Remembering the reality of death, fearing it, welcoming it and trying to understand its uncanny nature is what I do as a human being. Being a philosopher adds to the existential gravity of the reality of death. The truth is that someday all of us will become food for worms.
In the last days of 2021, we have had to face the reality and tragedy of death in the news. The trial involving three white men who chased 25-year-old unarmed Black male Ahmaud Arbery, a chase which led to him being shot and killed by one of the white men, brought back memories of his tragic death.
The trial of 17-year-old Kyle Rittenhouse who killed two men and wounded one brought back memories of the suffering of the families of those two men, their hearts broken beyond repair. There is no victory gained because of their deaths.
And just stop and think about the man who, on November 21, 2021, drove his SUV into a gathering of people at a Christmas parade in Waukesha, Wisconsin, which led to the deaths of six innocent people, including an 8-year-old boy. Over 60 others were injured. Each death took away an irreplaceable individual, as all deaths do.
Indeed, it is partly our individual, existential distinctiveness that makes death even more weighty, tragic and a deep conundrum. When I hear about the death of others, I frequently feel it in my bones: Damn! There is no other like that person. Where did they go?
Imagine the exponential questioning, suffering and pain when we calculate that as of this writing, in the U.S. alone, more than 800,000 irreplaceable persons have died from COVID-19, and worldwide, the number is over 5,000,000. When we hear about those global numbers, it is important that we become attuned to actual deaths, the cessation of millions of consciousnesses, stopped, just like that. This process of cessation is never just about how people have died, but that they have died. We’re back to the uncanniness of death.
Just a few days before the death of my father in 2014, I asked him a question about death, his imminent death, perhaps the sort of question some might find insensitive or inappropriate. 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 mustered all his energy to say that. Perhaps I had anticipated something more pensive, something more drawn-out. After all, while unknown to both of us, this was the final question I would ask him, and the final spoken words that he would say to me before he died. His last words to me were consistent with our mutual grappling with the meaning of death. Until the very end, he spoke with honesty, courage and wisdom.
While not a professional philosopher, my father loved wisdom, and had the gift of gab. Our many conversations touched on the existence of God, the meaning of love, and, yes, the fact of death. 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, my father and I refused to allow death to have the final word without first, metaphorically, staring it in the face. 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 being asleep radically falls short, because most of us dream, and for those of us who have dreamless nights, we still wake up.
Death, however, is not a thing, it’s not an object. Death is nothing, it is no thing. 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 I 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 means something in general.” We understood that death is about me, him and you, meaning that death is impersonal in its universal grip, and yet profoundly personal. We tarried with its unapologetic finality. 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 have thought deeper about the meaning of death, it now occurs to me that my father and I both knew 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. So yes, death, as my father put it, is too complex. Perhaps there was a deeper wisdom being communicated by my father. 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.
And yet, life itself is also filled with mystery. The fact that we exist at all is pregnant with layers of inscrutability. After all, this is the only time that I’ve ever been on this planet, within this solar system, this galaxy. It is the only time for each of us, though we seem to forget this as we are often preoccupied with texting, career planning, rushing here and there. 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. Then again, as explored below through the lens of Jainism, for example, perhaps we have been here before through a process of reincarnation.
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.
That we are on a planet is, for me, at such times, uncannily unfamiliar. 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 in February 2020 that I wrote the introduction to a series of interviews that I would subsequently conduct on the theme of death and religion. Our first reports of COVID-19 were in December 2019. My initial aim in conducting the interviews was not influenced by the deaths caused by COVID-19. However, as the interviews progressed, it became clear to me that the overlap was hard to ignore. In fact, I personally heard from readers who communicated that the interviews helped them because so many people were dying of COVID-19. The overall personal sense of precarity no doubt also encouraged those readers to write to me. I would like to think that it was partially the courage of probing the meaning of death, the refusal to look away, that was helpful. What had begun as a philosophical inquiry became a balm for 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.
