I have been thinking about death, a lot lately. I know that some might say that’s a depressing line of thought to fall into, or perhaps my dear listeners may feel that a podcast episode on the subject of death isn’t the type of intellectual or entertainment material folks are looking for right now. I mean, I know it’s a bit tone-deaf of me, but I’m just not the type of person to turn away in the face of tragedy. I prefer to keep track of the injustice and suffering in the world, and so all that is going on right now, and the way the pandemic is unfolding, has me ruminating on death. I’m hoping these thoughts can be of some value while we live through such uncertain times.
It would be a ridiculous claim if I were to assert that I have always been a person who contemplates death more than the next person. I have no idea how one would quantify that, and I don’t think I think of death more than a person who is dying or someone who knows their death is near. That being said, not many people grew up with both of their parents being flight paramedics. I think from an early age, I knew death was uncertain in that it could visit any of us at any time, and my parents were people who intervened in those situations. Later, in my teenage years, my stepfather became the chief medical investigator for the county, and when I became of age, I worked part-time for medical examiner transport. My parents’ careers also included a stint as organ harvesters, which is why I always make sure to check the organ donor box when I renew my driver’s license.
Death is something that was always the crux of what my parents did for a living and what was discussed around the dinner table. Some days it was studying techniques to prevent a patient from dying, some days it was applying those skills and celebrating that success, and other days it was reckoning with death as just being part of the job. They were superhuman to me in the way they risked their own death, riding in a helicopter after extracting passengers from mangled vehicles that had to be pulled apart with the jaws of life. They were fortunate to both make the decision to move on to other aspects of their career when they did. They avoided death themselves when two weeks to the day they resigned, the helicopter went down while in transport, killing everyone on board.
Once my stepfather became a medical investigator, and my mother stopped running calls, those conversations became mostly about death and death investigations. My stepfather was also tasked in his work with notifying the next of kin for anyone brought to the morgue. He prided himself in having a lower number of undetermined next of kin from one year to the next. Some of those couldn’t be helped though, as some people die and are the last of their family, without even an estranged relative to notify.
So anyway, I don’t want to get too far into my childhood, but I just want you to know who some of these musings on death are coming from. It’s hard to say that I tend to contemplate death more than the next person, and that’s a really weird claim to make, so I’m just going to say that death has always occupied a rather wide footprint in my thoughts, on account of both my upbringing and having worked for medical examiner transport — meaning I have been to quite a few death scenes and seen some real shit.
So back to these current thoughts on death I’ve had — they are deeper and more pointed deliberations as of late, and I suspect that each of us all, in some shape and to some degree, are having similar confrontations. We are, after all, living through a mass and broadscale social trauma, replete with reminders that death is always stalking us, and death is all around us. I think we are, each of us all, noticing more of those reminders, and I think we are weighing them with a bit more seriousness.
It cannot be healthy to go about your days being constantly reminded that death may be lurking around the corner. At the time of these words being committed to paper, there are (at last count) over 260,000 people who have lost their lives to the coronavirus. At this point, pretty much all of us at least know someone who has contracted it, if not lost someone close to us. Since April, there has been a death counter in the lower right part of the screen of major news networks, and that counter has increased day after day, to the point where American society seems to be desensitized to the daily death rate. This barrage of expiry must be psychologically impactful on the social fabric.
I’m sure a lot of us looked to the 1918 flu pandemic to gain some sort of handle on these moments we’re living through in real-time. Our pandemic experience has its own idiosyncrasies for sure. Some of them are similar, in that anti-maskers were around back in 1918, and they complained about masks back then too. Woodrow Wilson did a terrible job handling the Spanish Flu and contracted the virus himself, just like our current president ended up contracting the coronavirus.
We probably learned a lot from examining that time in history. Those of us who are familiar with the Liberty Loan parade in Philadelphia aren’t shocked by the current conditions in South Dakota caused by the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally. Whatever we are able to take from history to inform us of our current predicament, one thing’s for sure is that I don’t think any one of us knew what we were in for regarding the toll the pandemic would take on our emotional well-being and our mental health.
I don’t think Albert Camus quite knew either when he wrote his novel The Plague in 1947, but I find some of the overarching points he drives home to be quite accurate to the way our social fabric has shifted.
Consider the normalization of facial coverings in society. Of course, masks are an essential part of combating the spread of the virus, and we should all wear a mask in public to protect ourselves and each other. We have a civic and moral responsibility to help contain the number of infections, and wearing a mask is such a small price to pay for such an effective tool at preventing unnecessary deaths.
