Death, dying, and the ways we think about it

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A skull but no crossbones? What is this, death on a budget? James Oliver Bridge via Wiki Media

Although we may be scared of dying, we can’t help but talk about it

Death: something that we argue about, something that we fear, something that we wish we did not have to deal with. Although we live in fear of death, we also seem to be unable to help ourselves when it comes to voicing our opinions on the matter. Whether it is talking about what we think death entails, how we feel about a person dying, or the way they died, we all know of some form of media that illustrates the concept for us as well. It’s time for a breakdown of these popular opinions and some that aren’t so popular.

We are all familiar with the points of death that we experience while still present on Earth. It involves the halting of one’s heartbeat, and the brain’s systems no longer respond to the world or work to maintain our internal systems so we cease to move through another day. But what else is there? Many people will tell you some variation of an afterlife that they believe in and many hinge on this idea of us having a soul. This soul detaches from us when our physical body finally fails us and is free to move onto whatever the next step is.

The soul’s next step seems to fall into one of two categories for most people I’ve spoken to. First, it plays into this idea of a heaven or hell for one’s soul to go live in after it has departed. Some believe that this works based on a utilitarianism standpoint, meaning that every action you perform on Earth holds either positive or negative value and everything we do should be in an attempt to “earn more positive points” so we can enjoy the good life that heaven would provide afterwards. Others don’t think it is quite so straightforward and that there is a higher power there to judge us. This being will weigh the pros and cons of our life and decide if the negative things we did were because of who we are as a being or if it was necessary given the circumstances. If things go as planned – congratulations, you’ve made it to the pearly gates and are on your way to eternal happiness and peace!

For those who are not a fan of the judgement and eternal happiness or damnation, there is another option that people tend to lean towards: reincarnation. This concept is fascinating as each person has their own ideas of what is considered to be a worthy body to hold space in versus what would be seen as a “demotion” in the spiritual world. Everybody wants to be a human and believes that this is the ultimate form to work towards. Nobody wants to be a cat, but personally, that sounds a lot nicer to me. There are many interesting ideas that work around the idea of reincarnation. One that I find particularly interesting is in conjunction with the birth marks that many people have. The belief with these is that the placement of our birthmarks is in direction relation to the way we died in our previous life. For those who don’t have one, either it was something that would not have left an obvious single marking – like drowning – or they are a new soul who has not undergone the process of their physical body dying before.

Looking outside of our own experience dying, people always have something to say when someone else dies. Now we all know the horrible phrases that are used at funerals like “God needed another angel,” or “they’re in a better place.” All of these are nonsense as we don’t actually know what has happened to them and we are only attempting to comfort those who hold the same beliefs as we do about death.

Not only are we very ineffective in comforting those in mourning, but we’re also horrible about commenting on the ways people have died. If it’s self-inflicted, many will refer to it as being selfish or the individual taking the easy way out. For those who were killed by the actions of another, then the hunt to get even often overshadows the true loss that occurred. While those who died of natural causes lived a full life and it’s posed as though this is their reward for contributing to the world. Our tolerance of the way people die is an odd concept as it doesn’t feel like something we should attach standards to.

Our ideas of death are also shaped by the media that we consume. This idea that death itself is a being that comes and collects you is not a novel idea by any means. Television shows like Supernatural or novels like The Book Thief that portray death as a character that has opinions and a means of interacting with us is an interesting concept that we’ve allowed ourselves to find comfort in. Again, allowing the fate of when our physical lives end to be placed in the hands of a being that has the choice to come and collect us or not is comforting for many. This also allows us to feel as though we do not have to go through that next step alone – someone that is knowledgeable about the process will be present to ensure that we get to where we need to go in a safe and effective manner.

Death is a concept that we have been playing with as humans for a very long time. Whichever way we have chosen to find comfort and meaning, this seemingly meaningless act is done so with the intention of providing comfort. Leaning on religious beliefs, the stories that pop culture has provided us with, or coming up with you own – it all leads to the same conclusion in the end. We don’t know why death happens when it does, and we don’t know what it looks like afterwards – all we can do is find comfort any way we can.

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