Quite awhile ago, maybe a year or more, I started the Teaching Company course, Death, Dying, and Afterlife. Most of the lectures I completed during hour long walks down by the beach or out on the Eden property while digging the hole that would/will one day, hopefully, become my monastic cell, a simple shelter or small, dugout cabin.
It was not until I was halfway done with my ThD program that I managed to finish the lectures. Of course, this series was also part of my Unschooled Master of Theology Program, so, it’s probably a good idea to write up a review.
Let’s jump in, then, and find out what this course is all about…
Society and Death
Having finished the discussion questions for this course awhile back, I had to review my answers to get a better overview of what was covered in the course itself. I have to say, it was surprisingly thorough in its handling of death in the world.
Society by and large handles death the best it can handle an unrelenting and wholly universal enemy such as death. Modern man seems content to hide from the realities of death while our forefathers were more inclined to worship it through tradition and ritual. Then again, death was much more pervasive in the past, gripping much tighter to the human psyche than today. Advancements in science, in medicine, have led to the overall increase in life expectancy, from 40 to 85 by some counts, though this is not as dramatic as first appears.
It is not that we as a species have actually increased the amount of time a particular individual has on earth. In some instances this is true. If it had not been for medical advancements, I most likely would have died from a heart attack at age 43. Instead, I’m not creeping up on 46 and imagine, all things being equal and barring any sudden and unforeseen accidents, there is no reason I shouldn’t linger on for another 20 or 30 years at the rate I’m going.
But, there were people in biblical times living into their 80’s and 90’s. In actuality, if the record is correct, the life expectancy has been significantly reduced (from 900 to 100) since those days.
The reality is, we have not really been able to crack the code on aging or death, nor have we drawn any closer to an immortality elixir. What we have done is solved, for the most part, infant death and complications at birth. This has essentially “flooded the market” with many more people living full lives rather than dying from accidents or never successfully being born.
This is not to say that society as a whole is not entranced with at least the idea of immortality. Of course, they want it on their own terms. They want it on this earth rather than in heaven. They want no judgment on their actions from an all knowing, all perceiving being. They want to wallow in their own filth and decadence for a thousand years instead of serving their King.
I can’t say I blame them.
Definitions of Death
One of the questions addressed in this course was the definition of death itself. Are we dead when our body ceases functioning and begins to decay? Or are we dead at some point other than this?
Modern science has reduced, managed, or cured enough diseases that more people are living into their 80’s and 90’s that we, as a distinct race of people (humanity, not the myth of individual races), are now seeing disease at the end edge of the life span like cancer. We are also seeing many diseases attributed to lifestyle and cultural choices, such as heart disease and diabetes.
This is simply not the case in the animal kingdom. The majority of animals do not live to their expectancy or the extent of their natural lifespans. They are more often hunted and eaten by other creatures somewhere in the food chain. It is quite something to lay in bed at night in your shelter or tent and hear the death of a small nocturnal creature at the hands (or should I say teeth) of a big cat – cougar or bobcat. The same is true of watching a crane consume whole a catfish at the water’s edge or the graceful glide of a sea hawk as it dives into the water and carries off to its nest a ripe and still twitching bass.
But, still, what is death itself? Why does it seem determined to touch us all, to hold us captive, to destroy what we have each done with life – for ill or good?
The Bible is clear that death is a consequence of sin entering the blood stream. The inheritance we received from Adam has subjected us all, regardless of our own standing, to death and to the utter and complete and (unless interceded by God) permanent condition it brings.
We see in the last hundred years, but especially the last fifty, more definitions of death arising to be discussed. And rightly so, since medical advancement have not only reduced the toll of disease on the body, but it has also found ways to effectively deal with accidents and emergencies to the point that people who used to die early no longer do. There are even case studies of people who have effectively died in freezing temperatures being brought back to life by medical procedures and treatments.
But, what happens when the mind goes, but the body remains? People in persistent vegetative states have caused many to rethink the definition of death beyond the traditional physical decay of the bodily apparatus. Those who, from accident or injury, have ceased brain activity can now be maintained indefinitely by machines. Yet, if there is no chance they could return to consciousness or exhibit brain activity, are they still alive? What of the young girl, Victoria Arlen, who at 11 slipped into a coma and remained there for 4 years. Her diagnosis was grim with her doctors predicting she would be a vegetable the rest of her life.
Unbeknownst to them, though, Victoria became conscious again two years after slipping into a coma, except she could not move or speak. She spent another two years trapped in her own body and in her own mind before doctors gave her a medication to help with her seizures that miraculously brought her out of her prison.
