This is the text of a talk that I gave to the Atheist Society in Melbourne, Australia on 05 August 2018.
“Being Dead” could seem like a gruesome topic, but there are lots of human activities relating to people who are dead. There is the annual celebration of ANZAC day, which is an established part of Australian life. For tens of thousands of years there have been traditional procedures relating to dead people.
Many people don’t like talking about or hearing about dying or becoming dead. I wonder whether anyone who usually comes to the Philosophy Forum was put off by this topic.
There are euphemisms about being dead. The “dear departed” have “passed away” or “gone to their Maker” or are “no longer with us”. There are also less delicate expressions whereby the person “bit the dust”, has “carked it” or “kicked the bucket”.
Most of us have justifiable concerns about death – what our own death might be like, and that of our family and friends. Most people take some kind of care to avoid doing anything that could have some risk of death. Some people carelessly or knowingly do things that risk premature death, such as smoking, or texting while driving a motor vehicle. Some people, sometimes called “daredevils”, get a thrill from doing things that have a risk of death. They enjoy “cheating death”. These various kinds of action display something of what people think about being dead, and about being alive. There are many things that concern us about being alive, such as sickness and comfort and money and social status and boredom. Sometimes we look forward to being dead as a welcome relief from the pain and suffering of being alive.
The idea of being dead may seem to be a self-contradiction. The word being suggests existing, and the word dead suggests not-existing. And this raises the issues of what the words exist and dead mean.
I think that to exist implies having identifiable characteristics. When someone is dead, there still exists their body, and the things that are reminders of the person, and memories of the person. No remaining identifiable personality that you can see or communicate with is there, unless you think they are just hanging around in “the next world, but something exists.
Some people feel that we “exist in the minds of others”, irrespective of whether we are alive or dead. So in some ways, the dead exist.
The word dead is used in various ways. It is the opposite to alive or live. We colloquially use it to refer to something that no longer operates, such as a dead battery that has no charge left, and we use the word live in the sense of a live electric wire carrying an electric voltage, which if you happen to touch, you might suddenly become dead. On the other hand, being “dead to the world” just means being fast asleep.
In the context of this discussion, the word dead refers to the condition of organisms that were once alive, but are now not alive and, initially at least, have the structural form or components of the body that they had when they were alive. There is some quality of any dead organism, not only a dead person, but also a dead bird or a dead cockroach, or flower, etc., that makes its condition different from that of, say, a hammer or a rock.
While the dead organism and the hammer and the rock may all exist, I would regard the condition of a rock or a hammer to be not dead but inanimate. Loved pets are sometimes solemnly, or even reverently, buried after they have died, but it would seem odd to reverently bury a broken hammer, or a defunct iPad, or a cherished piece of crockery that got smashed.
So the concept of being dead must relate to the concept of being alive. Being alive is being a living organism. An individual living organism is some special kind of assembly of material that is able to continually do a specific range of things that inanimate matter can’t do.
Living organisms go through a life cycle, starting as separate newly developed units that grow and acquire new structural parts and new capabilities. They take into their bodies materials of their choice from their environment to enable them can grow, and to repair and replace parts of their body, and to provide energy for their functioning. If the opportunity occurs, a mature organism may produce new offspring from within its body. The systems of all living organisms function from seed to death.
Dead organisms can no longer do any of these things. Inanimate matter never could, except for some machines that can automatically switch themselves on and/or off and perform specific task in response to certain conditions.
All living organisms on Earth are derived from the bodies of their parents, that is, from other organisms. Reproduction and diversification are simply continual small transformations.
The food of many kinds of organisms consists of parts of the bodies of other organisms. A large proportion of the life on Earth lives in ecosystems, in which there is cooperation, competition, parasitism and predation. The whole of life on Earth seems like one interconnected system, or a network of systems, that continues despite the deaths of individual lives.
The dead are no longer systems and are not active parts of any larger system. But being dead could be thought of as being a by-product of the system of life.
Organisms on Earth have a great range of necessary capabilities. These capabilities are provided by the operation of specific parts of each organism’s body. They develop during the early stages of an organism’s life and decline as the organism ages. But, there is no agreement about the precise time or stage that each individual life begins. An organism emerges progressively from other living matter. And, except for a sudden destruction of the living body, dying is also a series of stages. There are no clear criteria for determining the precise stage of decline that signifies the end of an organism’s life. That is, there is no precise time that signifies its death.
