singer225_Jeffrey BasingerNewsday RM via Getty Images_death Jeffrey Basinger/Newsday RM via Getty Images

When Do We Die?

Until the 1960s, a human being’s death was indicated by the irreversible cessation of their heartbeat, but by 1980 the definition of death was revised to mean “brain death.” But if there was ever a consensus on the matter, it no longer exists.

PRINCETON/OMAHA – “What is it you don’t understand? She’s dead, dead, dead.” That is how David Durand, Chief Medical Officer of Oakland’s Children’s Hospital, attempted to convince the family of Jahi McMath that the standard medical tests for brain death had shown that their teenage daughter was no longer alive.

The family stood firm in opposing this view, and the hospital eventually allowed them to take her to New Jersey, the only US state that requires hospitals to accommodate patients whose families object, on religious grounds, to regarding brain death as death. For more than four years, she remained a functioning (though radically disabled) member of the species Homo sapiens: fighting off infections, reacting to bodily trauma by increasing her heartrate, and getting her first period.

Jahi’s case revived interest in (and debate over) what it means to die. A few years earlier there appeared to be a consensus that brain death is death. But if such a consensus ever existed, it no longer does.