Death and Dying – Discussion Highlights

These are some highlights of last Wednesday’s Harvard Humanist Alumni Discussion. If you’re in the Boston area we invite you to join us for an upcoming discussion. You can join the list at https://memdir.org/HHA or at https://www.facebook.com/groups/HHADiscussionXYZ/.

We all agreed that there is nothing after death (or “very probably” in the case of an agnostic). I made the argument that the fact that life is finite only makes it more precious, and focuses us on finding meaning in the texture of our actual lives rather than in an imaginary afterlife. Another participant noted that there’s no point in wasting your limited time on earth worrying about death. It was pointed out that people who are confident in either atheism or religious beliefs have less fear of death than those who are in between, and that confident atheists should make an effort to understand the fear of death that others have.

One participant expressed no fear of his own death, but great anxiety about how to comfort someone else who might be grieving or dying. We agreed that Humanists have strong intellectual arguments, but you need to offer emotional comfort as well as logical arguments to console someone. Even though religion may be factually wrong it may still have an advantage in its ability to offer consolation to people who are afraid of death, or grieving the death of a loved one. It was noted that a Humanist funeral is mostly a celebration when the person who died had lived a long and rich life, but that such a funeral is a lot harder in the case of a tragic early death; in that case one has to acknowledge shock, anger and grief first and foremost since there isn’t as much to celebrate.

One participant described how s/he had avoided someone who had experienced the tragic death of a child because s/he didn’t know what to say to the person; we all agreed that it is natural to be afraid in such a situation but that we shouldn’t do this.

We didn’t agree on the best way to die: one of us wanted to die in his sleep; others thought it would be better to have some time to say goodbyes; though we all agreed that lingering severe pain wasn’t appealing.

The participants ranged from under 30 to over 60; it was interesting that the older ones on the whole expressed less fear of death than the younger.

We discussed a couple of ancient texts. My personal favorite was this one from De Rerum Naturae by Lucretius:

Nothing to Fear in Death

15 Death, then, is nothing to us, nor does it concern us one least bit, inasmuch as the nature of the mind is that of yet another mortal possession. .

For, if by chance grief and pain are in store for a man, he must himself exist at the time ill is to befall him. Since death forestalls this and prevents his existence, into which such misfortunes might otherwise crowd, we may be sure that we have nothing to fear in death, and that he who is no more cannot be wretched, and that there is not a scrap of difference to him if he had never at any time been born, when once immortal death has stolen away mortal life.

16 Again, suppose nature should suddenly lift up her voice, and herself rebuke some one of us in these words: “Why is death so great a thing to you, mortal, that you give way excessively to sickly lamentation? Why groan and weep at death? For if the life that is past and gone has been pleasant to you, and all its blessings have not drained away and not been enjoyed—as if poured in a vessel full of holes—why don’t you retire like a guest sated with thee banquet of life, and with calm mind embrace, you fool, a rest that knows no care? But if all you have reaped has been wasted and lost, and life is a stumbling-block, why seek to add more—all to be lost again foolishly and passsed away without enjoyment? Why not rather make an end of life and trouble? For there is nothing more which I can devise or discover to please you: all things are ever as they were.”



9 Responses to “Death and Dying – Discussion Highlights”

  1. October 30, 2011 at 1:22 am

    In most Humanist statements, there does not seem to be a pointed reference to the issue of life after death. This could be because the Humanist rejection of the supernatural also entails the rejection of the idea of an immortal soul or life after death. However, the Memorandum of Association of the Indian Humanist Union (June 12, 1960) does state: “Though Humanism is not identified with any views about the factual question of life after death, it does not accept the goal of salvation. It is content to fix its attention on this life and this world. It is concerned with the preservation and furtherance of moral values in all relations and spheres of life, and with the building up of a better and happier human community.” Narsingh Narain has elaborated this further: “..There is no need for us, as Humanists, to consider the evidence for and against human survival. For whether we survive or not makes no difference to our practical ideals. Moreover, the craving for a future life is unhealthy, if only for the simple reason that our wishes can make no difference to whatever the fact may happen to be. Belief in a future life was not based on evidence. It was an expression of faith arising out of a certain mental background. The important thing is to outgrow that mental outlook, not to disprove survival, or to rule out faith altogether.”
    The problem is that, while this position will be seen by Humanists as being eminently logical and pragmatic, it will do nothing to induce the ordinary believer in traditional religions (to whom life after death is a fact) to re-examine his world-view. The Humanist Movement came into being to provide an alternative to traditional religions, and its main task is to address the major factors which have given traditional religions such a grip on their adherents. Of these, the two most powerful factors are: belief in a personal God; and life after death. Sam Harris is right when he says: “What one believes happens after death dictates much of what one believes about life, and this is why faith-based religion, in presuming to fill the blanks in our knowledge of the hereafter, does such heavy lifting for those who fall under its power.. A single proposition – you will not die – once believed, determines a response to life that would be otherwise unthinkable.”
    Humanism cannot afford to remain ‘blank’ (or agnostic) on this issue; just as it is not agnostic about a personal God. We must affirm that there is no scientific evidence for personal survival after death. However, death does not have to be equated with non-existence; although Hume (reportedly in a conversation) held that there is no more difficulty in conceiving my non-existence after death, than in conceiving my non-existence before birth, and no reason to be distressed by either. We can look upon our existence as being of two kinds: conscious, and consequential. While my conscious existence ceases with death, my consequential existence does not. This thought gives one responsibility and hope, and a sense of worth.
    -Vir Narain

