As I reported a few days ago, the October 20th issue of New Scientist’s cover story is ‘Death’. The subtitle reads: ‘Inescapable…Universal…Uplifting, that last adjective suggestive of some deep insights to be shared. The accompanying drawing is very lively, especially considering it is all full of skeletons! Grinning, empty-eyed and boney figures play music, eat watermelon, sign-paint, smoke, serve soup from  a huge tureen, and so on; there’s even a astray skeleton dog or two sniffing about for spare scraps. Maybe that’s the first of the deep insights right there: Dying, being dead, is pretty much the same as living.

The first article starts with a poignant death scene: ‘Pansy’ dying peacefully one winter afternoon, her daughter Rosie and her friends, Blossom and Chippy by her side. As Pansy is expiring, they stroke and comfort her and, once she has finally drawn her last breath, they move her limbs and examine her mouth to make sure she is in fact dead. Twice, one of her friends, Chippy, tries to revive Pansy by beating on her chest, and that night Rosie keeps vigil by her mother’s side.

Those were some of the observations of researchers watching the death of a chimpanzee in December, 2008.’ ‘It is hard not to wonder what was going on in the minds of Rosie, Chippy and Blossom’ the article continues, ‘before and after Pansy’s death. Is it possible that they felt grief and loss? Did they ponder their own mortality? Until recently these questions would have been considered dangerously anthropomorphic and off-limits. But not any more’. And much more of interest follows around the evolution of not only behaviour around death but around body disposal too.

‘Plight of the living dead’ makes scary reading: we learn that in 1968 as team of men who formed the Ad Hoc Committee of the Harvard Medical School to Examine the Definition of Brain Death, in order to harvest organs for transplants began declaring dead some who were not but simply in deep coma. ‘Through more than 4000 years of history, ‘ we read towards the end, ‘we have learned that human life is tenacious, and many signs of death are misleading. Yet today we dissect for their organs patients who in any era before 1968 would be considered very much alive.’ As I said, scary stuff.

Author of Immortality: Testing civilisation’s greatest promise, Stephen Cave, opines in his article ‘The Quest for Immortality’ that ‘Death gets bad press’ – because death is always an unwelcome guest, always comes too soon and is feared and loathed. He suggests that our fear of death, this ‘frantic defiance and denial’ result in some of our greatest achievements.’ It’s an interesting point and one I personally had not considered. Fascinating reading throughout and it was his concluding paragraphs that really caught my attention:

“[Researchers identified] an important distinction between conscious and non-conscious death reminders. The latter – subtle or subliminal prompts – tend to cause us to cling unthinkingly to the values of our community. This can be positive if those valued are positive, but can also be negative if they induce us to aggressively defend those values against others.

“Conscious death reminders, on the other hand, stimulate a more considered response, leading people to re-evaluate what really matters. The more we actively contemplate mortality, the more we reject socially imposed goals such as wealth or fame, and focus instead on personal growth or the cultivation of positive relationships.

“Which suggests that we do not yet think about death enough.”

There are two more articles. The first is ‘Earthly remains’ which will be of interest to those who want to know exactly what happens as the dead body breaks down (stages include putrefaction, active decay and then breakdown of the skeleton.) “It may not be pretty” concludes author Caroline Williams, “but it’s one of the few definites in life: ashes to ashes, dust to dust; in the end there’s not a lot left.”

The last article, ‘Don’t fear the reaper: most of us do but it doesn’t make sense’, probably grabbed me the least. I felt author Shelly Kagan, who as a philosopher set out to show us that it’s not logical to be afraid of death and therefore we shouldn’t be, misses a very basic point. That is, that we are not rational beings and it’s an exercise in futility to try and argue away our feelings, especially one as loaded, as basic, as fear.

The psychotherapist in me was exasperated with her basis premise and the more I read through her totally lucid, logical argument, the more that feeling grew! But maybe  – as they say – that’s just me….


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