I’m getting to the end of the books I recently finished as part of my Unschooled Master of Theology Program. You can check them all out here. This book in particular was okay. Not really impactful, but it was still somewhat informative. The book is When We Die, by Cedric Mims, a discussion of the science, culture and ritual of death.
So, let’s jump in….
The book jumps right in with the numbers. I thought it was interesting that in pre-urban times, when there were only about 5 million people on earth, this averaged out to about one person for ever 10 square kilometers. As the book asserts, this made body disposal easy. When people died, they were left where they drew their last breath. There was no need for burial, for cremation. There was no concern over disease or infection from a rotting corpse. Bodies were just left out to the elements and quickly were taken by the environment.
This is a stark difference from today, when most people die in hospitals and death has been sequestered from the living like some kind of plague to be eradicated.
In fact, as the author points out, we who are living today (any animal, etc) is one out of every ten thousand species to have once lived here.
Why is everything dead? Do species take turns on the planet and it just so happens to be ours? Will we reach a tipping point where planet earth decides it’s time for a change, that humans have outlived their purpose? Are we but only one of many different life forms taking turns on planet earth?
We each only have typically 75-80 years to live, and that’s double what those before us could consider a ripe old age. Maximum, humans get 115 years. Only one person so far has made it to 122.
And this, the scientists have discovered, has to do with the genes, with cells dividing only about sixty times before quitting altogether.
Surprisingly, the list of top causes of death world wide was rather shocking. Malnutrition is still number one. In a day and age when we can produce laptops and smartphones any number of medical advancements, we still can’t seem to topple getting enough food to eat.
Of course, it’s not the actual getting of the food that is the problem. There is enough food produced on earth to support every person currently on the planet, maybe even more. But, like with the other causes of death listed on our list, humans have a tendency to let other things get in the way.
After malnutrition, we have poor sanitation, unsafe sex (not sure how that kills us, but), alcohol, deaths that occur occupationally, tobacco, and not until we get to number seven do we find killers like high blood pressure, inactivity, drugs and air pollution taking people out.
Apparently, though people might be living much longer today, they’re not actually living any smarter.
Suicide and Being Conscious of Death
It is an interesting point the author brings up. We are the only creature on earth that commits suicide. No other animal, no other living creature willfully chooses to take it’s own life.
In fact, worldwide there are more than 750,000 suicides each year or around 2000 per day.
Not too many years ago, someone on the internet got in trouble for visiting a forest in Japan that is apparently famous for being a preferred site for suicide.
We not only choose to take our own life, we appear to be the only creature aware of our own mortality.
I watched a spider take up residence near one of the exposed electrical outlets in the corner of my bedroom. It lived there for several weeks, darting in and out of the electrical box every time I would come in the room or get too close. One day, I discovered the spider’s upturned body laying on the floor directly underneath it’s web. It’s legs stuck up in the air, still. Lifeless.
That spider appeared to have no comprehension of its impending death. Neither do animals in the wild. One day I was exploring an old logging road adjacent to my Eden property when I came upon a near perfectly intact skeleton of a deer. It had no foul smell, nor was there any flesh left at all. Yet, it appeared as if the animal had simply laid down on the ground and gone to sleep and died.
With the bones completely in tact, it was not a hunter’s kill. Nor did it appear to be a kill from a wild predator like a cougar. This animal simply ceased living, either due to old age or disease. Did it know when it chose that spot it would be its final resting place? How long had it been there in that sheltered meadow? Why had not predators come for it and feast on its flesh and scattered its bones? Did the other animals know it was ill and stay away? Or, did it just happen to die at the right time when nothing else would be coming that way, giving the insects time to consume it?
Do whales experience self-knowledge of their own mortality? Dolphins? If not, why are humans the only ones? It is actually a fascination for me, a preoccupation that drives most of my contemplative time, especially in this second half of my life. Is it because I have no other concerns in life? I don’t have the concerns that animals in the wild have? Hunting for food? Human society, despite the food shortages already discussed, I happen to be one of the lucky ones who was born into a society at the right time where I can find food at any corner grocery store, have refrigeration, electricity, gainful employment, and an overall passive life with few if any predators out to get me? Is this why I have the luxury of contemplating my own death?