  2. 2 Robert Mack
    October 30, 2011 at 8:42 am

    Thanks for your input, Vir, and for the information about the Indian approach.

    I’m not agnostic about life after death myself (except in the technical sense that my conclusion on the point is based on evidence, so could, in principle, be reversed by better evidence). But Humanism as a movement is a big tent that welcomes agnostics as well as committed atheists. Since we include people who aren’t sure about the existence of God I think we must logically accept the fact that some of our fellow Humanists are unsure about life after death. On the other hand, our project is to think about and improve life on earth without regard to such beliefs, so I think Humanists are justified in rejecting arguments based on the premise that God might exist or that there might be life after death. I think this implies something like “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell:” Humanists are allowed to harbor private doubts, bu they are encouraged to keep the religious side of their uncertainty to themselves.

    The idea of “consequential existence” is compatible with Humanism, and if it gives comfort I think that’s fine. I too find it pleasing to suppose that friends and family will think fondly of me after I’m gone, and that some of the better things I have done will have beneficial consequences. But as a substitute for immortality the idea leaves me cold. Sure, people will remember me for a while, then they will forget or die and my memory will be utterly extinguished. I could have children, and they could have children of their own, but the line could also die out, and so could the human race. The stuff I’ve done isn’t important; some was harmful; and all will more likely disappear than have ongoing effects. The sun will eventually become a red giant, swallowing up the Earth. The universe will end in heat death, or something equally uninspiring.

    All this doesn’t trouble me, however, because I think our obsession with consequences is an intellectual error, fostered by centuries of Christian, especially Catholic, theology. To the theologian everything is judged by its consequences, and popular thought falls into the same habit. Value is always in the future, in the “because it results in” rather than in the thing itself. Instead, I see value as inhering in the present, not in any sort of hereafter, whether imaginary or actual. The pleasures we experience and those we give to others are real and good in themselves. Evanescent beauty is meaningful even though it doesn’t last. Our lives should be judged and valued by what they are, as they happen, not by what may or may not happen later. I wrote a poem about these ideas, for what it is worth:

    What Endures?

    A flower fades.
    Memory endures.

    Memory fades.
    A photograph endures.

    The photograph fades.
    Nothing endures.

    Nothing fades.
    The flower endures.

    • October 31, 2011 at 6:48 am

      Dear Robert
      Thanks for your very interesting response. In your remarks you have paired belief in God with belief in an afterlife. This is neither factually correct nor necessary while dealing with the two issues. For example, Buddhism and Jainism do not involve a belief in God, but believe in an afterlife. I think this is the case with Confucianism as well.
      More important are your observations about consequential existence. You say ‘The idea of “consequential existence” is compatible with Humanism, and if it gives comfort I think that’s fine. I too find it pleasing to suppose that friends and family will think fondly of me after I’m gone, and that some of the better things I have done will have beneficial consequences. But as a substitute for immortality the idea leaves me cold.’
      Consequential existence means that what one does during one’s lifetime has enduring consequences – whether trivial or far-reaching – even after one’s death. Do you not agree that this is a fact? The things we have done in our lifetime (including reproductive activity) have consequences that can reach far out into the indefinite future. I am reminded of Henry Adams who said: ‘A teacher affects all eternity; no one can say where his influence stops.”
      You say: ‘The idea of “consequential existence” is compatible with Humanism, and if it gives comfort I think that’s fine.’ Consequential existence, as defined above, is an undeniable fact . The question of its ‘compatibility’ with Humanism therefore does not seem to arise. Whether an individual celebrates this fact or bemoans it or is indifferent to it, is up to him – and how he thinks he has lived. As the poet said
      Bur play no tricks upon thy soul O Man
      Let fact be fact, and life the thing it can.
      You also say that the idea of consequential existence as a substitute for immortality leaves you cold. I believe that the craving for immortality is in any case childish. So is the craving to be remembered after death.
      You add ‘The stuff I’ve done isn’t important; some was harmful; and all will more likely disappear than have ongoing effects.’ I bet you are being modest. But think of people llke Darwin, Einstein – or Pol Pot.

