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What is Death? How to Understand it?

Updated on June 7, 2021
Deepa damodaran profile image

Deepa is a freelance researcher and journalist. She writes and makes documentaries and videos.


What Is Death and How We See It, Is Changing

We try to understand death because we value life. Death is but a process connected to life. Science is ardently on its path to understanding death and has already revealed a few prized insights into it. Philosophy has also been at the pinnacle of unfolding the meaning of death, the most recent addition to the repository being the best-selling book, 'Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow', written by Yuval Noah Harari. In this book, Harari argues that in the recent future, modern science would solve the question of immortality.

A person is considered dead when cardiac arrest happens and then the brain shuts down in a few seconds. This is usually the point of no comeback as far as we understand death. There is not always a sure connection between death and pain. Some people do not experience pain when they die, say, scientists. The senses and sensations decline gradually for the dying person. There is a certain sequence to this process and first hunger is lost, then thirst, and then in diminishing order, speech, vision, hearing, and touch fade away. Interestingly, there is also a neurochemical activity happening inside the brain at the moment of death, which is equivalent to what happens during high-level cognitive mental activity. As medical science progressed phenomenally, more and more deaths are slow deaths where the medical support systems prolong life as long as possible. Still, towards the end of life, there are a few days when there happens what is called “active dying”, or a rapid progression towards death. During this period, doctors believe that most probably the person is unconscious and pain is not felt.

Quantum physics asserts time and space are just our mental constructs and bound by the minds of those who perceive them. This has been proven correct for the micro-world of photons and electrons but if that applies to our macro, day-to-day world, is a question still under investigation. The logical progression of that thought is that death is just a shift in that mental construct, in the space-time continuum as we understand it, and there could be things beyond that point too.

Recent scientific studies suggest there is some degree of consciousness left even after death, or at least immediately after death. Popular literature on death consistently reported people undergoing near-death experiences, seeing a stream of bright light and feeling the out-of-the-body sensation at the point when they were perceived ‘dead’. Also, there have been rare instances of Lazarus syndrome reported when a person’s heart stops, he/she is declared dead, but then the heart suddenly restarts without any explanation.

Death Rituals: Ancient Stone Etching


Perceptions of Death Through Civilizations

Instead of trying to answer the yet unanswerable question, what exactly death is, it would be fascinating to find how humans understood and made sense of death through the history of humanity. It is also possible, this may lead us to find some common threads of thought that unite us with the primitive humans, the nomadic tribes, the people of the Middle Ages, the renaissance men, and so on.

Renowned psychoanalyst, Sigmund Freud observed that among the members of the tribe of the Asra, people choose death when someone whom they love dies. Freud is of the opinion that primitive humans killed enemies without guilt but feared one’s own death.

The Vikings thought of death as a point when one enters another life in another mythical place. So they killed and died without much remorse. According to the Greeks, everyone who died, heroes and villains alike, went to the underworld of Hades, God of the land of the dead. It was much later there evolved a concept of an afterlife different in quality for each individual as determined by their good deeds and bad ones. Then dawned the era of Christianity, which made us believe in judgment day and God judging everyone based on good deeds and bad. Hindu mythology on the other hand professed you will be reborn as a lower life form like a serpent or a fly if you indulge in evil acts. If you do good instead, the Hindu belief system says, you will escape the cycle of rebirths and become one with the ultimate energy source.

Viking Funeral


Literature, War, Ideology

Death representations in literature generally have been argued to be a kind of empowerment attempt by illustrating death as a “rounding off of an eventful life”. The way we perceive death in real life is usually in the form of simple and constant denial that one could actually die. Freud said, “it is indeed impossible to imagine our own death, and whenever we attempt to do so we can perceive that we are in fact still present as spectators.”

War, love, religious faith, and ideology, apart from simple suicide, are the instances when humans accept death as a real possibility and still dare it. Sometimes, it is through developing a sense of self-worth and a sense of the value of life that we cope with the reality of death. People can have both negative and positive reactions to the death of others, and the prospect of one’s own death- one might become more generous towards others or more selfish, may try to live longer through health-boosting measures, or become self-destructive by way of the use of drugs, and so on.

War Cemetery: Delhi, India


Death and Future

Bioquark, a biotech company in Philadelphia, is researching brain death in patients, who according to the US federal law can be declared clinically dead but for some reason are on life support still. The aim of the experiment, titled, ReAnima Project, is to find out if stem cell therapy could re-grow and repair at least some brain cells so that the 'brain dead' stage can be reverted into a deep coma stage. Brain death as many of us know is the current legal parameter of death in most countries. Theoretically, the Bioquark experiment is viable to be a success but there are many subtle and complex practical barriers still. The whole project as of now is shrouded in mystery and controversy.

The question, what death really is, will continue to haunt and fascinate us till science catches up with the minutiae of that phenomenon. However, the mystery of human life and death, which makes this blue planet unique, will also continue to stir our creative imagination. Death is a constant and ancient companion who cannot yet be wished away. Science will continue to probe if consciousness or body as a whole can survive death. If the theoretical projections of popular scientists are to believe, our life in this universe could just be one among the many probabilities of certain chance occurrences. There could be ‘n’ number of other probabilities enacting on the stage of a ‘multiverse’ parallel in time and space. There could be many ‘us’ existing which renders death too immaterial.

© 2018 Deepa


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