We are assemblages of ancient atoms forged in stars – atoms organized by history to the point of consciousness, now able to contemplate this sacred Universe of which we are a tiny, but wondrous, part.
Life is Death, and Death is Life.
What? That makes no sense, right? Aren’t they opposites?
No. Death and life are two sides of the same coin. After all, if life didn’t exist, then nothing would die. And if death wasn’t real, then evolution could not have produced the life we have today. Death and life are intimately intertwined, like the two sides of the DNA molecule. Life and death are two dancers that together have spun out our world, both of which are needed for us to exist. The opposite of death isn’t life, but sterility – like a barren, rocky planet with no life … and hence no death. A natural death is a wonderful, necessary, and healthy part of any world able to grow and change. Death is part of a life well lived.
That’s the view that my Naturalistic Paganism gives me – and it’s hard for many people to see. Heck, it was hard for me to see at first. Why?
Death, the Enemy
Perhaps this is because nearly all of us have been taught the Christian view of death from an early age. It pervades our culture, showing up in our actions, our daily speech, what we can say out loud, our movies, words, advertisements, and so on. In Christianity, death is the enemy (not just an enemy, but THE enemy). Death is evil, unnatural, unnecessary – an abrogation of the divine plan, a cosmic mistake. Death is portrayed as the opposite of life – as if Life and Death were two cosmic deities battling through the ages, each hoping to rule the Universe alone after the other is killed. Death is seen in such negative ways that many people cannot even speak about it – they use euphemisms like “passed away” and “asleep”, and so many people in our culture are unable face reality enough to make the most basic and necessary preparations for death – such as a will. The various Bibles are clear on this view of death, in dozens of verses. Death as the enemy is extolled in sermons, blogs, and discussions in churches across our world every Sunday. You can see this easily by googling “death, enemy, Christian” or any similar string.
But why? Where did this adversarial view come from? Well, a full examination would be too long for a blog post, but the Christian view of course largely grew from the earlier Greek views which had an afterlife of comparative misery for everyone, making death a bad thing. With some Hebrew influence, Christianity greatly amplified that distaste, becoming persuasive with a terrible threat such as a hell, along with a blissful promise, convincing people to join. Taking a wider view, human cultures have often considered death a transition to an afterlife, but that doesn’t necessarily make death an enemy or an unnatural thing. These afterlives were often as good as or better than real life, such as many of the ancient Asian views of the afterlife, where the afterlife mirrored a normal life, or included reincarnation – where the afterlife actually was another life on earth itself. Ancient views of death often viewed it as a normal and natural change, be that karmic or otherworldly. Buddhism, in fact, reminds us not to think of our life as if it were permanent because everything changes, and that death is simply another change, like all the other change in our Universe. In this way, we can each remember that the joy of hugging a child cannot last – that the child will grow to an adult – ceasing to exist as a child, and that fact is a good thing. At the same time, Buddhism seeks an escape from both death and life – instead of embracing both.
Just as many of these views saw death as a normal part of the real world, my Naturalistic Paganism helps me see how necessary and healthy death is. (And to be clear – I’m talking about death itself. Yes, there are plenty of examples of horrible deaths, such as untimely or unjust deaths. Those are horrible because they are unjust or untimely, not simply because they are a death). Without death, our world could not exist. Evolution itself works due to the death of creatures and the death (extinction) of species (beautifully included in the video “The Unbroken Thread”).
Without the death of stars in supernovae, we wouldn’t have the elements to make our Earth or life. Life all around us survives by eating the dead bodies of other life, and the constant recycling of the atoms of life on Earth requires death as part of the cycle. You yourself kill uncountable organisms every day, simply by being alive – even if you are vegan. What about a world without death? How would that work? Looking closely at any part of our Earth shows how absurd a world without death would be.
