? It is as if the medical profession regards death as failure. “We did all we could”, they say defensively. But “doing all they could” is not necessarily doing what they should. Easing someone’s path out of life by relieving pain and emotional distress while avoiding unnecessary and intrusive medical interventions may often be better. This is the approach taken by the hospice movement, now widely respected as a beacon of good practice in palliative care. Creating calm, homely environments – or even better, making it possible for people to die at home, in their own environment – goes a long way to turning death from a foe to be feared into a friend to be welcomed.

Re-imagining death as a friend is nothing new. Schubert’s song “Death and the Maiden” does exactly this: the frightened girl, faced with an untimely visit from the “wilder Knochenmann”, tells Death she is too young to die. But Death reassures her: “Sei gutes Muts! Ich bin nicht wild: sollst sanft in meinen Armen schlafen.” However, it seems we need constant reminders of Death’s friendly nature. J.K. Rowling’s embedded story of the Three Hallows in her Harry Potter epic re-invents Death as a friend. So does Terry Pratchett’s wonderful depiction of Death propping up a bar and discussing, among other things, his own death. The feared Black Rabbit in Watership Down is welcomed by the tired Hazel.

The message of all these writers is that if we fight Death, our end is painful and traumatic: but if we allow Death to take us by the hand and lead us into the unknown, the process of dying is likely to be much more peaceful. Perhaps the way to get the “death we want” is, rather than planning every detail, to be open and relaxed about the possibility that it might not happen as we might like: dying peacefully at home surrounded by friends and loved ones is perhaps an ideal to aspire to, but it is not, and never will be, the reality for everyone. Much of the work of today’s “death designers” is, or should be, about reducing stress and creating an atmosphere of calm acceptance whatever the circumstances. And since despite our best efforts a significant minority of people will always die in hospital, making hospitals less stressful for patients would be a good place to start. Technology can help with this, of course. But do we really need a host of apps and gimmicks?

For people facing long debilitating and painful illnesses, death may indeed be a friend eagerly awaited, though the taboo against assisted suicide in most Western countries means that the wait may be very long. The controversial work of Dignitas, enabling people to embrace death at a time of their choosing, is a welcome relief for some. But for others, it is a bridge too far: actively helping people to die has important moral, social and religious implications, and carries the potential for abuse.

The wastefulness of death

But of course comments like “we didn't get the death we wanted” come not from the person who died, but from those left behind. Death is a social event.

The living have as much if not more to say about the management of death than the dying. Expectations can be raised, and dashed: the loved one dies horribly, perhaps in pain that cannot be fully relieved or in very medicalised, clinical surroundings. Perhaps death comes too quickly, and they die alone. When the living are denied the opportunity to participate in the death of a loved one, they can be deeply hurt, feeling that they “never got the chance to say goodbye”.

Death is messy. Disposing of the actual remains is the job of undertakers: this is a completely dysfunctional market, of course, because no-one wants to be bothered with shopping around for funerals when they are grieving. Anyone suggesting that the funerals marketplace could do with more competition needs their head examining. It needs regulation, not competition. But there is far more to clearing up the mess that Death leaves behind. Sorting out the personal effects of the deceased is a difficult and painful task. Distributing valuables can be even worse, especially if no legal provision has been made. People who don’t make wills can unwittingly leave very unpleasant surprises for those left behind. We owe it to those we love to prepare adequately for our death.

The advent of the digital age has complicated the task of clearing up after death. People’s online personalities can live on long after their death: it is oddly uncanny to receive a spam email from the account of someone who has died, or see a Facebook post a year after their death. It is probably worth closing down email accounts, and there are now companies that will undertake clearing out of digital records on behalf of grieving relatives.

But these ghostly appearances can be a new form of memorial. Facebook, in particular, is becoming a sort of digital mausoleum. Not only is it used to notify friends and relatives of a death (I found out about Lindsay Purcell’s death from a status update on her Facebook account, placed there by her son), people post photographs and memories on the walls of those who have died, particularly on anniversaries. No doubt there are companies which will create “digital memorials” for those who wish to purchase them: but people spontaneously using Facebook to remember their loved ones seems to me more poignant and meaningful.

Indeed, creating memories is something that technology does all too well. Messages can be sent from the deceased to their loved ones on important dates such as birthdays for many years after death. Photographs can be stored and organised for easy access: videos and audio recordings too. We can, at the touch of a button, bring back our loved one again, and for a moment, be “as we were in May”. Grief can be eased by such technology: but it can also be prolonged. Living in the past is all too easy when the past is so easy to access. Does this really help the process of healing?

And of course these digital memories are still just that – memories. The loved one is gone. We see and hear them as they were, not as they would be if they were still here. All that they have learned in their lives, their personalities formed from heredity and experience – those are gone. Indeed for an increasing number of people, those are gone long before death. Dementia progressively destroys the memory and the personality. Clever apps that remind dementia patients to eat may keep their bodies alive for longer, but they do nothing to restore the person. Dementia is hell, both for those who experience it and for those who witness it. I would rather see funding for scientific research directed towards ending the living death of Alzheimer’s disease than sunk into seeking the elimination of death itself.

Rather than eliminating death, perhaps we could aim to end ageing. Enable people to remain fit and well to the end, then die at a time of their choosing. They would become cyborgs, of course, as the various parts of them that wear out are replaced with synthetic equivalents: eventually, I suppose, all humans would be cyborgs to a greater or lesser extent. We have already created what we will become.

Perhaps also science could find a way of ending the really wasteful aspect of death – the loss of the knowledge and experience that people acquire over their lifetimes. Only a fraction of what people discover, and think, and learn is ever transmitted to the next generation. If we could find a way of capturing what people have locked up in their heads, perhaps we would be able to break out of the cycle of repeated mistakes and painful lessons into which we are locked because collectively, we cannot remember….

Related reading:

Broken windows, broken lives – Coppola Comment
A strange memorial – Coppola Comment
Reinventing death for the 21st century – Design Council

Image from Mashable. 


  1. Oh man, that was really thoughtful. Thanks Frances for sharing with us.


Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

WASPI Campaign's legal action is morally wrong

The foolish Samaritan