Death 081011

A brief consideration of then end of corporeal life from your Fringe Editor


The Grim Homer, common symbol of death


Call no man happy till he is dead.


Someone died the other day, in fact one hundred someones die every minute in the world.  It’s a miserable fact of life, but there you are.  If no one died, having a child would be a death offense because there simply wouldn’t be room for a kid amongst the ancient; that’s a tough life, ask any 20 something who is waiting for a Boomer to die so they can have a job.   Ben Franklin is credited with the observation that many want to live long but few want to be old.  Without death we’d just continue to get older and more decrepit until eventually we could just see over the waist band of our undies.  The alternative to being up to our wrinkled keisters in wrinkled keisters is death.


There, it’s looking better already, isn’t it?


Needless to say, different cultures look at death differently, and every culture values the death of a person differently.   A homeless person can lie on the street for hours or days, but a little girl laying on the street will cause people to become heroes.  Even in death we are not all equal.


We’ll note that “death”, like many connotative words, has more than one meaning.  It is the state of not living, it is the process of transition from living to non-living, and it is the state after life.  It’s fun to discuss them in the order they occur.


In general, the dead are very little trouble, it’s the mostly dead that can consume tremendous resources.


The death we all aspire to is the “he died in his sleep” death.  It is what Woody Allen talks about when he says “I’m not afraid of dying, I just don’t want to be there when it happens.”  The nocturnal cardiac arrest is just behind the orgasmic cardiac arrest as top ways to exit the mortal coil, and it’s generally easier on the bed partner.


In the U.S. death has been medicalized.  Officially, anyway, if you’re in the clutches of a doctor when you die, as many of us will be, they’ll prolong death as long as you have insurance.  It would be fair to list the cause of death for many of us as “exceeded policy limit”.  Officially, you aren’t dead until a doctor or coroner says you’re dead, though in a pinch a judge can decide if you’re dead, too.  At a time like that questions arise as to what is dead: is he brain dead; is he alive on artificial respiration only; is he just in a vegetative state; and perhaps the most significant question, has the widow moved on.


It should be noted that many of the most dreadful things about dying don’t bother the dying.  There are some terrible deaths, but many deaths are more of a bother, since we’ll die thread by thread in a hospital bed.  The deaths where you watch the suffering of those who love you is terrible.  Most of these, though, the dying is sedated until pain of all kinds is distant.


There are those who think that death, like pregnancy, should be taken straight up if possible.  People shouldn’t be sedated away from these important events, pain is a valuable part of the nature of life.  But, some kinds of pain are simply too much, neither life nor death are made better by seemingly interminable pain.


When will YOU die?

Naturally, a computer

knows. (link) 


The moment of death is significant, and for most of us not that mysterious.  The very ill often simply breathe less and less until at some point they are no longer breathing.  Shock takes some people out, and it, too, is a progressive insufficiency.  In the most prolonged cases organs simply shut down more or less sequentially, with kidneys, liver, heart and lungs gradually returning to the inert matter they were before the spark of life, brief as it is, inhabited them.  There are more terrible ways to die, but in the end, no matter the method, the result is the same.


We should weep when someone is born and celebrate when someone dies.

Bernadina Venturino


For some religions, the transition is very important to where one eventually goes.  For some Christian religions, it is important that a person repent before they die, or that a priest sanctifies them to pass from this earth.  There, the key is the forgiveness of sin; one doesn’t want to go before the Lord unrepentant for transgressions.  Conversely, some religions take a different approach.  The famous Bardo Thodol, the Tibetan Book (actually, Books) of the Dead, is intended to guide a person through the event of death smoothly and even help the spirit on its way.  The idea is not forgiveness of sins, but rather to help the dying person let go of their desires and fears which can call them back to this life or lead them to an ugly hell instead of returning to the body of God. 


But, what about after?  We call it “after life” but don’t we mean “after death”? 



Death, the Tarot card.  Interestingly, it does not

necessarily mean death, it simply means “change”,

passing from one place in life to another.