  3. October 30, 2011 at 8:15 pm

    I was delighted to see this topic of discussion, Bob, though I was unable to attend. My bias as a hospice nurse, a surivor of the AIDS epidemic and a cancer survivor is quite grounded in professional, observational and subjective experience. I have experienced coma myself during a life-threatening event. It is simply a gap in my conscious memory. No dreams. No white lights. A loss of living time. Yet, I have listened to dying people who have described a variety of sensoria as they were breathing their last. One man described seeing himself lying on his death bed from some elevated point just before his kidneys failed and he died. Another came out of a two-week coma during which I had cared for him as a nursing assistant. He commented on my care, encouraged me to pursue a nursing career and lapsed back into coma. He died the next day. Of the several hundred various AIDS deaths I attended in person, all but two gave no indication of a perceived afterlife. The two which did entailed accounts of seeing dead relations greeting them. I have absolutely no opinion as to the reasons for this. I find quantifying or qualifying death a useless exercise. I believe it is what it is. The cessation of biological life. I would encourage anyone interested in death to care for the dying. This is very possible. Every hospice agency needs and welcomes volunteers. They will train and support in exchange for regular weekly commitment to care for the dying. There is a treasury of growth-promoting experiences for anyone who chooses this activity.

  4. November 6, 2011 at 7:15 pm

    In his autobiography The Magic Lantern (N.Y.: Penguin: 1988), the film maker, Ingmar Bergman gave the following account of his religious beliefs:

    ” I have struggled all my life with a tormented and joyless
    relationship with God. Faith and lack of faith, punishment,
    grace and rejection, all were real to me, all were
    imperative. My prayers stank of anguish, entreaty,
    trust, loathing and despair. God spoke, God said nothing.
    Do not turn from Thy face.
    The lost hours of that operation provided me with a
    calming message. You were born without purpose,
    you live without meaning, living is its own meaning.
    When you die, you are extinguished. From being
    you will be transformed to non-being. A god does not
    necessarily dwell among our capricious atoms.
    This insight has brought with it a certain security
    that has resolutely eliminated anguish and tumult,
    though on the other hand I have never denied my
    second (or first) life, that of the spirit.”

    Ingmar Bergman’s book Images: My Life in Film (N.Y.: Arcade Publishing, 1994) also includes statements by Bergman concerning his religious beliefs as they evolved over time. On pages 240-241 he recounts the effects that his experience of anesthesia for minor surgery had on his world-view. This is the same incident that he recounted in his autobiography The Magic Lantern. He wrote:

    “My fear of death was to a great degree linked to my
    religious concepts. Later on, I underwent minor surgery.
    By mistake I was given too much anesthesia. I felt as if
    I had disappeared out of reality. Where did the hours go?
    They flashed in a microsecond.

    “Suddenly I realized, that is how it is. That one could be
    transformed from being to not-being — it was hard to grasp.
    But for a person with a constant anxiety about death, now
    liberating. Yet at the same time it seems a bit sad. You say
    to yourself that it would have been fun to encounter new
    experiences once your soul had had a little rest and grown
    accustomed to being separated from your body. But I don’t
    think that is what happens to you. First you are, then you
    are not. This I find deeply satisfying.”

    So, these statements would suggest that Bergman had a rather Epicurean view of death. On the other hand, there were reports in the Swedish media, during his last years following the death of his wife, Ingrid, that Bergman thought himself to be in communication with his deceased wife. If true, that suggests to me that for many people, it is much easier to come to terms with one’s own mortality than it is with the loss of one’s loved ones.

  5. February 8, 2013 at 2:30 pm

    Some people with an apparent fear of death do not actually fear death itself. Instead, they are afraid of the circumstances that often surround the act of dying. They may be afraid of crippling pain, debilitating illness or even the associated loss of dignity. This type of thanatophobia may be identified through careful questioning about the specifics of the fear. Many people with this type of fear also suffer from nosophobia , hypochondriasis or other somatoform disorders .

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