A common view is that, for any organism, life is considered to end when it loses one or more of its critical physical capabilities. But identifying or deciding when this happens for a particular individual organism can often be difficult or uncertain. In the case of human death, there has been a succession of changing criteria for determining that the physical body is incurably dead. For example, once it was just the absence of pulse or of detectable heartbeat.
More recently, attention is also paid to the failure of functioning of the brain, and brain death is the present general criterion. But there is no agreement about which part or parts of the brain need to be “closed down” for the person to be dead. The brain is a very complex organ.
There are cases where a person is in a deep coma and cannot be brought to consciousness, but their other body processes continue, with or without external support. These people are generally considered to be alive – which implies that consciousness is not a necessary criterion for life. Depending on the physical cause of each case, being alive may be being close to being dead. This contrasts with “near-death” experiences, where the person who reports having had one is quite alive, and on the occasion of the experience was probably under the close care of skilled doctors.
Techniques have been developed to resuscitate some cases where people have “died as a result of drowning”. Being under water that is colder than 10 °C slows the metabolism and delays the deterioration of body tissues. This slowing is enough for some, but not all, such persons to have been revived after half an hour under water. This is not a miracle cure, just an example of the difficulty, in some cases, of determining the end of life.
As medical technology progresses, more kinds of illness become able to be cured, and more kinds of organs become able to be repaired. So some people think that being dead may not always be the end of earthly life. They think that after death the body could be kept in a condition that would prevent any further deterioration of the tissues, until the time came when medical technology was able to reverse whatever caused the death.
Some people have suggested that all they would need, is for the head to be kept in good order until it could get a “body transplant”. The possibility of body transplants for living people has already been mooted, but as far as I know, it has not yet been tried.
During the waiting time, the dead body or head would be kept at a stabilised low temperature. This technique is known as cryonics. There are people who have already paid their money to be “cryonised” after their death, and quite a few dead people are already awaiting resurrection in specially created establishments. There is one such large establishment in a business district of Phoenix, Arizona.
As an aside, all these dead people awaiting reconstruction provide an additional justification of my claim that being dead is not a self-contradiction.
If these expectations of resurrection turn out to be feasible, would the restored body that was returned to life be the same person? Presumably, if all the neuronal connections had survived (along with the rest of the essential body tissue) it would be the same person, but, depending on how long after death the body was revived, it could be a very different world that it was in.
If such processes were successful, could they be repeated after a subsequent death? Cats are sometimes said to have nine lives. How about people?
All this has so far been about the physiological aspect of life and the functioning of the physiological systems that signify individual lives. But being alive is more than just the physical processes. Life also has a conscious aspect. This includes a sense of self, a very wide range of emotions, a very wide range of interests, friendships, knowledge, attitudes, and sensory feelings, imagination and memories..
Being alive is the sum of all of these things, physical and conscious.
Many people think there is still something extra, that life is sacred, and therefore being kept alive should be attempted at all costs. Also, many or most people seem to feel that there is something continuing for a short or a long time after death. You don’t need to be religious to reverently bury a dead person or dead animal.
What we think about being dead is influenced not only by our religious and scientific beliefs, and our experiences, but also by our hopes and emotions, and by our personality. But whatever we believe and feel, seeing a coffin disappearing, to be cremated, or being covered with soil in a grave, usually evokes a feeling of a turning point, additional to the time of death.
Some people believe in ghosts. Ghosts are usually taken to be continuations of the lives of people who are dead. Some are seen as ancestral spirits. They may be malevolent or friendly, or they may need to be put to rest or be attended to, or appeased.
There are religions whose adherents believe that being dead is just a period of waiting for their next incarnation- and that is not with the use of cryonics. This may entail being in a state of either eternal torment or eternal bliss, or of waiting for a judgment of which one it will be. Most Christians and Muslims expect eternal bliss.
The Catholic Church creates saints, who are dead people that have done something marvellous during their lives or after their death. Australia has its own saint, Mary MacKillop. The process of canonisation, that is, of “creating a saint” requires evidential proof of some miraculous or wonderful act. It was found after lengthy inquiry that Mary MacKillop had cured a woman of an incurable disease. The woman had prayed to MacKillop, asking to be cured. MacKillop had been dead for many years at the time of the prayer and the miracle cure. So being dead was, for Mary, an opportunity for doing good, of being promoted to a higher level of holiness, and perhaps having a welcome variation of eternal bliss. General Monash, who died in 1931, was proposed for promotion to the rank of field marshal in 2018. Unfortunately for the general, the promotion did not occur.
