On July 15th of this year, Kathleen Revere Calder Miller, my wife of almost 57 years, passed away. She died. Our culture has many euphemisms for death and dying: kicking the bucket, going to the other side, taking a dirt nap, giving up the ghost, resting in peace, shuffling off this mortal coil, surrendering life, biting the dust, cashing in, checking out, departing, … I could go on. There is a website that lists 101 euphemisms for death and dying.
The common clinical definition of death is the secession of heart function. Brain death is also a clinical determination but its definition is more complicated.
For example, the cerebrum of the brain may be dead but the brain stem may still function and support the autonomic neurological system that sustains such functions as breathing and heartbeat. In the U.S. there is not a consistent set of national criteria that define brain death.
On that Thursday in July, my son and I watched as Kath’s heartbeat gradually declined to zero. Only extraordinary medical intervention could have sustained her heartbeat but in the face of multiple organ failures she was not going to recover. Ten or so years earlier, she and I had prepared for such a moment by creating “living wills” (advanced medical directives) that indicated that neither of us desired extraordinary medical interventions in the face of cession of heart function. So, we watched her “pass away.”
Death is such a profound human experience that we have even personified it. It is sometimes said that we meet death. Literary and artistic works express this personification: for example, the 1934 film, Death Takes a Holiday, and its 1998 loose adaptation, Meet Joe Black.
“Appointment in Samsara” is an ancient Arabic fable with which Somerset Maugham ends his 1933 play, Sheppey. In it a servant, having bumped into Death in a marketplace, flees to a distant city not knowing that that is where Death has an appointment with him. Hindu, Buddhist, Jewish, Christian, and Islamic traditions include personifications of death. For example in apocalyptic Christianity, Death is one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, the one riding
a pale horse.
Each euphemism noted above, even the most colloquial, sits within often implicit philoso-phical assumptions that frame an understanding of what death is. Arguably the two most common understandings are that death is simply the end of life (e.g., resting in peace) or that death is a transition from one form of life to another (e.g., passing on). The former assumes that human subjectivity (i.e., personal self-consciousness and action) ends. The latter assumes that human subjectivity persists beyond death even given the decay of the human body.
As a quick aside, when I write from a purportedly Christian perspective, I need to acknowledge that Christian theology has two primary religious roots: one deeply within the Hebraic tradition, the other in classical Greek philosophy. The most obvious example of this is in the Christian New Testament Gospel of John. There in the opening verses the author links the Jewish tradition of the Messiah with the Greek philosophical tradition of the Logos (Logos).
This idea of a persisting subjectivity is represented for instance in the concept of an immortal human soul, an immaterial entity that is conjoined for a period of time with the material human body. This conjoining or ensoulment ostensibly occurs at conception although for some traditions it occurs later (e.g., so-called quickening) but well before birth. In terms of the Christian tradition, the idea of having an immortal soul is primarily Greek, particularly from the philosophy of Plato.
Philosophically, this position is an expression of an essentialist metaphysics; namely, that material things become what they are, their immaterial essence. The immaterial soul, the ground of personhood, is what the person really is in contrast to what he or she may materially appear to be at any one time. One’s life project is the full material expression (as much as possible) of this essential soul. This position also suggests a dualist metaphysics in which there are two fundamental domains of reality: the material and the immaterial.
In contrast philosophically to this position is an existentialist metaphysic; namely, that things are what they become. This is closer to the view within the Jewish tradition that a person does not have a soul but is a soul in his or her totality. Here, whatever is meant by the soul or person includes all those influences that have converged in the history of the individual.
These influences would include the genetic and environmental factors that shaped gestation and development of the historic person.
But it would also include the history of the tree of life involved in the formation genomes of
her or his more immediate ancestors that result in the separate contributions from mother and father.
Here a person does not have a history, a person is one’s history. In this view there is no dualism. Like matter and energy, the material and immaterial are simply two expressions of the same thing.