Facial perception and facial features carry a wealth of social information and to a certain degree, social details are omitted from our everyday social interactions while wearing a face mask. I am not suggesting that you cannot tell a person’s identity, mood, age, sex, or race when they’re wearing a mask, only that these important aspects of social information are made a bit opaque. I am concerned the omission of social information we have mentioned, combined with social distancing, can lead individuals to view others, not as people, but see them instead as dangerous potential carriers of the virus.
Taking these lessons from Camus as a harbinger, we can understand that the current racial injustice, economic fallout, and political division add to this depersonification. All of this social alienation has resulted in a form of rational paranoia. It’s not unreasonable to fear the person next to you because that person, whose face you’re unable to see, may not only be a carrier of the virus — but also that person may be desperate. There are now a record number of people that are unemployed, facing eviction, and there are millions of people in line at food banks. Let us also not forget that we all woke up to a Trump election victory around four years ago — which cemented a feeling among us that we did not know who our neighbors were after all.
And so, with all this precarity, there is a cloud of uncertainty and grief hanging over us. We are mourning both the people we have lost and our former ways of being that we can no longer access. Thus, the topic of death, as the natural conclusion and logical end to uncertainties, is resurgent in my mind, and I suspect the minds of many others.
A couple of months ago, I accompanied my girlfriend to the funeral of her paternal grandmother. I am fortunate this is the only funeral I have had to attend in recent memory. As funerals go, this was the most peculiar funeral I have ever been present to.
It was outdoors on an unusually warm and humid morning in September. Because the burial plot was situated on a hillside some ways from the road, it was not the easiest path to traverse from the curb to the burial site. It was a bit awkward finding a place to stand on the slope of the hill, and we were all spread out a bit to maintain social distancing. Most attendees wore masks. There were about a dozen people who chose to stay in their vehicle and observe from afar. A few people made the rounds to each vehicle to say hello to those who would not or were not able to, make their way up the hill. Some of the folks who remained in their vehicles were aging and as a precaution to the virus, they would not roll their car windows down to say hello to family members they had not seen in years. Likewise, it was a rather uneasy process of recognizing and greeting relatives who had not seen each other in years while having your face covered with sunglasses on.
We had arrived much earlier than the crowd. Her mother and father stood with she and I on the hillside and we heard the groundskeepers yelling in communication with one another amid the beeps of machinery and idling of truck engines. There on the hill, near the grave plot, we examined and remarked upon the casket lowering device. The funeral had a pervading feeling of impertinence to it, that loud engines and crude mechanisms would juxtapose with a mourning process, and the ambient noise of a construction zone would interject among the bereaved.
In the end, there was no post-funeral gathering. No one went out to eat or made plans to gather at anyone’s home. It seemed unceremonious in the way the whole thing only took about twenty-five minutes. The groundskeepers said they would not lower the casket into the grave until folks were gone, but someone said it was okay and gave permission to lower the casket no more than ten minutes after the ceremony was concluded.
While the priest looked around and was about to begin his readings, I began to give some thought to the concept of funerals being a process for the living. There may be certain things done for and purchased for the deceased in accordance with how funerals go, but funerals in and of themselves exist as a way to give humans a way to proceed forward in the wake of bereavement. I was reminded of something I heard Dr. Cornell West say, that the word ‘human’ comes from the Latin ‘humando’, which means burying. As far as I know, we are the only animals who bury our dead, and for that matter, we may be the only creatures who are cognizant of their own mortality. Maybe we bury our dead to give the living something to do. It is a ritual that will propel them forward in a time of emotional paralysis as much as it is a way of providing closure to the cessation of a life.
As the priest began to read a passage, my mind drifted to pondering the way death both diminishes and lends significance to our lives. How significant could our lives really be, if after our death there are only a few people who will mourn, and those people will eventually be gone as well? What difference would it make if we were paupers or kings if we all come to the same conclusions?
I looked over at my girlfriend, who was watching her father, who had his eyes on his wife, who briefly looked up to see how her daughter was fairing through the ceremony. Their interconnected way of watching each other reminded me that we are nothing without the ones we love. What projects are worthwhile without love, and what is anyone’s life without those interconnections?
Still, despite the fact we were gathered for a funeral, I found my mind had some resistance comporting with my understanding that the person we were burying was in fact deceased. Here we all are, watching as the coffin awaited lowering, and yet my mind had flickers of thoughts about accidentally burying this woman alive. Maybe it was the horror movies I had seen as a child, or perhaps it was the way the casket crank was subsumed in the dirt along with the coffin that lead to the proposition she was still alive. Whatever it was, I sensed some inability to reckon with her life being over.
I think because we know death is imminent to life, and that we will each of us individually demise, as human beings we have a natural urge for a continuation of ourselves after death. Death is unsettling to us because it is effectually the end of many things — our relationships, our hobbies and pastimes, our desires and passions, and in a more essentialist capacity, it is the end of all those things that make you — you.