The Nature of Lifespan
There is, interestingly enough, a set plan in all of this. We can see it in the lifespans that are mysteriously, cryptically preset for each creature that lives or has ever lived on earth.
As the book states, scientists do not know how lifespans are set, they just know they are.
Most wild animals, surprisingly, do not experience their natural lifespan, or, more specifically, they don’t experience the upper limits. Humans are unique because we’ve overcome (or never had) natural predators hunting us. Of course, life was much more hostile to humans thousands of years ago. Hundreds of years ago life was pretty brutal, too, despite the romanticized notions we’re often taught. In most of human history, life was hard, insufferable at times, and disease was a huge deterrent to us reaching the limits of our lifespan.
But modernity changed all that. When we got the upper hand over many diseases and viruses, and when we drastically improved infant mortality, the life expectancy of humans tripled. For those in the western world, quality of life dramatically improved to the point that we no longer lived close to nature, no longer endured the rhythms of the natural world or suffered under the physical elements.
Today, the average human lifespan is around 115, with most dying in their mid 80’s and 90’s. Of course, with curing many diseases like smallpox and measles we discovered several more like heart disease, cancers, and obesity to take their place. Lifestyle disease is now our burden, and it does not kill us yet in our youth (like the previous diseases did), but they drag out and kill us slowly over time, often accompanied by a great deal of suffering.
But, the pre-set lifespan between species is still a mystery. Why is it set for humans to live 115 years on average, when large dogs only live to 11 or 12, and small dogs to 14 or 15? The main mechanism for aging is a dramatic change in cells, and death is not always (though often) caused by disease or illness. Sometimes people die in their eighties just from old age. Some die from no known cause.
This mechanism is the same for each species, though the time-tables are all different. Lifespan is genetically determined as our cells divide from conception to death about fifty times for humans. After that, cells die and can no longer replicate.
Not only does cell division have an outside limit, but the frequency with which cells divide seems to lessen as we get older.
Examples of different cell division and their respective lifespans: mice, who live about three years, divide up to fourteen times. Tortoises, who live up to 175 years, can divide up to 110 times.
But, despite this predictability in the cell functionality, the question remains. Who set the lifespan limit for each species in the first place?
If evolutionary theory is correct (I have my doubts), were there humans in the past that had different genetic lifespan limits? What about other animals? Are lifespan limits arbitrary? Is it somehow connected to procreation and the adaptability of the species? Do the limits imposed provide benefit in some way?
If the biblical account is correct, and death is a curse on humans, on animals, on plant life, and on the earth itself, on all of creation, then the lifespan limit is directly connected to the curse itself. It is intertwined with sin in fundamental and explicable ways. It likewise promises that one day in the future, death will cease and we will be clothed with immortality. Certainly at that time the pre-set limits of cellular division will be removed indefinitely. If the accounts in the bible are intended to be literal and we will be clothed with immortality, then it’s possible whatever immortality actually is, it will presumably prohibit the breakdown of cell division. As long as we have that clothing of immortality (as Adam and Eve had before the fall), then the cells of our physical bodies will keep replicating indefinitely. The limit may be there, inherent in the potentiality of our ability to commit sin, but as long as we do not eat the apple again we will enjoy eternity.
It is a fantastical idea. Especially since modern science, given all their advancement and technological innovation in such a short period of time, haven’t yet been able to crack the code on death or aging. Maybe we’re just not supposed to know how some of these things work.
Definition of Death
The author describes a universal definition created by society that defines death. It is called the Uniform Determination of Death. It states a person is dead if they have sustained either an irreversible cessation of circulation and respiratory functions or an irreversible cessation of all functions of the brain or brain stem.
Both possible conditions share a common element: irreversibility.
The bible, on the other hand, claims, “the life of all flesh is in its blood” (Leviticus 17:11). So, biblically, the definition of death could be the irreversible cessation of blood circulation. This coincides with the first secular definition, but it adds to the cessation of circulation with the ending of respiration.