It is a moot point whether such ideas and practices are affirmations of the sanctity of life, or in contradiction to it.
Most people, including those who don’t believe that the dead have any kind of life or experiences, still act as if they actually do. They treat the dead body or the remains of it in special ways.
There is evidence that people have been treating their dead in ceremonial ways for tens of thousands of years. The bodies or the bones have been placed in special places, sometimes very hard to get to. They have been laid out in special ways, or covered with ochre or clay, or crushed or smashed or burnt or dismembered. Relics have been discovered by archaeologists in Europe, Asia, Africa, Australia and the Americas. In many sites, human remains of various ages have been accompanied by significant objects.
The remains that have been unearthed of the bodies of some ancient Australian Aborigines are thought to range between about 40,000 and 68,000 years old. The first discoveries of them were made in 1969 and then in 1974 in New South Wales. The different remains had been given different kinds of treatment that appear to have been ceremonial. These treatments may have been related to honouring the dead, or ensuring that the future life of the dead would continue or not be uncomfortable. Or the treatment might have been meant to protect the living people from the spirits of the dead. But whatever the reason, the ceremonies required a lot of work and cost. For example, some of the remains had been covered in a red ochre that would have come from about 100km away from the where they were discovered.
Some of these Australian remains have since been re-buried. Others are locked away in a sealed container with two locks, the key of one lock being held by an Aboriginal group and the other by scientists, which means they are still being treated reverentially after all these thousands of years.
To the scientists this is palaeontology. To modern day Aborigines it is heritage. To those people all those thousands of years ago it would have been part of what we now call religion, probably with an element of the supernatural.
We know about many ancient but more recent rituals for dealing with the dead, going back to a few thousand years. Some are still performed. Here are a few examples.
Ancient Egyptians, when they could afford it, provided their dead with food and companion animals and accessories for life. These things were put in the tombs along with the body. Some of the internal organs were removed and the body was embalmed and bound in cloth in a way that prevented it from decaying. The body, now referred to as a “mummy”, was then placed in a coffin. The coffin may have had a portrait of the occupant and other decoration painted on it. Companion animals were given a similar treatment. Dependent on the status and wealth of the person, the coffin may have been accompanied by precious objects, and placed in a hidden closed tomb in the hope of securing it from robbers.
Hindus have traditionally cremated their dead over a blazing fire, but the many sects each have their own variations of procedures
Generally, preparations begin as soon as possible after the death. The people involved avoid unnecessarily touching the body, which is now seen as impure. But the body is washed, arranged into a position of prayer, and covered with a sheet until it is taken for cremation.
The cremation usually takes place as soon as practicable, preferably at a sanctified place, often at the edge of a river or other body of water. This is the body’s last rite of passage, releasing the immortal soul to await either its next life in a different body, or eternity.
In Bali, when Hindus of high status die, their body may be kept for months or years before the cremation. When the auspicious time comes, the remains of the body are taken on a highly decorated carriage, followed by a long procession and accompanied by lots of music, to the highly decorated place of cremation. The whole procedure, including cremation over a great bonfire, is a time of celebration.
The ancient and modern Parsees, followers of the religion of Zoroaster, have a concern with the sanctity of fire and of the ground. They try not to let dead bodies, which they consider to be unclean, touch either fire or the ground. After a religious service they hang the naked corpse from a special tower in a high open location for vultures to “pick the body cleanly from the bones”. When clean, the bones are placed in a pit with lime and left to decay. This tradition is about ten thousand years old. Zoroastrians expect to be judged at some distant time after death, and those who are deemed worthy are resurrected.
And there were, and are, many other societies and religions that have their specific rituals.
Our modern western funerals, both religious and secular, can take many forms, from the grand to the minimal and from religious and formal to personal and informal.
We can think of the sumptuous public funeral of Princess Diana in London in 1997. The coffin containing her body was carried on a gun carriage along an extensive circuitous route to Westminster Abbey, where the ceremony was held, and then to a secure cemetery on an island in a private park, where she was buried. Two thousand people attended the ceremony in Westminster Abbey, and more than 30 million people watched it on television.
In Western societies, many people like to choose in advance whether their body is to be buried or cremated or disposed of in some other way. They may also choose where to be buried or where their ashes are to be scattered or placed. Mostly they get buried in cemeteries or are cremated in a crematorium, with graves or ash containers ranging from the simple to the grandiose.