There seems always to have been a reluctance in human cultures to view death as the end of ongoing personhood, from very early on Homo sapiens have speculated about life beyond death. This is exhibited, for example in the ancient practice of leaving items with functional utility in burials. There is something in the human psyche that resists the idea of personal non-existence, although ideas about the persistence of conscious subjectivity beyond death are culturally quite variable. Let me suggest that they fall roughly into four groups: (1) a morally neutral non-earthly site for the eternal repose of all dead persons; (2) two morally distinguished sites for the eternal repose of all dead persons; (3) a process of transmigration or reincarnation of the essential immaterial person until final immersion in the one true reality; (4) a tradition that the very idea of a perpetuating essential person (alive or dead) is an illusion only to be overcome by the acceptance of no-thingness.
Both ancient Hebraic and Greek cosmologies designated a location for the dead that seems
to have been morally neutral. For the Jews it was Sheol. When the Hebrew scriptures were
translated into Greek, Sheol became Hades, the name of the Greek God of the Underworld. At the outset these were morally neutral repositories for all the dead. The ancient cosmologies place these locations in the bowels of or beneath the Earth. These similarities reflect a deeper, “common sense” three-storied cosmology that pervaded the ancient middle east for centuries.
These ancient cosmologies also identified a domain for God or the gods. In the Hebraic cosmology it was a domain beyond the heavens. In ancient Greek cosmology it was within the material world, Mount Olympus.
As a consequence of territorial conquests and cultural diffusion, by the first century CE, Heaven had been identified in Christian thought as the post-death realm of the righteous. Of course, this is too simple a statement because of Christian theology’s eschatological tradition of resurrection and its apocalyptic tradition of a new Earth under a new Heaven.
Still, the unrighteous were eventually condemned and consigned to eternal torment in Hades/Hell. Ironically, for Christians the promise of “eternal life” was generally associated with residence in Heaven. But in fact, taken as a whole, the tradition imagined “eternal life” for the unrighteous as well, but at a different address.
Broadly speaking, within the Hindu tradition (a wonderfully rich and complex tradition) what is essential to human beings is the Ātman or “Self” (sometimes translated as “soul). At the death of the individual, this immaterial entity is reincarnated or reborn in a new human or transmigrates into new human, animal, or even inanimate object. The karma generated by the individual during a particular live-cycle determines the incarnational/transmigrational destination for the next life-cycle. Moksha is the Hindu term for liberation and the end of the cycles of reincarnation of transmigration. It is not only the end of the life-death-rebirth cycle but also final communion with Brahman (the Ultimate Reality). The complexity of these traditions has resulted in a variety of divergent “schools” of thought.
Within Buddhism samsara is the cycle of life-death-rebirth or the wheel of existence. It has, in principle, no beginning and no end. It arises out of desire and is the cause of pain and suffering. Enlightenment is the occasion of the escape from samsara into Nirvana. But Nirvana is not a place like Heaven or Hell. Nirvana is a state consciousness, of the awareness of no-thing-ness, a state of nonexistence as a perpetuating thing.
What has any of this to do with Kath’s death. Perhaps not much. Still, over the years in conversations about the ends of our lives (not very frequent), we discovered that we shared a conviction that, when we died, we would be dead. Gone at least in terms of any subjective consciousness or impact on the future. She did expect and hope that the life she had lived up to that point would have had a positive impact on the lives of those she had encountered along the way and especially with respect to our three children. I have a bit more complicated view of things. What else would you expect from a journeyman theologian? But in terms of basics, we shared the same view.
At our celebration of her life on September 4th, there was little doubt that her hope was well founded. Affectionate remembrances were shared and witness given to her impact on their lives by a culturally and generationally wide and diverse group that she had come to know or with whom she had worked.
On that Thursday afternoon in July, as my son and I shared those last moments of her life, we were with Kath as she passed away. She is gone. And she is and will be missed.