On death

Tʜᴇʀᴇ’ꜱ ɴᴏ ᴊᴜꜱᴛɪᴄᴇ, ᴛʜᴇʀᴇ’ꜱ ᴊᴜꜱᴛ ᴍᴇ.

– Death, in Terry Pratchett, Mort

Death has become rather topical these days, what with the pandemic. At the time of writing, it’s difficult to assess the actual level of excess mortality globally, given the paucity of data and the variability from country to country in such data as we have. What is clear, however, is that many people, at least in the industrialised world, are extremely uncomfortable with the fact that people die.

Comparisons have been made with previous pandemics, notably the (misnamed) Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918-20 and the Black Death of 1346-53. The first of those killed at most 6% of the world’s population; the second killed something between 30-60% of the population of Europe and around 10-25 million people globally. We are not seeing those numbers currently, and as far as I know we aren’t expecting to. Yet we seem to be reacting as if we were.

Partly this is due to the fact that we rarely think about death and its causes. When we do, it’s often in connection with some specific cause of death; for example, this recent article states that half a million babies die annually because of air pollution. But most of us don’t have much context for that, so it’s hard to assign meaning to such a statement. Half a million certainly sounds like a lot. Then again, is it a lot out of 7.8 billion people? It’s hard to have an intuitive sense of large numbers.

But I think there is a deeper cultural issue here. As a society, we are not good at dealing with death. We like to pretend that it doesn’t happen. Many of us have never seen a human corpse or even an animal one; meat just magically appears shrink-wrapped in the supermarket chiller cabinet. You will not find a book in the self-help section called The Rule and Exercises of Holy Dying, although it was a best-seller in its day. (You can download it here if you’re curious.) Consciously preparing for death is completely alien to us.

When the English cleric Jeremy Taylor wrote that book in the mid-seventeenth century, he had the advantage of working in a culture that was much more familiar with death and which had its own tools for dealing with it. Pretty much everyone in the England of his day was a Christian of some sort. That gives you a basis for viewing death as part of something larger and with a greater purpose, not to mention the prospect of a good personal outcome (even if you’re a Calvinist).

According to a 2018 survey, the UK population is about 40% agnostic or atheist. What proportion of those who claimed to be religious take their theology seriously is unclear, but I suspect it is not high. I don’t claim that religion per se is the only valid framework for contemplating one’s own death – Stoic philosophy is one counter-example – but most of the world’s major religions have a story to tell about death which is not uniformly dismal.

This wouldn’t matter if we could just ignore death, but of course we can’t, especially when the news media can talk of little else. People die. I am going to die; you are going to die. The people you love will die, if they haven’t already. Human beings have a stupendous capacity to deny what is in front of them, but it’s difficult to pretend that death doesn’t occur, or that it won’t apply to us.

Of course there are people who think we can use technology to make death go away. This is because there are people who believe technology can somehow make just about anything inconvenient go away. I’m not here to make fun of anyone’s sincerely held beliefs, and if the prospect of being uploaded to Elon Musk’s laptop helps them get through the day then I hope it keeps fine for them. For my part, I am not persuaded.

I’m not even persuaded that immortality would be that great an option, even if it were possible. After all, it was traditionally conceived of as a punishment, but even the Wandering Jew and the Flying Dutchman are supposed to find an end on the Day of Judgement. There’s more to happiness than being alive. We struggle to keep people alive for as long as possible, hoping that quantity can somehow make up for quality, partly because the death of a patient is seen as a failure of medical care, and partly I suspect because days and hours can be quantified whereas happiness cannot.

The fear of death is perfectly reasonable, although it can be mixed up with the fear of physical pain, which is not quite the same thing. (“I’m not afraid of death,” said Woody Allen; “I just don’t want to be there when it happens.”) But when it gets out of hand, when people panic, we see the emergence of fear-the-mind-killer. Bureaucrats devise elaborate and futile rules in order to be seen to be doing something. Some people are afraid to leave their homes. It’s difficult to know how many people died because they were afraid to seek treatment for a heart attack, or missed out on cancer screening, or took their own lives because they couldn’t cope. There may never be such a reckoning.