As symbolic systems/discursive frames of reference they attested to our human capacity to be touched by the fact of death, to make sense of it, and to respond to its mystery in deep symbolic and discursively differential 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. Very often, this state of not knowing leaves me profoundly melancholic. It is not just our seeming incapability to answer these questions with any certainty that generates this emotion, but the possibility that there are 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. Nevertheless, the interviews provided a panoply of complex stories and conceptual paradigms in terms of which to think about death. Even after the interviews, the unknowability of death is where I continue to tarry. There is so much to learn, paradoxically, about what is unknowable.
Buddhist scholar Dadul Namgyal explained that we cannot have life without death, and that death is often a problem because we cling to material objects. Death is also a problem because we possess habits of self-obsession and attitudes of self-importance. Death and life are impermanent, and it is understanding and accepting this continual change and renewal that speaks not only to life, but to its flipside.
Moulie Vidas, scholar of Judaism, while emphasizing the importance of the separation of the soul from the body, placed more emphasis upon the intellectual and spiritual energy within Judaism that aims at shaping a particular kind of life.
As a Roman Catholic, Karen Teel framed death as a conviction that we derive from love and that we will return to love. Like Vidas, though, Teel also emphasized the importance of this life. She doesn’t feel terribly interested in persuading others to believe what she does about life after death. In fact, she even grants the possibility of 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.
For Jainism scholar Pankaj Jain, the body perishes, but the soul continues a journey through the process of transmigration. The soul reincarnates in any of the many species on the planet. Such an infinite process is contingent upon just how nonviolent the journey of the soul has been through its different lives. This side of the veil of death consists of trying to completely purify the soul through absolute nonviolence.
Brook Ziporyn, scholar of Taoism (or Daoism), also stresses the importance of non-fixity. For example, a human being is only one modality of being. What is important is malleability. As in Buddhism, there is emphasis placed upon detachment, where we free ourselves of various prejudices and 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. Within this narrative, forgetting is exalted as the highest stage of Taoist/Daoist cultivation. Being alive, at this moment, is, as it were, being in the middle of the nothingness or formlessness that is before and after our lives. All of this is part of the same indivisible whole.
Like Judaism and Christianity, according to Leor Halevi, Islam is also concerned with divine justice, soteriology (human salvation) and eschatology (the end of time). And while Islam, through the Quran, conceives of Jesus and Abraham differently than do Judaism and Christianity, there is a shared understanding of the separation of the soul from the body. However, in Islam, that separation is temporary as the body and the soul are necessary to fully constitute the person, whether dead or alive. Before the resurrection, the soul will be confined to the grave or dwell in heaven or hell. What kind of life we must live to be with Allah depends, according to Halevi, on who we ask: a theologian, a mystic, a local imam or a jihadist. 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 sense of the gravity of facing our ineluctable finitude; it is something that bears upon the living and which, we cannot in the end, avoid.
Within the context of the Yoruba tradition, death is not the end, but marks a continuation to another realm, one where the living dead exist within the context of the sacred cosmos. 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.
I knew that there would be some shared assumptions, narrative differences and incompatible perspectives about the meaning of death as I conducted the interviews. 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. The interviews reinforced, for me, just how confounding 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 persists.
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 an event in life, we are restricted, condemned to play out these deep narratives from this side of the grave. After all, as human beings, we are 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. Perhaps they are all limited and imperfect attempts to approach something that evades full description from different angles and using different strategies. Is there really something there, beyond just the fact that we die, and the narrative frameworks that we treasure to make sense of that 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. I realize that this view has its limits. Indeed, one might say that it leads to an absurdity. After all, what can possibly touch us from beyond death, if death is in fact no thing? Is it unreasonable to ask about what exists after death when, as some would say, by definition, death is nothing?
Again, my father’s wisdom comforts: The answer is too complex. At no point, though, did my father mean that there is or is not something on the other side of death.
That which is “too complex,” for me, has embedded within it a sense of hope. For me, therein lies a significant feature of the meaning of death. What it ultimately means is an open question. That fact alone is both frightening to me and yet filled with a mysterious hopefulness. In the end, the meaning of death remains a mystery. For me, this fact wisely counsels us in the way of profound humility.
Note: A much shorter version of this article previously appeared in The New York Times.