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The Facts and History of Death That Will Make Us Fear Death Less

Updated on September 9, 2019
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

Is talking about death sinister? Is it fatalistic? Not necessarily. We try to understand death because we value life. Death is also a process connected to life, though considered an end of life process. Wait. Science is ardently on its path to understand death and let us not talk about ‘end of life’ yet.

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 come back as far as we understand death. Believe it or not, modern medicine has really made the death experience for everyone less painful if not less scary. Basically, there is not always a sure connection between death and pain. Some people do not experience pain when they die, say, scientists.[1] 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. [1] 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. [1] 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 you call “active dying”, or a rapid progression towards death.[2] 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.[3] 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.[4]

Recent scientific studies suggest there is some degree of consciousness left even after death, or at least immediately after death.[5] Popular literature on death consistently through centuries reported humans 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.






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 our kind. It is also possible, this may lead us to finding some common threads of thought that unite us with the primitive humans, the tribes, the Romans and more such historical entities, on the understanding of death.

Renowned psycho analyst, Sigmund Freud has observed among the members of the tribe of the Asra, people choose death when someone whom they love die.[1] Freud is of the opinion that primitive humans killed enemies without guilt but feared one’s own death.[2]

The Vikings thought of death as a point when one enters another life in another mythical place.[3] So they killed and died without much remorse. According to the Greeks, every one, heroes and villains alike, went to the underworld of the Hades, God of the land of the dead, after death.[4] It was much later there evolved a concept of an afterlife determined qualitatively by one’s good deeds and bad ones. Christianity came later, making us believing in judgment day and God judging every one based on good and bad deeds. Hindu mythology on the other hand professed you will be reborn as a lower life form like a serpent or a fly if you do evil deeds. If you do good things instead, you will escape the cycle of rebirths and become one with the ultimate energy source.





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”[1]. The perception of death in real life is on the other hand seen as a constant denial of the reality that the perceiving person will also 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.”[2]

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 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.[3]

[1], p.8.

[2], p.12.


Death and Future

Bioquark, a biotech company in Philadelphia, is already half way through an experiment where stem cell technology is applied in an attempt to revive the brain cells of 20 brain dead patients.[1] 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, which are of course being overcome one by one, by stem cell scientists all over the world. The research is still ongoing and the company is yet to publish its results.

The question, what death really is, will continue to haunt as well as fascinate us till science catches up eventually 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 be wished away. Science will continue to probe if consciousness or body as a whole will 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, beyond time and space. There could be many ‘us’ existing.[2]

[1] Are stem cells the answer to bringing people back from the dead?, (n.d.),, Retrieved from

[2] Science and the Near-Death Experience: How Consciousness Survives Death, by Chris Carter.

© 2018 Deepa


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