Arlen recovered not only from her coma, but also learned to talk again, and regained movement in her limbs and body and even learned to walk, despite her doctors yet again telling her it was a lost cause. Eventually she competed in the Paralypics and also performed on Dancing with the Stars. She now works for ESPN as on air talent.
This young girl, at age 11, was considered essentially dead. Her body was still functioning, but her mind was thought to be gone. For two years, though, she could hear everything that was said around her.
This example lends credibility to the idea of existence outside of the body, or, at least, existence without the ability to communicate with the physical world. When we die, isn’t it possible that the essence of who we are as individuals continues to exist? Is the body’s engine essential to individual existence? Of course, near death experiences argue against this, since most often these individuals are considered clinically dead during their experience and often describe being “outside the body.”
Societal Denial of Death
One topic covered in detail is the overt denial of death that modern society has undertaken. Between ornate and elaborate funerals, expensive coffins, sequestering dying people in hospitals and nursing homes, the removal of the individual from the death and processing of their food, it is no wonder that many people not only fear the dead and dying but exhibit a terror of death when it approaches.
Some cultures inadvertently dispel some of this anxiety through their after-death rituals, such as the second burial, where the family members of the decease exhume and wash the body and rebury with different rituals and acts.
Value and Judgment of Death
Discussed at length is the value of death itself, and how one determines the effect of death on the individual who dies as well as those they leave behind. Historically, different camps have formed between those who consider death to be bad as a totality loss and those who argue that death is good or can be good and the dead have no means by which they can experience death so the concept of totality loss is not justified.
I would argue that the value of death is subjective and relative to the degree of experience and loss or gain accrued. The one who is able to commit suicide in light of a terminal diagnosis and a bleak future of severe and crippling pain cannot be said to have experienced a bad death. His death is a good death since the alternative to death was immense suffering and pain.
In the movie, the Last of the Mohicans, the native warrior fights for the honor of the young woman on the cliff, but he is no match for the captor and he is mortally wounded and, as his life slips from his body, he is tossed off the edge into the ravine below. The captor turns to the young woman who has just seen her hopes and dreams dashed on the rocks. She knows what awaits her if she leaves with the man who has just murdered her rescuer. Instead she steps toward the edge, and looks down, then simply steps off and falls to her death.
To the Captor, he is awestruck. How could this young woman choose death over life, regardless of what her life would be like. She would certainly be sold off into some form of slavery, where she would have to cook and clean and wash clothes and tend to animals and bear children to unloving men. But life is precious. There is an instinct within the human condition that drives us forward, away from harm and away from death.
But, in this scenario, everything the young woman had, all her hope, all her anticipation to be saved, to be rescued, died with the man’s death. So, in this sense, it was his death and his failure that stole from her the positives of life. There was in her mind no more reason to go on. There was no fight left in her. In her estimation, as she stood there on the edge of the cliff, death was welcomed as a good. It was an escape she had in her possession. Once dead, her captor no longer had control over her, could no longer reach her.
Of course, there was much more to the particular narrative in question, since she would have easily been rescued had she held out for just a few minutes longer. But, the romanticism was key to the death of the young woman more so than the totality loss going forward.
But, what is good for the movies is not necessarily the same as good for the individual in a hypothetical situation such as this. For neither the young woman nor the audience knew what would unfold minutes from that moment on the cliff. She was tired of running. Tired of being tied and drug across the countryside. There was no chance, at least in her mind, that she would be rescued. To her, certainty must have been so intense that she would end up a slave it was, in her mind at least, a fate worse than death.
Objectivity has no place in the discussion of death and its value, since no death can be divorced fully from its circumstance.
Dying Well and the Ideal Death
I particularly liked the discussion of the Ideal Death or dying well. Working in the medical community myself, I am well versed in the concept of a good death, meaning one without pain, where the individual can meet death on their own terms and have some sense of autonomy and control.
As Socrates concluded, “all philosophy is but preparation for death,” so too do we need to recognize no greater vocation than to meet death head on. This is the thrust of my independent research. It is not about making money or having students. I’ve done both and neither really mean anything. I’m not trying to leave behind a legacy or change the paradigms in which people think about a certain segment of philosophy.
My research embodies Socrates’ statement. It is avocational at its core. It is sanctification working through me, as I approach the Bible, its message, and the philosophical and theological commentary surrounding it. My ultimate goal is to discover the fundamental and axiomatical reality underpinning not only the physical nature of existence but also the superset spiritual nature of the supernatural realms.