Humans have a deeply embedded need to relegate death to being something purely corporeal. For most of the major religions, death is a death of the body alone. Your body dies and your soul travels on to an unavoidable judgment, or you get reincarnated up until you achieve nirvana. All the doctrines contain some form of a continuation of self after death. Maybe an eternal continuation of the self is ultimately what religion has to offer us, though it cannot offer up any tangible evidence to support it.
be judged for our actions in this life following our earthly death, then we must presume the weight of our actions in this life is taken with us to the place of this judgment. Perhaps the narrative of a judgment to be faced following an earthly death is the agent that facilitates this belief in an eternal self. After all, without the weight of one’s actions, what is there to judge (and would that technically be determinism and not free will)? Is there even the concept of you without the weight of your actions? Even if you end up in hell, that is, to some degree, still comforting, in that the part of you that is you will continue to be for eternity.
Personally, I am an atheist. I would call myself an apostate, but I do not think I ever believed. To me, this life is temporal and when we die, we are just dead. I believe that when we die, every single bit of us that makes you you will cease to be. To me, there is no continuation of the self, and there is no unavoidable judgment. There is no meeting your friends and family gone before you past the pearly gates, just like there is no hell that Ronald Reagan is burning in for eternity. None of that takes up space in my head or in my reasoning.
I also tend to think of the belief in a god as a reverse Pascal’s wager. For those of us who don’t know what Pascal’s wager is, it’s an argument in philosophy that says one should seek to know god because if god does exist, then one stands to receive infinite gains and avoid infinite losses, whereas if God does not exist, one would not stand to lose much. My feeling is the reverse of that: What if God does not exist and you spend your entire life conforming to an untrue belief system and a moral code that had nothing to do with a God who wasn’t there to arbitrate? The treatment of this life as a moral obstacle course to be traveled through as a small part of the larger more important journey you will embark upon after you die is to displace the primacy of this life, this reality, and the urgency and beauty of the moment.
I am not interested in making you think like me, just explaining that death is also complicated for those of us to do not subscribe to a set course of events postmortem. I would love to believe that I will see my loved ones again, in a utopian city in the clouds where the suffering of humanity is subdued. There is a part of me that is all too human and wants vengeance against evil and would be comforted by the existence of a place where evil is held to account and punished, just as I would be comforted by the thought of a place where all good people end up, not to mention all of the pets I’ve had I would like to reunite with.
I have had folks become aghast when I have informed them that I do not believe in a soul. Not believing in a soul seems to be the logical conclusion for a person like me who relegates life to being purely temporal. While I can acknowledge that there are things in this life we don’t know and we won’t ever understand, I cannot bring myself to believe a ghost version of myself exits my body and heads for a court date in the clouds when my life expires.
We stayed at the cemetery long enough to witness the casket lowering, but not long enough to see the groundskeepers pour dirt over the coffin. As we drove away, I began to ask myself why death would persist in terrifying me, or why it would be the least bit unsettling, if I believed I would simply be absorbed back into non-existence?
Non-existence is a concept I think deserving of its own interrogation. If heaven or hell, or the continuation of the self can provide some comfort when examining one’s mortality, perhaps non-existence can be similarly employable. Maybe the degree to which an atheist, or anyone who does not subscribe to a set course of events after they die, can find comfort in non-existence would be in the way one must first exist in order to experience suffering. If one ceases to exist, one must necessarily cease to suffer.
It seems a bit strange to argue for the existence of non-existence, but non-existence is dialectically implied by existence itself. If anything, non-existence has more of a stake in existence than either heaven or hell, because at the very least we can confirm that non-existence is an actual thing.
The existential philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre coined a term called ‘thrownness’ for the way he described existence. The thrownness of life is in the way we do not know where we came from, we do not know where we are going, and we do not know why (if any reason) we are here. In a sense, we have been plucked out of non-existence, and given this brief period of life, following which we will return to the void of non-existence.
If we are extracted from non-existence and thrown into existence, it would logically follow that there is no set way a human being ought to be. How could there be any set way when the process determining how we are and come to be would not play out the same way if we could repeat it? Said more plainly, there is a sense that if we could rewind the evolutionary tape, things would not play out the same way with the same results.
The you that is you is a result of a process contingent on the convergence of a panoply of possibilities. Consider the possibility of your own parents conceiving you ten minutes later than they did. It stands to reason that the person conceived in this situation would not in fact be you, as they would be a different person both numerically and qualitatively. The courses of events that shape this person would be slightly different than the courses of events that shaped you, so perhaps this theoretical person would not be all that different from you. Then again, the possibility this person would be drastically different from you is not something we can eliminate from consideration altogether.