The husk that is left when the life has left is also treated differently in different cultures and times.  The Black Death killed so many people at times, one person in three in some places, that the corpses were simply collected in wagons and dumped in mass graves.  It struck so swiftly that loved ones parted in the morning and never met again at dinner.  That kind of on-going rampant death gives one a very short view.


Too much death bums a society out. 

Pieter Bruegel the Elder shows us Death in Triumph.


Likewise, occasionally in history battlefields have been abandoned and the dead have taken care of themselves.

Usually, though, there are a number of different ways to dispose of the left overs.  It depends largely on how a culture views death.  In some societies where the dead are assumed to remain inspirit, the loved one is eaten, or the bones are placed in a niche in the wall.  In cultures which see the vulture as a guide to heaven, placing the corpse on a platform is popular. 

Burial in the ground is fairly common, with great gobs of money spend on boxes and monuments.


From my rotting body, flowers shall grow and I am in them and that is eternity.
Edvard Munch

Perhaps more popular worldwide is cremation.  For a Hindu, cremation on the bank of the River Ganga is the ultimate in disposal, and if the family can’t afford quite enough wood, then the 140 species of fish in the river dine.  The catfish in the Ganges are said to become quite large.  In the U.S. cremation is chosen one time in three, most often taken care of in a modern crematoria, which weighs the body and determines density and sets itself for the optimal time to dehydrate and carbonize the body.  The family can choose a really fine ash, or they can go with crunchy, which has some bone fragments left.  Typically, artificial knees and hips and metal teeth and so on are removed from the ashes.



You’re welcome!  We decided not to publish

the cool photo of the Hindu cremation

that would have gone right here!

One way or another, though, whether through fire or pecking scavengers or worms crawling in and out, the universe eventually claims the minerals and hydrocarbons for use again.


But, remains are the problem of the living, and no concern of the dead.


Man always dies before he is fully born.
Erich Fromm




Pick Your Heaven

Well, now you’re dabbling in religion.  Everybody wants to go to heaven but nobody wants to die, (thank you Peter Tosh.)  Very likely most early religions, and even the Pharisees in the time of Jesus, didn’t believe in life after death.  They prayed to God about the problems of the living.  When most people die of famine or hypothermia or go for lion food, you pray to God about today.  It’s when people farm instead of hunt that ideas of heaven come to be, because you need a surplus of food to support the world’s oldest profession, the priesthood.


The idea of something that goes on after our physical bodies die isn’t as natural as one might think.  Mountains tumble, trees fall; time takes everyone, even planets, even stars.  Do we expect that a mountain leaves a soul, or a tree haunts the forest, or planets and stars go to heaven when they die?  Is the attic full of rat ghosts, or is there a heaven where beetles go when they die?  Why, of all the animals, should man have a personification that goes on after? 


Even today not everyone believes in an immortal soul; even some people who believe in God don’t believe in a soul which goes forward as a person with character, able to enjoy golden slippers or endless eager virgins.  Many people believe we simply die and return to the earth, a literal version of “dust to dust”.   Many others believe an “essence” of life goes forward, but it isn’t a personality, rather it’s a bit of life force, a golden drop which has been separated from the ocean of life that is God, and is eager to be reassumed.  As the elements of our bodies eventually return to the universe, so the element of the soul, the life essence, returns to the cosmic whatever.


For death is no more than a turning of us over from time to eternity.
William Penn


Whatever comes after death, from everything to nothing, it’s very clear the meaning of death is the meaning of life.  Even if Hindus and Christians are right and we’ll be born again somewhere or sometime, it’s clear we each get only one chance at this life.   There is very little to fear in the inevitable, and yet its inevitability should charge the moments of our life.  If weeping would help, we would weep, but there is no help, so we should cling with our nails to every moment of life, and take from each what nectar we can.  Bitterness robs our life with regret while joy is unconquerable, it strengthens life and wrings the sweetness from it.  When we finally tumble to the sod we should be used up and well-travelled with a smile even the undertaker can’t remove.


Participate joyfully in the sorrows of the world. We cannot cure the world of sorrows, but we can choose to live in joy.
Joseph Campbell


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