I have no invested interested in remaining among the living, no creature comfort so desirable that I wish to remain here if given the opportunity to leave. Yet, an instinct within me, wholly out of my control, propels me toward life, toward living, despite my own reticence.
Other Topics Discussed
Also discussed was how death is viewed and dealt with in other cultural worldviews, such as in India, in China, in Buddhist thought, under Confucianism. Also discussed at length was suicide, assisted suicide, and euthanasia.
The idea of a death instinct was explored as was the death penalty, near death experiences, and the quest for immortality and its ramifications.
I would have to say, for the very first time, I took a course that was worth the time to take it. This is especially surprising for a Teaching Company course since they typically skew to the materialist or physicalism perspective on any given topic. But, this lecture series was handled with a great deal of balance, from the Christian to the Muslim, from the Buddhist to the Jew, all presentations seemed quite fair and accurate.
I would definitely recommend this course to anyone who is interested in death and dying as a philosophical subject.
Until my next review….
Please consider supporting my writing, my unschooled studies, and my hermitic lifestyle by purchasing one or more of my books. I’m not supported by academia or have a lucrative corporate job – I’m just a mystical modern-day hermit trying to live out the life I believe God has called me to. So, any support you choose to provide is GREATLY appreciated.
Excerpt from Our Daughter:
“Okay, mom,” Randy said.
“You behave yourself and be nice. You’re lucky to have company while you wait for the doctors.”
The woman turned and started back the way she came.
“The nurse said it would be twenty or thirty more minutes, so we’ll eat quick and be back up here before they take you in, okay?”
“Sorry for him,” the woman said to Katie as she walked by.
As the woman left, Katie noticed the boy moving around again on the bed. Before she realized what was happening, the tiny lump disappeared and she could hear the faint sound of bare hands and feet on the tile floor.
He was low crawling under the beds toward her.
A moment later, Randy popped his head out from under the nearest hospital bed, craning his neck around to look up at her.
“Hello, there,” Katie said.
Randy disappeared back under the bed, the bed sheet draping down almost to the floor. Katie could still see three little fingers pressed to the tile.
“What are you here for?” Katie asked, readjusting her seat in the chair, trying to get the ache in her chest to lessen.
For whatever reason, the wheelchair was really uncomfortable.
“Why are – ”
Randy’s voice trailed off for a moment as he looked around.
“Why are you here?”
“I’m getting my leg fixed,” Katie said. “See?”
Randy poked his head back out from under the bed and looked at the leg she was pointing to.
“What’s wrong with it?”
“The doctor said it’s broken,” Katie said. “Shattered.”
“Can you feel it?” Randy asked, able to stay out from his hiding place.
“I can feel it, but it’s not too bad,” Katie said, then tapped the IV in her arm. “This thing is giving me medicine of some kind for the pain. At least that’s what the nurses said.”
“Why are you – ”
Randy stopped mid-sentence.
He scooted out from under the bed entirely and slowly crept over to her on all fours.
“What are you, some kind of spider?” Katie asked, giggling a little.
“What are you?” Randy echoed.
He was now only about a foot away from her chair and sat there, his legs folded up under him, gawking up at her.
“What are you staring at me for?”
“I’ve never – ”
Randy put out a hesitant hand and ever so gently touched her arm.
“Are you some kind of ghost?”
He looked around again.
“Are you – ”
He leaned in, talking in a whisper.
“Are you dead?”
A nurse came around the corner and stopped abruptly, spotting the empty bed in the far corner where Randy should have been.
“Randy Andrews,” the nurse said, her hands now on her hips. “You get right back into the bed and you stop playing around, please. They are ready for you in surgery.”
Katie watched as Randy scrambled on all fours under the beds and back up onto his, pulling the sheet back over top of himself again.
She started to ask him about his question, but couldn’t get the words out before his parents appeared at the door.
Katie sat there quietly, watching Randy stare back at her from under his sheet. She glanced over at his parents and the nurse, noticed Randy’s dad had no hair on the top of his head.
Are you dead?
What kind of question was that?
The snap of the wheel locks being disengaged on Randy’s hospital bed jarred Katie out of the confusion she was in.
The doctor she’d first seen was now at the door, waiting for Randy.
He was his surgeon.
They wheeled Randy out of the room, his parents following right behind, disappearing to the left, heading for his operating room.
The pre-op room was empty again.
Are you dead?
What kind of crazy question was that?
The nurse came back through the double doors.
“It won’t be long now,” she said.
Katie tried not to think about the dull ache growing just behind her sternum.
The nurse disappeared around the corner as Katie watched the double doors to the operating rooms slowly shut.
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