The subject of death isn’t likely to bring joy to people’s hearts. I can imagine the rolling of your eyes as you see the title, followed by the immediate journey of the cursor to the close button and the exhale of relief as you rid your screen of whiny self-indulgence. Well, allow me at least the next paragraph or so to convince you that I am not some morose, spotty, lank-haired fan of “insert emo band” and that this article does have a purpose beyond narcissistic introspection.
When the study of death is removed from the subjective concerns of the individual and interpreted through its impact on societal decision making, it can be far from depressing, indeed, it can even be liberating. So let me begin here, with my first question: when does a human being actually die?
Now, I can already hear the cries of “heretic” from the religious contingent, and from the sceptics, despairing groans of: “not more nonsense on the afterlife”. However, neither section need worry, for I have no wish to engage you in a theological didactic. I want to argue that death is first and foremost sociologically confirmed. In essence, when a person is declared dead by society, they are so, regardless of their biological state. Such a position is made clearer if we examine the idea of individuality and death together.
It is my contention that an individual can only have individuality through their relationships with other people; that every action they commit is only made real when another person acknowledges that it has happened. With this in mind, death, as any other individual act, needs to be observed in order for it to be a de facto event. For example, if a Bushmen hunter goes out hunting by himself and tells his tribe he will be gone for three days, yet is killed on the first day, he will still remain alive, in a social sense, for the remaining two days. This is because those that knew him, who gave his life individuality, have no knowledge of his death and so believe he is still hunting – still living. The biological nature of the hunter’s death hangs in limbo; he is both dead and alive at the same time. The hunter’s death is only actualised when his dead body is found. This paradox, first described in “
Even when a person is capable of witnessing their own death; when they decide the moment they die, but live on biologically so as to observe the social implications of their decision, their death can still only be realised when it is acknowledged by other people. For example, among the Lugbara tribe in Uganda we can see how such a process takes place. When an elder of the village believes themselves to be beyond biological repair, they call council with their heir apparent and tell them that they are pronouncing themselves dead to the village. After this meeting the heir will go out amongst the villagers and start singing what is known as a cere (a personal chant), which signals to the people that the person has given up their existence. In that instant, the person becomes unrecognisable, and despite being physiologically alive, they are treated as if they are physiologically dead. We see here that despite it being the person’s conscious choice to observe and witness their own death, the person is only treated as dead when they confide in another who tells the rest of the group. If an individual were to undergo this same process in isolation it would have been as if they had said nothing at all, because there was no one there to observe it.
This leads me to my second question: how does viewing death as a socially confirmed fact help us to understand aspects of human decision making? Well, I believe that by interpreting it in this way we can begin to grasp and confront the ethics of death, particularly in post-industrial societies.
In all of these countries the legal definition of death is stated as the irreversible death of the brain. This law stands in spite of the fact that the person may still be alive in a physiological sense i.e. his/her heart is still pumping. Naturally, there are very profound moral questions which arise as a result of this law, the most obdurate being whether or not it is right to kill someone who is still, to put it bluntly, only partly functioning. Yet this law is still met with very little resistance and people are willing to turn off the life support machine which, up until that point, has kept their loved one biologically alive. I believe this willingness derives from an ingrained belief that sees the mind as the root of our existence; specifically the observable efforts of that mind in society. So if an individual’s actions are no longer observable then the person in question becomes socially unidentifiable and is therefore dead to the people that knew him/her. Biological science may explain to us that a person is still living, but it does not make up for the fact that people cannot witness this in actuality. It is this lack of observable social action that makes it easier to switch the life support machine off.
Like our real verifiable personality (one that can be confirmed by others), our death is owned by those that live beyond us and can acknowledge our end. Although scientific formulas may be able to explain why a person might be dead, they do not have the power to communicate outside of human perception, and socially unrecognised they are simply just abstract possibilities. For death to be certain and not just a possibility it must be observed. Death therefore alerts us to the absurdities of scientific explanation in relation to a human being’s sensorial capacity; in essence, that we cannot always observe the processes which allow us to see things in the first place.
But in recognising that death has to be observed in order to make sense, that it is a social phenomenon, what are we left to conclude? In truth, we are left with a comforting notion, that in spite of everything else, a human being can never die alone.
Illustration by JMC