Death by “Mantis-Nova”
For instance, consider the elegant praying mantis. … A praying mantis female lays a capsule of hundreds of eggs each summer. Now, without death, each of those will grow to become an adult mantis, half of which are female (and you wouldn’t want to be a mantis male). …
So, using just 200 eggs, that means from one pregnant female we’d have 100 female mantises the next year, then 10,000 in two years, 1 million the year after that, and so on. No big deal, right? I mean, we have hundreds of millions of mantises around us on Earth now, after all. However, at that rate the mantises would cover the Earth to a depth of one mile by year 12. By year 16, the rapidly expanding mantis ball would engulf our moon, and in the next year the squirming mass of mantises would swallow the Sun, with the rest of the solar system (including the far-flung Kuiper belt) the year after that! This large amount of solid matter would have so much gravity, it would then collapse into a black “mantis-hole”. Thank you death, for saving us from the “mantis-nova”! Absurd? Of course!
And that same scenario plays out for any life on Earth, no matter how slowly it reproduces. For every good aspect of our world, we have death to thank. Any aspect of our lives becomes as absurd as a “mantis-nova” without death.
The Gift of Death
Long ago, before the world was as it is today, an old medicine woman here in Michigan died. For weeks after she was wrapped in birchbark and buried, the village continued to mourn her death. The Great Spirit, Gitche Manitou, and many other spirits saw this. They came to the village, and asked to speak with the grandmothers. For days they talked with the grandmothers about the secrets of the Universe, and the longhouse was filled with wisdom and knowledge. The rest of the village watched the smoke from the longhouse, and wondered what was being said. Finally, Gitche Manitou and the spirits offered the grandmothers a choice between two great gifts. One gift was the gift of eternal life for all people – no one would ever grow old and die. The other was the gift of eventual death for all people. With death, there would need to be children, but without death, there could be no children, because soon there would be no room for them. The grandmothers saw that the greatest gift was the gift of death, which they chose – and thus gave us all the gift of children as well.
There is yet another important way that death fills my life with meaning and joy. Death means that my life is finite – that I’ve got around 17,344,882 minutes left to live. Each of those minutes is irreplaceable – making each one a precious gift from my Ancestors to me. If not for death, then they would be valueless. If I were going to live forever, then why value an evening with friends? After all, if I was going to spend an infinite number of evenings with them in an infinite afterlife, then one such evening now is infinitely worthless. But I know that’s a fantasy. Every minute I have is a precious, irreplaceable treasure. That makes everything I do, every choice I make, a sacred choice. It means that I deeply value this blog post, or else I would have used the ~191 minutes in some other way, because this blog post brought me ~191 minutes closer to death. It means that every moment spent with my kids, my wife, my friends or anyone is an affirmation of how much they mean to me. This helps me remember to keep my priorities straight, to see the deep meaning in my life, and to enjoy the moment – even when stuck in traffic.
So yes, the existence of death brings me great joy – because it brings me our world. It brings me the joy of children, the clean water and air, the preciousness of every moment I have here. Death and Life are two sides of the same wonderful coin, and so I celebrate death as much as I celebrate life.
Jon Cleland Host
Chinese beliefs about death and dying
The after-life in ancient Greece
The Buddhist concept of impermanence
In addition to writing the Starstuff, Contemplating column here at HumanisticPaganism, Dr. Jon Cleland Host is a scientist who earned his PhD in materials science at Northwestern University & has conducted research at Hemlock Semiconductor and Dow Corning since 1997. He holds eight patents and has authored over three dozen internal scientific papers and eleven papers for peer-reviewed scientific journals, including the journal Nature. He has taught classes on biology, math, chemistry, physics and general science at Delta College and Saginaw Valley State University. Jon grew up near Pontiac, and has been building a reality-based spirituality for over 30 years, first as a Catholic and now as a Unitarian Universalist, including collaborating with Michael Dowd and Connie Barlow to spread the awe and wonder of the Great Story of our Universe (see www.thegreatstory.org, and the blog atevolutionarytimes.org). Jon and his wife have four sons, whom they embrace within a Universe-centered, Pagan, family spirituality. He currently moderates the yahoo group Naturalistic Paganism.
See other Starstuff, Contemplating posts.
