What is Death

“O grave, where is thy victory?” Paul of Tarsus

“There is no death nor birth. That which is born is only the body… If a man considers he is born he cannot avoid the fear of death. Let him find out if he has been born”. Ramana Maharshi

What is death? To begin with, we have the concept. What is the reality – if any – behind that particular concept, taken in general? Given that all concepts have a referent, is there a clear referent to the concept ‘death’? If so, is it an event, or a process – let us say in he case of a body? As soon as we start thinking or talking about it we are confronted with a series of difficulties, for there is not an unambiguous definition of that word or concept. Can it be defined in either positive or negative terms? What is its substratum, if any? As an adjective – ‘dead’ – that concept has a number of meanings or uses, not only a lack of vitality or function, and it frequently suggests certainty, assuredness and finality. In the New World Dictionary twenty different applications of the word are listed. Death, thus, whatever it is, is ubiquitous and multifarious, but what is it in its primary sense, as related to life?

The problem is simplified when we just consider a body, a dead body, but even here there is no ‘final’ state, for atoms do not die, they only re-assemble. Biologically, yes, there is disorganization, disintegration in and of that body; there is no movement (of the body), and movement is a primary sign, or characteristic, of life – there is no breathing (prana) and no heart beat (in the case of an animal). Formerly – as much in biology as in philosophy – the ‘vital principle’ was considered to be that which determines the presence or absence of life in an organism (the doctrine called vitalism), and this notion is still preserved in the traditional teaching of Vedanta (as prana), as well as in other philosophical and traditional systems, whether religious or oriented to medicine and health (e.g. Ayurveda and Chinese Medicine).

There is a way to diagnose clinical death in a human body: apart from the absence of breathing and a heart beat, a flat ECG (electrocardiogram) on testing. But after a heart attack and stoppage of the heart – which is invariably preceded by ventricular fibrillation – there is a period of about 4 to 7 minutes during which the body can be resuscitated by cardio-respiratory maneuvers plus or minus an electro-shock on the chest directed to the heart. And even when the oxygen supply to the brain ceases, it also takes a few minutes before brain-death is irreversible.

Here is an interesting comment by a student at a Junior School after he saw a Video clip in a web page on Modern Medicine discussing biological death (that is, when it is irreversible) and the means of resuscitation: “I think we still have yet to define biological death. We know very little of death and of life and of the conscious, so it’s inaccurate to define death. I think it will take a few more decades to uncover most of what we still need to learn of life and death, as they are both linked.”

Coming back to the general concept of ‘death’, it can be approached from many different angles: science (medicine), mythology, literature (poetry), religion, and philosophy (metaphysics). This last discipline, the ‘queen of sciences’, should be the one to give us more satisfactory answers, since it can make use of all the others, there being nothing outside its scope; but even here there are, again, multiple possibilities of approach. It is impossible practically to encompass them all, least of all in a short essay. We could refer, for example, to the death of the universe, the death of a sentient being, such as a human being, the death of a cell, or of a star. But first we should try to view, or analyze, the general concept and, second, to attempt to understand the implications, the meaning, of the ‘death’ of an individual human being, which is the most complex of beings and is closest to home.  (To be followed)

One thought on “What is Death

  1. Yes, What is “Death”?

    A very timely article, Martin, many thanks.

    Your vast knowledge as a widely read man, your long experience as a surgeon and your deep wisdom as a philosopher will certainly illuminate us all on ‘Death’ which has just engulfed our dear friend “Peter” so suddenly and so sadly immersing us all in a sea of sorrow.


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