The Death of Death

Once again killing on a great scale has been taking place, this time in a land in which Paradise is said to have once lay--the valley between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Today's killing is no worse than history's countless massacres, perhaps even more restrained. Some suggest that it was necessary to forestall future killings. In any case, it is the sad, solitary privilege of human beings to kill our own consciously, as well as to commit suicide.

This is so, we can rightfully assume, because human beings are the only beings that comprehend death--that of others as well as our own. We all know that we will die one day. "You are one being among many/Only you hang on to Beauty/And know: you must part," wrote the poet Reiner Kunze. This knowledge penetrates every moment of our lives. Media in vita in morte sumus - in the midst of life, we are surrounded by death--went a medieval song. Heidegger made the knowledge of death key to the understanding of what it means to live.

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Death isolates every individual, because there is no such thing as collective dying. Everyone dies alone. Those who realize this are thus tempted to deny any meaning to human conduct; everything, it seems, is futile in the end, because in dying we leave society and society leaves us. On the other hand, only the knowledge of our mortality provides our existence with its preciousness. If we did not die, everything would lose meaning. Everything we do today, we could do tomorrow.

At a golden wedding anniversary one may wish that, now, everything should really start in earnest. But endlessly? That would immediately ruin everything. Knowledge of the end opens up dimension of meaning, which also makes it possible for some things to be meaningless.

"You hang on to beauty..." - this is the other characteristic that Kunze's poem ascribes to humanity. The experience of beauty is closely related to knowledge of death. Beauty does not derive its meaning from its value for our biological survival or its use for other people, who must also die. What we call beautiful has meaning in itself. It can be human gestures and actions, even when they are futile or squandered on the wrong people. Beauty is resistant to the hubbub of the absurd. For religious believers, as earlier with Plato, beauty is a foretaste of what survives death.

How does society deal with dying and death? With death one ceases to be a member of society. A state can threaten death, but, as many totalitarian regimes have learned, no one is stronger - and possibly more dangerous - than those who have overcome the fear of death. The threat of death is a powerful weapon. To have to deliver on that threat is always a defeat.

The ritualized culture of death and funerals in the old European tradition was an experience in which society was aware of its limits. By embedding death in rituals, society made its self-questioning into a part of itself. This attitude has a necessary religious dimension - and one that legitimized society. By acknowledging itself as finite and limited, society could think of itself as also sanctioned by God.

Belief in immortality made the opposition between life and death relative. Mortals see death as the gateway to true life, much as a caterpillar might look at a butterfly. As the words inscribed on an execution sword in Munster put it: "When I raise this sword, I wish the poor sinner eternal life."

Our atheist modern age understands the contrast between life and death as absolute. We search for some palliatives, but they are ineffective. "My life continues in the lives of my children," we say, but for an individual this is an empty phrase. We doggedly fight to prolong life, only to find that we cannot win this battle - and are left unable to produce authentic rituals to accompany the end of our existence.

Because our societies have no sense of limits, they strive to eliminate death from our consciousness. More and more often, death takes place in a hidden hospital room. Death is suppressed socially, but the effect is that individuals' fear of death grows ever greater. Most people nowadays face death never having witnessed the death of someone else!

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Next comes a desire to eliminate quietly those who can no longer be seen as members of the social world. Holland, with its euthanasia law, is not internationally condemned; indeed, its killer-doctors see themselves as an avant-garde. Suddenly, such killings can't go fast enough. Definition of death as "brain death" allows one to declare breathing beings dead and to eliminate the process of dying, in order to exploit the dying as warehouses of spare parts for the living. Death no longer comes at the end of the process of dying, but - by decree of a Harvard commission - at the beginning.

The Judeo-Christian custom of burial is rapidly being replaced - not by the ritual of an Indian pyre, but by a crematorium, i.e., the destruction of a corpse by means of high-temperature machines, a procedure from which the public is excluded. More and more people believe that they are doing their children a favor by letting themselves be buried anonymously "under the green grass" to spare them the costs of the funeral and the upkeep of the grave. The oldest distinction of homo sapiens - ritual burial of the dead - is disappearing.