As a human being, I try to remember the reality of death and fear it, as well as embrace it and try to understand its uncanny nature. Philosophers add to the existential gravity that is death. The truth is that we all will one day be food for worms.
We have seen the tragedy and reality of death in the news in the last days of 2021. Three white men chased Ahmaud Arbery (25-year-old Black male) and led to his death.
Kyle Rittenhouse, 17, was convicted of murdering two men and wounding one. It brought back painful memories of the pain that caused the families of those men to lose their loved ones. Their deaths did not bring about victory.
Think about the man who drove his SUV into a crowd at a Christmas parade in Waukesha on November 21st 2021. This led to six deaths, including an 8-year old boy. More than 60 others were also hurt. As all deaths do, each death takes away an irreplaceable person.
It is in part our individual, existential uniqueness that makes death more tragic, heavy, and difficult. I often feel the death of others when I hear them talk. Damn! There is no one else like them. Where did they go to?
Imagine the suffering, pain, and exponential questioning that comes with COVID-19. The number of COVID-19-related deaths in the United States is more than 800,000. It is important to be aware of actual deaths, the cessation in millions of consciousnesses, when we hear about these global numbers. This is not about cessation. HowPeople have died but ThatThey have died. We’re back to the uncanniness of death.
I asked my father a question about death just a few days prior to his death in 2014. his imminent deathPerhaps it was inappropriate or insensitive. I posed the question to my father as my partner and I slowly began walking toward the exit of the hospice room: “So, what are your thoughts now about dying?”
My father’s response, although he had not spoken much at all that day, partly because he was under the influence of heavy painkillers, and had begun the active stage of dying, was short: “It’s too complex.”
He put forth all of his energy to say that. Maybe I had expected something more contemplative, something longer. While it was not known to us both, this was the last question I would pose to him and the last words that he would speak before he died. His last words to my were consistent with our mutual struggle with death’s meaning. He spoke truthfully, with courage, and wisdom until the end.
My father was not a professional philosopher but he loved wisdom and the gift of gab. Many of our conversations covered the existence of God, love and the fact that death is a fact. I have known many who have taken the mystery out of death through a kind of sociological matter-of-factness: “We all will die at some point. Tell me something I don’t know.” I suspect that many of these same people have also taken the mystery out of being alive, out of the fact that we exist: “But of course I exist; I’m right here, aren’t I?”
In retrospect, I think my father and myself refused to let death have the final word without first staring it in its face metaphorically. We were both rebelling against the ways in which so many hide from facing the fact that consciousness, as we know it, will stop — poof!
Even when we close our eyes, there is still the experience of phosphenes — the visual phenomena, like floating stars and squiggles — that we see behind our lids. So, closed eyelids don’t come close to mimicking death. Even though we are asleep, most of us dream. Even those who don’t dream often wake up.
Death, however, is not a thing, it’s not an object. Death is not an object, it’s nothing. There is nothing. Ludwig Wittgenstein expresses it this way: “Death is not an event in life: we do not live to experience death.” So it would seem that death involves the demise of the perceiver, and, as such, one can’t possibly say, “I’m dead.”
My father and my father were more like Søren Kierkegaard than like LeO Tolstoy’s fictional character Ivan Ilyich, who desperately avoided the inevitability of his death. For us, death was, in the language of Kierkegaard, “by no Please send means something in general.” We understood that death is about me, HeAnd You, This means that death is universal in its universal grip and yet deeply personal. Personal. We sat and waited with unapologetic aplomb. We took to heart the words of Michel de Montaigne: “Amidst feasts and pleasures we should always keep in mind the remembrance of our condition, never let ourselves be so carried away with pleasures that our memory fails to remind us how many are the ways that our happiness can fall prey to death, how many are the ways she threatens us….”
As I ponder deeper about the meaning and significance of death, I realize that my father and me knew a lot about dying but not about death. Dying is a process; we sometimes get to count the days, hours, minutes or seconds — but For me to die, there is no conscious self who recognizes that I’m gone or that I was even here. My father said that death is too complicated. Perhaps my father was communicating deeper wisdom. Possibly, he was saying to me that death is a problem for the living; it is from “this side” of death (the side of life) that the meaning of death eludes us.
Yet, life is full of mystery. The fact is that we exist at all is full of layers of inscrutability. After all, this is the only time that I’ve ever been on this planet, within this solar system, this galaxy. This is the only time that each of us has, even though we often forget this because we are so preoccupied with texting and career planning, rushing here, there, etc. It’s not like we’ve done planets and existence before or death before, as one might have one’s first drink and then others thereafter. Perhaps we have been here before. This is what Jainism shows us, as illustrated below.