Other cultures have been more comfortable with the notion of a good death, even an honourable suicide. Many of Caesar’s assassins took their own lives when it became apparent the game was up, and none of their contemporaries thought any the worse of them for it. If your life has meaning, you death can have meaning too; consider the death of Beowulf, who dies of his wounds after having slain a dragon and thereby saved his people. Even amongst us, a heroic death is fine, so long as we aren’t expected to be heroes ourselves.

But this is view death through the narrow prism of human society. Death, in fact, is the essential counterpart of life. Life, indeed, comes from death. Anyone with a compost heap sees this in action. We all know, even if we don’t care to think about it, what happens to dead animals in nature. Maggots aren’t attractive, even to other maggots, but they do vital work. When this work gets disrupted bad things happen, as in the case of Indian vultures. It may not be the Disney version, but the circle of life really is the way it works. In the biosphere, recycling is not optional.

Plenty of things have died so that I could live. This was the case even when I was a vegetarian, and would be the case even if I were vegan. Because:

  • Every calorie I eat is a calorie some other person doesn’t get to eat. (I include non-human persons in this.) I consider this self-evident.
  • The land on which my food is produced is denied to others. Again, I include both human and non-human persons, and again I consider this self-evident. This is one reason why fields have fences round them. The immense tracts of Amazon rain-forest cleared to create grazing for beef cattle or fields for soya beans also fall under this heading.
  • Pesticides, herbicides and fungicides kill living things. This is true by definition, including the organic versions of these things. The scope of this can sometimes be larger than the intended targets, as with the effects on bees of neonicotinoid pesticides and the weedkiller glyphosate. In that case, of course, there are knock-on effects well beyond the demise of the unfortunate bees.
  • The food I eat is itself directly derived from living things. Of course that doesn’t involve their death in all cases – an apple-tree won’t be killed if I eat its fruit – but in most cases it will. If I eat a carrot, that carrot will not survive.

When you look at it like this, I’m still getting a pretty good deal even though I end up dead myself. For this reason I consider it only fair that when my time comes my body should be returned to the earth to make its contribution to the cycle of life; it seems the least I can do. But your mileage may vary.

Given these basic facts about life and death, it remains up to us to choose how we respond to it. We can pretend they aren’t so, which is popular but not ultimately workable. We can try to minimise the amount of damage we do, and I have much sympathy with this position, even though I wouldn’t take it as far as Jainism. It does however require care: that carton of soya milk may have cost a few acres of rainforest.

My personal position is one of respect. We used to keep chickens, both for eggs and for meat. There is a lot more to chickens than you might think if you haven’t spent time around them in a more or less natural setting; the idea that one chicken is much the same as another is far from the truth. When the time came to kill them – we would normally have a batch of about half a dozen meat birds, and do them all at once – it was never a happy occasion, but at least I had the satisfaction of giving them as quick and easy a death as I could, and of knowing that they had had the best life that I could provide.

I am not saying that one should exclusively eat the meat of creatures one has personally killed. But having some awareness of how that animal lived and died gives value to the process. My father was a meat inspector, so I grew up with more knowledge of what goes on in slaughterhouses than the average person. This was part of my decision to become a vegetarian. Having made the choice to eat meat again has made me a lot fussier about my meat. I would never eat a conventionally grown turkey, for instance, because I know how vast a difference there is between the short, cramped and heavily-drugged existence of a conventionally grown turkey and the life that a turkey can and should live. (Yes, we used to keep turkeys occasionally as well. How did you guess?)

“In the midst of life,” as the Book of Common Prayer points out, “we are in death” – a text that would been more than familiar to Jeremy Taylor. That seems to me a healthy thing to be aware of, at least some of the time. Our lives do not take place in a vacuum, and neither do our deaths.

The present pandemic is an opportunity for us to contemplate death, and life, without blinkers. Many of us, perhaps you yourself, are reacting with blind fear. Take a breath. Consider what is important to you. It is a commonplace amongst people who have had a close brush with death that it has changed how they look at the world. If you choose, you can do the same, and in the safety and comfort of your own home. Death is not the enemy. Failure to live, truly live, is far worse.

Comments are welcome, but I do pre-moderate them to make sure they comply with the house rules.

7 thoughts on “On death

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