Some people have specific things that they want to happen after they die, such as donating their body for scientific purposes, or for minimum impact on the environment, and what music or other procedures are to be used at their funeral, or who is to be permitted to attend.
Many people want their family to stay together after death, so there are locked family vaults in which the coffins with deceased family members are kept, and family plots of ground in cemeteries and the equivalent in crematoriums.
Some people say that they can’t bear to think of a body being eaten by worms, and they are not necessarily thinking of their own body. Other people have a similar attitude to cremation. Another objection to cremation is that it makes resurrection difficult. But, after a few decades in the ground, buried bodies would also need a fair bit of reconstruction.
The bodies of some distinguished people are buried under the floors of cathedrals, including Westminster Abbey, sometimes many years after death, heedless of any wish or instruction they might have given.
There is usually a communal respect for the dead, and particularly the recently dead. One common rule is “don’t walk on the grave”. So in some cathedrals you might need to watch where you step.
Another rule is “don’t speak ill of the dead”. Eulogies, which are usually made just before the burial or cremation, seldom include any criticism but emphasise the good. Obituaries can be a bit more frank.
As mentioned earlier, there is the idea that we “exist in the minds of others”. Remembering the dead not only keeps them “existing”; it is a way of maintaining respect for them – or in cases such as Genghis Khan and Hitler, of maintaining disrespect. There are certainly people who are reviled after death, but one person’s villain can be someone else’s hero.
There are people who want to restore the reputations of some the dead, including the long-since dead, who are perceived to have been unjustly maligned. The Richard the Third society, and those who claim that Ned Kelly was not a ruthless bushranger are examples. Napoleon was once reviled, but now he is a hero. Many men have claimed to be a reincarnation of him. There are probably people who hold Genghis Kahn in high regard.
In times of war there can be deliberate acts of disrespect and desecration of the enemy dead. After the end of hostilities there are usually patriotically religious ceremonies in which the dead are revered by those on all sides of the war. Probably the holiest day for many Australians is ANZAC Day, with pilgrimages to Gallipoli, and ceremonies in virtually every town in Australia. “Lest we forget!”.
One thing we do forget, or never knew, are the details about people whose names became the names of streets, towns, charitable institutions, and the odd fountains in parks and statues in towns.
Another intended long-lasting way of remembering the dead has been the building of structures, from the grandiose to the simple. There are elaborate buildings like the Taj Mahal and some war memorials. There are war cemeteries, some of which are very extensive. There are public cemeteries with a mix of elaborate tombs, and graves with headstones of various degrees of size, decoration and information.
For more personal remembrances there is the custom of regularly visiting the graves of loved ones, often accompanied by laying fresh flowers on the grave, from the time of burial and continually for years afterwards, and of keeping the grave site clear of weeds. This requires no religious belief, just dedication. It also has a strong element of wanting the deceased person to be publicly remembered.
Being dead is sometimes said to be the same as the time before being conceived. The justification of this statement is that both are just oblivion, not existing or being anything.
I think being dead is a lot more than the non-existence before the person or organism existed.
Being dead can sometimes mean being more handsome or beautiful than in life, when funeral directors give cosmetic treatment.
It can mean residing in or beneath some decorated structure, possibly beside already dead relatives, or under the floor of a cathedral alongside the remains of other distinguished people. It can mean being scattered in one or more places that were personally significant during life. Or it can mean being buried straight in the ground or hung up in the air for vultures to “pick the body cleanly from the bones”.
It can mean being burnt, either ceremonially in the presence of the living loved ones, or clinically unseen in a crematorium. It can mean being “buried at sea” or being drowned and never being seen again. It could mean being in a freezer waiting for technology to make you un-dead.
It can mean being remembered by loved ones or by society.
None of these things applied to us before we existed.
Being dead may also mean the complete and utter end of pain, sadness, frustration, anxiety and desperation, or of happiness, excitement and enthusiasm.
Some people think it may mean eternal pain and suffering or eternal happiness, perhaps in the company of those you once loved
– or hated.
But whatever being dead means, we are all facing it, at least in this life.
All this is, of course, the point of view of someone who has never experienced being dead. Anyone who tries to tell you what being dead actually means is not dead, and most probably has never been dead.
Your only chance to find out what being dead is like might occur when you are dead, but that is a very different issue.