There is something powerfully humbling and breathtakingly ecstatic about these deeper, existential “one-time” events. My students recently reminded me that while I was teaching, I said in the form of a eureka moment: “Hey! We’re on a planet!” It is moments like this that the quotidian recedes while the strangeness of our existential predicament is uncovered.
It is uncannily familiar to me that we are on a planet. Like death, it is not “something in general.” Add to this the fact that each person is irreplaceable, that there is no other like you in a universe whose diameter is 93 billion light-years, well, I tremble at the thought.
The English author Douglas Adams captures what I mean where he writes, “The fact that we live at the bottom of a deep gravity well, on the surface of a gas covered planet going around a nuclear fireball 90 million miles away and think this to be normal is obviously some indication of how skewed our perspective tends to be.”
It was February 2020 when I wrote the following: introductionI conducted a series interviews on the theme religion and death. Our first COVID-19 reports were made in December 2019. The deaths caused by COVID-19 were not my initial goal when I began the interviews. As the interviews progressed, I realized that there was a lot of overlap. I received feedback from readers that the interviews helped them as COVID-19 was killing many. I think the general sense of precarity encouraged readers to write to my blog. I think it was partly the courage to ask the meaning of the death, and the refusal to look away that made it so helpful. What began as a philosophical inquiry was transformed into a balm by some.
The interviews themselves — from the perspectives of Buddhism, Judaism, Roman Catholicism, Jainism, Taoism, Atheism, Islam and Ìṣẹ̀ṣe (the Yoruba religion) — expressed fascinating worldviews that offered a plurality of different ways of narrating the meaning of death.
They were symbolic systems/discursive frameworks of reference that attested to our human ability to be touched by death, to make sense it, and to respond to its mystery through deep symbolic and discursive ways.
I embarked upon these interviews because I’m a philosopher who, at his core, is passionate about “Big Philosophical Questions.” I want to know about the fundamental structure of ultimate reality, whether God exists or not, the nature of the “good life,” the limits of human knowledge, the essence of beauty, and why there is something rather than nothing. Regarding such complex questions, I find myself bracketing “Truth” (with a capital T). While the aspiration is there, the actual attainment of “Truth” is deeply uncertain. This feeling of not knowing makes me feel very melancholic. This emotion is not triggered by our inability to answer these questions with any certainty. It is also the possibility that there are answers. No absolute answers and that life, as William Shakespeare’s protagonist Macbeth says, is “a tale told by an idiot full of sound and fury signifying nothing.”
We don’t seem to be able to glimpse what is behind or beyond death’s veil. The interviews offered a variety of complex stories and conceptual paradigms to help us think about death. I continue to linger over the unknowability and mystery of death, even after the interviews. Paradoxically, there is so much to be learned about the unknowable.
Buddhist scholar Dadul Namgyal stated that life is not possible without death. He also said that material objects are often a problem. We have an unhealthy relationship with death and a tendency towards self-importance and self-obsession. Life and death are both temporary. Understanding and accepting that change and renewal are constants is key to understanding life’s flip side.
Moulie Vidas, scholar Judaism, emphasized the importance of the separation between the soul and the body but placed more emphasis on the intellectual energy and spiritual energy within Judaism which aims to shape a particular kind life.
Karen Teel, a Roman Catholic and Roman Catholic, defined death as the conviction that we derive love from love and will return to that love. Teel stressed the importance and value of this life, just like Vidas. She doesn’t feel terribly interested in persuading others to believe what she does about life after death. She even admits to being wrong. In a matter-of-fact fashion, she says, “Whatever is going to happen will happen whether or not anyone believes in it.” Teel is far more interested in working toward creating a more just world.
Pankaj Jain, a Jainism scholar, believes that the body dies but the soul continues to travel through the process called transmigration. The soul can reincarnate as any one of the many species that inhabit the planet. It all depends on how nonviolent the soul’s journey through its various lives. This side of the veil is about purifying the soul by absolute nonviolence.
Brook Ziporyn, a scholar of Taoism (or Daoism), stresses the importance of nonfixity. A human being, for example, is only one mode of being. It is malleability that is most important. As in Buddhism, detachment is important. This allows us to free ourselves from various prejudices, as well as our prior values, and goals.