This thought experiment grows more profound when we consider it on a larger scale. If for instance, abortion had not been made legal in the United States, consider how many more individuals would have been plucked from non-existence into existence. Conversely, consider the people who are in existence now who would not exist if women did not have access to abortions. On the surface that might seem contradictory, but plenty of women who have abortions go on to have children later in life.
Those people in the pro-life camp may opine about the evils of pregnancy termination, and fixate on the morality of it, but non-existence rarely factors into their reasoning. I suspect within the imagination of theists, the concept of non-existence is not taken as a complete and total cessation of existing (just like the concept of death is relegated in their belief system to being the death of the body alone). How can non-existence be literal not existing if there is an afterlife, to be spent in either heaven or hell, with a brief stop for judgment before proceeding to either place? Perhaps the time before one is brought into existence is still not literal non-existence within the strictest sense, but instead is time spent being forged in god’s workshop, or sitting upon a shelf awaiting god to insert you into the world. Of course, most of theology is concerned with what happens after you die, but not so much with any time before then. What about all the different versions of you that could have been? Are those versions of you also on a shelf in non-existence?
Now would be a good time to take inventory of the ways that theism provides comfort to believers when confronting our mortality. There’s a set course of events that unfold following one’s death, a continuation of the self, a relegation of death to being purely corporeal, and to a certain extent, death itself is transformed from the ending of a life to the beginning of an eternal phase of being. One way we have not mentioned thus far is the way theism restores a cosmological order for believers.
There is a sense that the cosmological order we are referring to serves to anchor the meaning in our lives. In this context, the existence of human beings is embedded within the cosmological whole, with a role to play that ought to mirror or at least compliment the movement of the rest of the universe. In the minds of theists, there is no doubt the universe has order and stability because there is an all-knowing and all-powerful god attending to the way things are.
When existentialists assert there is no set way of being, they are responding to the notion of the cosmos being orderly and stable. There is nothing orderly and stable about the thrownness of our existence, just as death does not function as a neat or tidy closing to our lives. We will leave behind projects and relationships like a novel that ends mid-sentence, and for many, an existence withdrawn from the cosmological order is terrifying.
That existence would be like a ship without a mooring, lost at sea without a compass, is enough to petrify the bravest among us. Though I have mentioned that I am personally an atheist, I am not a combative non-theist as I have a great deal of sympathy for those who do not wish to live in such an inhospitable context. I too would love for the cosmos to be a friendlier place, with an all-powerful creator who has a plan and purpose for me. I wish I could believe that the thrownness of life was instead a benevolent god gently placing me within this world, ready and waiting to scoop me up at the end of my time on this planet.
I have been averse to this line of thinking for as long as I can remember. I have had many years to contemplate the indifference of the cosmos and reckon with the totality of being godless. I have learned to face a future created by decisions without a cosmological or divine guiding standard, and I have experienced beauty and nourishment to be found in the discoveries and explorations of this life.
So perhaps that which is so terrifying about death is simply the end to that nourishment and beauty, yet it is the fact that we will die which lends significance to our actions and projects. The terminality of these undertakings within a limited time frame makes the choices we make profound. On the other hand, immortality would be parasitic to the meaningfulness of our choices.
There are so many reasons we fear death but maybe the most obvious reason is that we just do not know what happens when we die. Though I believe the most logical conclusion on this question is that we simply fall back into non-existence, the truth of the matter is we cannot confirm to those of us who are alive what it is like to not be alive. Human life is vulnerable to death, and death can happen at any time. Human life is fragile, in that we are always exposed to death. We must ask ourselves how we might live in the face of one’s inevitable and uncertain death.
With death always stalking us, one could argue that we have always been forced to live a life that is fragile and facing our own mortality. Does being reminded of the possibility that death is lurking make our lives any more fragile? No, only that we are more cognizant of our inevitable and uncertain death.
Ultimately, what scares us about the coronavirus is primarily the deadly part about it. Sure, nobody wants to get sick, and we do not want our friends and family to become ill. We take precautions like wearing face masks and using hand sanitizer, but as Camus tried to tell us in The Plague, we did not need a virus to remind us that we are all already living through a plague to the degree that death itself has always been a widespread, silent and invisible disease that may kill any of us at any time, and destroy the lives we assumed were solid.
My hopes are that when this pandemic is over, the constant reminders of our mortality can bring us closer together and remind us of our humanity. Perhaps being mindful of our fragility and an always lurking death can help us be better, bolder, and wiser in our choices, and in the way we cherish one another. And may the differences in our spiritual or secular beliefs always be sensitive to the precarity that is innate to the human condition.