There are circumstances, of course, where a person has been subjected to a loss of oxygen for so long that they are effectively brain dead, despite being on machines that keep their heart beating and the blood pumping.
In these cases, we find a fundamental definition of death – irreversible cessation of either circulation and respiration or brain function. But, is this really what we mean when we say someone is dead or someone has died?
The Uniform Determination of Death identifies biological death of humans (and other mammals). But, it does not define the parting of the individual entity we call a person. The thoughts, memories, feelings and experiences that make up the individual as a collective and persistent sentience, either ceases to exist or is transported to some other state or location that is other than this one in which the living exist. This is actual death.
We do know there is the individual bundle of traits we call the person, the individual. And death is the cessation of or at least the transformation or transportation of that bundle into a new and distinct state, a state fundamentally different or otherwise located in the state of the living experiences. This transition between the state of living and the after living state is unknown and fragmented to us. We only know of it and experience it from the state of the living. The one who dies experiences the process of death, experiences death itself, but after death we have no perspective, other than seeing the dead body within which used to reside the bundle that was the person in question.
Death, the experience of death, the experience of after death (if there is any experience after death) is an enigma to the living.
The book provided an interesting take on death, on the philosophical implications that are fundamental to its process, its reality. It does a good job of providing an overview on the rituals that have built up over the centuries, and covers the basic aspects of the physical processes associated with biological death itself.
But, the book does not address the underlining questions, does not attempt to answer the questions for why there is death in the first place or what there is beyond death. One reason is there is no answer to either question. Not only do we not know why we die, why anything dies, why death is so ubiquitous and universal of all things that can be termed alive, but we don’t know if there is anything beyond death for the individual consciousness that indeed formed a specific identity while alive.
These are some of the questions I’m looking to answer in my uThM program. Why do we die? What occurs for the individual after death? Is there an afterlife? Why is there suffering for the living?
Unfortunately, this book did not have answers to those questions, and I’ll just have to keep looking….
Excerpt from The Light Aurora:
The door’s lock released and Dr. Lewis looked around at each of them.
“Stay close, and be ready for anything. I’m not sure if they’re all in the Command Center or if they are trying to secure Level 4. Hell, they could all be evacuating.”
He stared at Scott as he came up onto the landing.
“Let’s go,” Scott said.
Dr. Lewis pushed the door open and walked out into the hall, followed by the others – in ones and twos.
Level 2 was similar to the other level, with a long corridor, doors on either side, all with security displays recessed into the wall next to them.
But, as they entered the corridor, Scott’s breath caught in his throat.
As he stood there with the others, he couldn’t believe what he was seeing.
In front of them, probably no more than a few yards away, were three bodies lying on the floor. One was sitting up against the wall, the side of his face melted, exposing his right eyeball and a good portion of his right skull.
Another one was laying face down, his entire back opened up at the spine, as if his spinal cord had been ripped out of him from behind.
The last one was a few more feet away from the others, on his back, his eyes seared from his head, black, burnt flesh where his eyes used to be.
The intercom came back to crackling life.
Derrick said over the intercom.
“Don’t worry. You can answer,” he said. “I can hear you.”
Scott looked up, then fixed his gaze on the security camera at the end of the corridor.
“Yes?” Scott finally asked.
There was a pause, static.
“What are you doing, Derrick?” he asked. “Did you do this?”
“Indeed,” Derrick said, coming back on.
“They refused to help me.”
“What are you trying to do, Derrick?” Scott asked.
There was another pause.
“I want to go home, Professor,” the boy said.
“Yes,” Derrick said, his tone soaked with some other-worldly confidence that did not belong in an innocent, ten year old boy.
“I want to go home, Professor,” he said again. “Would you be interested in coming home with me?”
Buy the entire story The Light Aurora today and get ready for the thrill ride of a lifetime! What is this foreign and hostile place these strangers find themselves in? What does it all mean? Will all of them survive?
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But, trust me when I say, reading this book will change your life forever.