The Last Word on Death

Written by A.C. Grayling on 20 January 2001.

To die is different from what anyone supposed, and luckier – Whitman

If we base our understanding of death on evidence rather than fear or desire, we are bound to accept it as a twofold natural process: the cessation of bodily functions, including consciousness, followed by the body's dispersion into its physical elements. Cessation of function and the beginning of physical transformation occur together at the moment of death; exactly what constitutes that moment is a matter of controversy, an important matter because many physiological functions can now be sustained artificially. But there is some agreement that brain death, because it irrevocably ends mental activity, marks the Rubicon.

In the rest of nature cessation of function, followed by transformation of the physical elements, is part of life's continuity. It is a commonplace, but an important one, that death and decay are the servants of life. Fallen leaves change into humus on which next year's seedlings feed: so the death and transformation of autumn is essential to spring. Death is therefore a condition of life and constitutes half its rhythm.

Human death does, however, differ crucially from the death of other things. Most humans have self-reflexive consciousness, and most self-reflexively conscious beings regard death as a loss of supreme possessions: awareness and agency. It is not that most humans, if they thought about it, would wish to live forever, at least in this world; Shaw's Methuselah suggests that endless existence would be intolerable. Rather, it is that death comes too soon for most of us, before our interest in the world, and in those we care about, is exhausted.

From the subjective perspective, being dead is indistinguishable from being unborn, or from dreamless sleep; and can therefore hold no terrors. What seems frightening is the prospect of dying. But dying is an act of living; it is something only the living do, and like most other such acts - eating, walking, feeling happy or ill - it might be pleasant or otherwise. But being dead is not something we experience. We experience death only in losing others, and the experience is one of grief. Accordingly, our own deaths are no part of our personal experience: each of us experiences only life. In this sense, from the subjective perspective we are immortal.

Marcus Aurelius, the Roman emperor and Stoic philosopher, said that when we die we lose only the present moment, for the past has gone and the future does not exist; so to comfort ourselves we have only to ask, 'is this present moment really worth keeping?' But Aurelius is wrong. We are each of us a compound of memories and hopes, so the present is where our experience meets our plans and expectations. We are creatures of narrative; the next instalment of the story interests us crucially. Therefore death, either of someone we love, or as the indefinite prospect of our own absence from the story, typically counts as evil. To those who welcome death, by contrast, the present's mix of past and future has a special shape, distorted by anguish. There is a psychological point after which, for them, the next chapter has to be the last.

Because being dead is, on a naturalistic view, identical to being unborn, nothing about death itself makes it good or evil. It is only what it removes from us that makes it so. If it removes intolerable and interminable pain, it is good; if it removes opportunities, hopes, connections with the beloved, it is bad.

The fundamental question is how to deal with others' deaths. We grieve the loss of an element in what made our world meaningful. There is an unavoidable process of healing - of making whole - to be endured, marked in many societies by formal periods of mourning, between one and three years long. But the world is never again entire after bereavement. We do not get over losses; we merely learn to live with them.

But there is a great consolation. Two facts - that the dead once lived; and that one loved them and mourned their loss - are inexpungeably part of the world's history. So the presence of those who lived can never be removed from time, which is to say that there is a kind of eternity after all.

How many of us, though, can succeed in feeling these truths as consolations? We are not good at coping with death, especially in our contemporary materialist age, with its pretence that we live indefinitely and that the fountain of happiness is purchasing power. Few face the fact of death squarely, or consider its nature clearly. For most, the premise is that death is evil; they avoid thinking about it, and even refuse to allow that anyone suffering exquisitely should be allowed its merciful embrace if he chooses.

We hide from death therefore, and we hide death from us, until the last moment: and especially until we have to face the deaths of others. Unless we are religious, with the kind of animal faith that Tolstoy's Levin admired in his serfs, the forms and formalisms of dealing with death are too often stiff and awkward to give real comfort. That might be different if we thought about death and its meanings more carefully, and provided ourselves with an unvarnished, uncompromising portrait of it as the greatest fact of life. Such a portrait would do well if it showed us that death is many things, few of them easy, but all of them conquerable if we have courage enough.

We find death far harder and stranger than our forefathers did. In earlier times death was ubiquitous, more present and familiar than most of life's pleasures. Its seat at every table, its dogging of every step and breath, made the world a different place. It certainly gave religion a fearful boost, as the only offer of security in a treacherous existence.

Nothing seems so dead as clematis in winter. But even as March winds batter one's garden, long green fingers open from the clematis's brittle twigs, seeking somewhere to take a grip on life. Commonplace observations of nature's declining and resurgent cycles must have been early sources of hope for mankind, faced with the pity and terror of death. As a result, resurrection stories abound in religion and myth, and it is no accident that Easter is a spring festival.

Such thoughts explain belief in life after death – and so does the fact of fear, and a yearning for justice. The point about fear is self-explanatory; the desire for ultimate justice is a dimmer aspiration for those who, like the writer and readers of these words, occupy snug niches high up the food-chain. We forget that, for the vast majority of people, now as throughout history, existence is a grim labour. The urbane voices that reach us from the past come from the few who had opportunities to speak or act; which was at the expense of armies of faceless, nameless strugglers with little to hope but that, in another dispensation of things, they might have a chance of a spell in the sun. Hopes for an afterlife are, in fact, a sad reflection on, and a condemnation of, the facts of this life. That should make us understand better Spinoza's dictum about the wise man, for it should help us see that if life for many makes them envy the dead, humanity has failed itself badly.