“I am not afraid of death, I just don’t want to be there when it happens.” Woody Allen
Jon, I certainly agree with what you say here about life and death, but I think there is a little piece of the story that is missing. You have presented the objective aspect of death, and in the objective world death is necessary and good as you state. But for each of us as a subjective being, death has its particular meaning. While death is necessary for the continuation of life in general, it is the end of our life, pure and simple. (-While some may fantasize a continuation of their subjective being after death, there is not a single good reason to believe in it.)
Contemplating death in its objective aspect may help us come to terms with our individual death, but for many people coming to terms with death is one of the hardest things about life, and an objective understanding of death offers little comfort. An authentic spirituality can help us come to terms with death, but if we fear death it does not mean we have failed spiritually it only means that we are human (or that we are sentient, for nearly all sentient creatures struggle mightily to stay alive as long as they can).
Again, Jon, I don’t mean to be critical as I like what you’ve said here, but as someone who is rather sympathetic to Buddhism, I would like to suggest that characterizing Buddhism as seeking an escape from life and death is not correct. Buddhism seeks liberation from the round of life and death. Liberation is not escape. Buddhist liberation comes from a profound recognition and understanding of the round of life and death and ones situation within that round. Buddhism faces it all head on — to escape would be to turn one’s tail and run.
Thank you for these wonderful meditations on death. The ever expanding mantis ball is an unforgettable image. 🙂 However, like Thomas, I think “escape from life and death” is not the right way to describe the goals of Buddhist practice. Thich Nhat Hanh, for example, teaches that “we are born and we die with every breath.” The goal is, just as you say, to learn to accept both sides of the coin, to be undisturbed by what is a natural change.
Very interesting. What tribe does the medicine woman story come from?
First of all, – everyone, thanks for reading. I’m touched that you took some of your own precious moments to read this.
BT – I don’t know. I had heard it a long time ago, and just like an archeological find, without an original source, it’s hard to know much without finding it in situ.
Anna & Thomas –
I would have liked to have written more about the nuances of Buddhist (and other) responses to death, but of course that would have made a book. Buddhism is, like any other large religion, not monolithic. So there are some groups who have doctrines that I think are harmful, and plenty that are helpful. Reading you comment about the subjective made me wonder – isn’t it a significant point in most Buddhist traditions that the subjective is less important – or that the self/subjective doesn’t even exist? If so, then that may answer your comment about the subjective from a Buddhist standpoint.
For me, however, I’m not sure the subjective is a problem. Is coming to terms with death a huge struggle, for everyone? To me, I feel pretty calm about death – knowing that I’ll cease to be conscious, just as I do every night, only without waking later. I’ll cease to exist – just as I didn’t exist 100 years ago. Am I really OK with all that, or am I in denial? I can’t know – but at least death doesn’t *seem* to bother me. Is any discomfort at all just a pathological problem learned from our culture? I don’t know. I see a whole range of possible realities there – from “having a problem with death” being a “normal” state, all the way to “not having a problem with death” being a normal state. I certainly agree with you that I wish the best to anyone who does have a problem with death (or any other part of our world).
wrt liberation/escape, I agree that many Buddhists paths can be healthy and helpful, and I too am generally sympathetic to Buddhism. However, I also don’t want to ignore real problems, where they exist, including in Buddhism. There certainly are aspects in some strains of Buddhism that I don’t think are helpful. For instance, whether we call it liberation or escape, the #1 goal is not on making the real future world a better place for future generations. Plus, one might question – as I do – whether the supernatural components are real – do we have evidence that consciousness continues after death, for instance?
Overall though, it sounds like we only disagree on minor things – often only on the way something is phrased. Thanks for the comment.
I too appreciated the thoughtfulness of the post and the steady look at death. But I agree with Thomas and would like to extend his comment in one sense. It is not just sentient beings that struggle to stay alive and in that sense resist death. Non-sentient creatures–in fact, every living thing–resists death. To be alive is intrinsically, I think, to be “anti-dying” in the sense that being alive is to get resources, keep processing energy, defend the organism. As humans, to reach a calm acceptance of death means, I believe, having a full sense of being biologically alive and how that unique state will, for anything that lives, soon run down.