We are born, we live and breathe for various lengths of time, then we die. Seems rather pointless, really. For as long as we know, and from all the historical records that we have unearthed or discovered one way or another, we can only conclude that humans have not ever been terribly enamoured with this situation.
Of course, most animals are averse to death, or at least to dying. Death itself isn’t particularly scary, it’s the getting there that we have a problem with. Even an ant feeling attacked will flee or fight. Of course, once it’s dead there is no issue. Not all animals face dying in the same way. Without being too anthropomorphic, some are stoic, some are frantic. In humans, some are even self-destructive but I’m not sure that death is what suicides want. Relief from pain and suffering is probably the goal more often than not, but in many cases, death seems the only respite, the only place where there may be peace. Of course, that’s silly because there is no ‘place’ after death. Death cannot be a respite from pain and suffering because we have no way of experiencing relief from pain in death. Death is the absence of sensation, of thought, or feeling; it’s the absolute negation of consciousness. Death is no thing. Before we are conceived we are also nothing, no thing. Life as we think of it as sentience, feeling, consciousness, starts sometime in our development. It’s hard to know when. In a way, death puts an end to the whole story. Historically and linguistically, we have wanted to contrast living with dying, but they are not opposites. Death is the only way life can happen. So, why, generally, is it so hard for us to let go of life? Well, like all other animals we have a survival instinct, or an instinct for self-preservation. With rare exceptions, there seems to be an inherent drive in all animals to continue to live. I don’t think any species would get very far without it. It does present a problem for us, however. It means we go to great lengths using our big, unfortunate brains to deny death using whatever means we can, and boy do we have lots of means! Our cat is afraid of death. She skulks around wary of a stray cat in our neighbourhood we call Mean Gene because he beats up on our Princess Pretty Paws. Still, she hasn’t managed to institutionalize death denial. She just can’t take it that one step beyond immediate, visceral run-like-hell action. And when Mean Gene is no longer in sight, Princess is just fine. She is not anxious and preoccupied with dying. She’s still interested in her food bowl, however.
What it gets right down to is the fact that as animals we reproduce sexually and engender offspring who are themselves immediately on a trajectory to death. Living and dying are the same process. Stop dying and you’re dead. Now that seems completely unfair. We are built to die! What the hell! Well, that just can’t be, damn it!
Over the millennia, we’ve created any number of ways to convince ourselves that we don’t really die, that although our bodies may perish, our ‘souls’ do not, and that makes us immortal in a god-like way, really. For us to be immortal we must be gods and by our earthly deaths experience apotheosis. Millennia ago, when we were still in our infancy as a species, we were awed by the powers of nature and our extreme vulnerability in the face of them. We decided that there must be some sentient power that controlled the forces of nature, the floods, volcanos, fires, landslides, and other deadly phenomena. Not only were there powerful natural forces, but they were capricious and unpredictable as well as uncontrollable.
In our silly wisdom, we figured out that maybe, just maybe, we could barter with the gods so that they would leave us alone. If we presented the gods with gifts, even living gifts (as in virgins thrown into a volcano), maybe we could obviate the damage the gods inflicted on us. It was fine to kill all the people in the next village, but leave us alone, please. Well, that didn’t always work according to plan, so an explanation was necessary. So, if our village was ravaged by a fire even though we had been really good and had made lots of sacrifices to the gods, maybe those sacrifices just weren’t enough. We just had to kick up the giving a notch or two. Sadly, we are still very much controlled by this narrative.
A parting thought: Try not to think of life and death as experienced by individuals. What if the life and death individuals experience is no more than the experience of a mushroom growing out of the underground mycelium. The mycelium is the important, continuing force. We, as individuals, are just fleeting and temporary expressions of the mycelium (in our case, the DNA) that is the source of our lives and deaths. We are just expressions of a process whether we like it or not, whether we think about it or not, and whether we fear it or not. The mycelium itself is not immune from death although it can live on year after year, decade after decade, through the lives of countless mushrooms. Eventually it too will die. As Brian Cox, the famous British physicist put it, the universe itself lives and dies in a moment. Individual organisms come and go in an instant. The passage of time is an illusion that allows us to cope with the need to die. One human life lived over a period of eighty years is no more fleeting than the life of the universe itself.