This process of constant change allows every new situation to “deliver to us its own new form as a new good.” Also, in this view, there is no need to fear death as we are constantly in the process of “letting go” so that we are, in essence, the same as the “Transforming Openness.” In other words, despite the changes that we undergo (for example, life and death), there is no final closure. This narrative identifies forgetting as the highest stage in Taoist/Daoist cultivation. Being alive at the moment is, in essence, being in the middle or the formlessness of everything that exists before and after our lives. All of this is part and parcel of the same indivisible whole.
Leor Halevi says that Islam, like Judaism or Christianity, is concerned with divine justice (human salvation), eschatology and eschatology. Although Islam, through the Quran views Jesus and Abraham differently from Christianity and Judaism respectively, there is a shared understanding about the separation of the soul and body. The separation in Islam is temporary because the body and the soul are required to fully constitute the person, living or dead. The soul will either be confined to the grave, or live in hell or heaven before the resurrection. Halevi states that it depends on who we ask, whether we are a theologian, a mystic or a local Imam, what kind of life we want to live in order to be with Allah. Yet, there is a final judgment where Allah assembles the jinn (“supernatural beings”), animals and humankind in a gathering place. According to Halevi, “There, every creature has to stand, naked … before God. In the trial, prophets and body parts such as eyes and tongues bear witness against individuals, and God decides where to send them.”
Jacob Kehinde Olupona, scholar of the Yoruba religion, pointed out that among the Owo Yoruba people, death (Iku) is compared to the hippopotamus, whose extraordinary weight no one can carry and whose presence one can’t escape or run from. This rich description of death captures my feeling of the gravity of facing our ineluctable end. It is something that bears on the living and which we can’t escape.
According to the Yoruba tradition death is not the end. It marks a continuation to another realm where the living dead exist within a context of the sacred cosmic. One who dies in very old age is seen as “a fulfillment of one of the cardinal life quests.” Such individuals transition to the ancestral world. To die young isn’t celebrated as it is seen as a rupture in the process of accomplishing one’s mission on Earth.
As I conducted interviews, I knew there would be shared assumptions and narrative differences as well as incompatible perspectives regarding the meaning of the death. The interviews have confirmed for me that my father was right when it comes to death: It’s too complex.
Knowing my father, though, he didn’t mean that one should relinquish the search because of its complexity or throw up one’s hands in utter despair because there is no absolute evidence that there is something of transcendent significance beyond death. For me, the interviews confirmed how confusing death is. Even atheist philosopher Todd May was willing to imagine a form of atheism that could involve “a spiritual bond uniting all people or all living beings.” He sees this as a view that would not require a transcendent deity, though he is very clear that it would still not be his form of atheism. So the complexity remains.
I offer no solid epistemological grounds here — just hope, which is not simply a reaction to gloom, but a form of courage that tarries in the face of the abyss that is death. Because death is not a life event, we are bound and condemned to live these deep narratives on the other side of the grave. We are all human beings. Homo narrans, storytellers, as Calvin O. Schrag says, who find ourselves within stories already told and who strive “for a self-constitution by emplotting [ourselves] in stories in the making.”
The multiple interviews that I conducted underscored how human perspectives regarding death are limited, marked by context, culture, explicit and implicit metaphysical sensibilities, communities of discourse, aesthetic frames of reference, diverse ontologies and “final vocabularies,” as Richard Rorty would say. Maybe they are all imperfect attempts at approaching. SomethingThis is a mystery that can’t be explained from all angles or with different strategies. Is there something more than the fact that we all die and the narrative frameworks we treasure to make sense this fact?
I would like to think that there is “something” that stirs the souls of human beings, that quickens our narrative and symbolic capacities/strivings to make sense of that which we may not be able to capture in full. In this case, perhaps each religious worldview “touches” something or is touched by something beyond the grave, something which is beyond our descriptive limits, which exceeds our attempts at mimesis vis-à-vis death. This view has its limits, I am aware. One might even say it leads to absurdity. What can possibly touch us beyond death, if in fact death is actually? There is nothing? Is it unreasonable not to ask what happens after death when, according to some, death is defined as nothing?
Again, my father’s wisdom comforts: The answer is too complex. My father never meant that there was or wasn’t something on the other side.
That which is “too complex,” for me, has embedded within it a sense of hope. This is what I consider a significant aspect of the meaning and purpose of death. It’s not clear what it actually means. This fact alone is frightening and yet it fills me with a mysterious hopefulness. The meaning of death remains a mystery. This truth wisely counsels me to be humble in my view.
Note: This article was previously cut down to a shorter version appeared in The New York Times.