A Matter of Death
by Joel A. Wendt
Recently there has been much public discussion about the problem of a possible right to die, sometimes called assisted suicide or euthanasia. This small essay is not directed to those issues, at least directly. Others have examined these questions much better than this writer, who does not consider that he has anything to add.
However,...there is always a "however".
In all these discussions, I have read almost nothing about death itself. The fundamental questions always were about rights, or mental health, or the role of physicians or lawyers or legislators, and, of course, about suffering. Yet, no one seems to be willing to consider just what death is.
What is being avoided? What is being embraced? If people are to be assisted, toward what end?
The failure to examine death is understandable. We have no real knowledge of death, although many beliefs. Even so, to my mind at least, there are facts which can be assembled, and, as is the nature of facts, there are implications.
I offer here no argument, no attempt to come to definite conclusions - just facts and their natural consequences.
The essential core, of the first set of facts I would point to, was suggested to me in an unusual work (anonymously written), called Meditations on the Tarot: a Journey into Christian Hermeticism. These facts are nothing more than basic simple physics.
When a person dies, respiration stops and blood flow ends. Under these circumstances metabolism ceases, and the body loses heat (which is just reabsorbed into the general ambient thermal mixture of the surrounding environment). If we take the body of the deceased out into nature, as certain native peoples do, and leave these natural processes to continue, the body will eventually dissolve.
Through the activity of microbes and insects (excluding in this instance those animals that are carrion eaters) that aspect of physical existence which we call the body is deconstituted and its smallest parts redistributed throughout the various cycles of nature.
Nothing has ceased to exist - to be. Due to the operation of the laws of conservation of matter and energy, all that has disappeared is form; that is the particular arrangement and interrelationship of matter and energy, which we recognize as the human body.
The whole difficulty comes when we consider that aspect of the human being we call consciousness, particularly consciousness of self.
The matter changes form and continues. The energy changes form and continues. It seems most likely, given these uncontroverted facts, that self consciousness also merely changes form and continues.
Setting this aside for the moment, let us take up another thread. The essence of these observations was suggested to me in the works of the largely unknown genius, Rudolf Steiner. Again it is a matter of simple known facts.
The human organism contains a number of different kinds of organs and arrangements of matter and energy. In such a living organism, the most common sub-division is the cell, of which there are certain various types. One type, the nerve cell, exhibits unusual properties.
These unusual properties arise when we examine nerve cells in association, that is in those organs which we call nerve bundles, which stream throughout the body and which concentrate in one large center (the brain) and two smaller centers (the spine and the solar plexus).
Contrary to other cell types, which are organized in various ways throughout the body, nerve cells do not repair themselves when damaged. A severed spinal cord will not heal itself, while a severed muscle sheath or a blood vessel will.
There is a second difference. Our consciousness is only associated with the "nervous system". If the correct nerve bundles to a limb are cut, sensation (i.e. consciousness) to the limb ceases.
What is even stranger is the fact that some nerve bundles are necessary for movement, that is conscious directed action, but can be destroyed (as in polio) while sensation remains.
What is implied by these facts?
They suggest that whatever "life" is, in a general sense, it is not of the same order or kind as consciousness. That is, when the cell/organ complex is capable of self repair, which is certainly a process filled with "life", this same complex excludes consciousness. While on the other hand, when the "life" processes of the organism diminish (i.e. the capacity for repair ceases) then, and only then, does consciousness appear.
There are two other generally reported phenomena, which, while anomalous and anecdotal, conform to this arrangement.
The first is the so-called "phantom limb" pain. The matter and energy arrangement, which had been the absent limb, is completely dissolved, but consciousness, to some degree, remains.
The second is the many and remarkably consistent "near death" experiences, which accompany temporary cardiac and respiratory failure.
There are, of course, physical explanations put forward regarding these two oddities. If you read them carefully, they are all essentially arguments directed at an assumed conclusion, and are not an examination of the natural implications of known facts.
We have so far noticed that consistency requires a law of conservation of consciousness to accompany those of matter and energy. In addition, we have observed that first "life" must withdraw to a significant degree before consciousness appears. If we extend this last fact in its natural direction, the implication is that if "life" receeds even further, even more consciousness will arise. Death, then, rather then being the extinguishing of consciousness, would actually mean its complete expansion, no longer being "inhibited" by the effort at maintaining "life". This last is, of course, what all deep spiritual (enlightenment and initiation) systems teach.
To the above two general considerations I would like to add one more, for which I will have to take responsibility; at least in the sense of being the only one I know of who has observed certain well known facts and yet assessed these particular conclusions.
The facts are as follows:
Before the moment of birth, the mother and the child suffer and labor. After birth the physical pain, the trama, has not disappeared, yet when the baby, now cleaned up, is given to the mother and first put to the breast, powerful emotions (states of consciousness) cover over the pain with feelings of joy and contentment.
There are exceptions of course, but, by and large, these are uncontroverted facts concerning the door into life.
In the case of death there is, as well, labor and suffering. Death is often work of an extraordinary kind. The only reason we do not know, that on the other side of the threshold of death there is also joy and contentment, is because this lies outside our ability to observe.
Now one thing Nature certainly reveals is its tendencies to symmetry, balance and harmonious order (beauty). Given these clear facts, it seems to me that the much more dubious (in the sense of the absence of reason) view is to assert that consciousness does not survive the death of the body.
This being the case, it is not so surprising that all the great religions and myths conceive of an "after" life. Rather what is surprising is that many advocates of "reason" do not.
The careful reader may wonder what side this material may fall on in the current controversies around the suffering of the disabled and dying as that relates to assisted suicide and euthanasia.
I can only answer in a personal way, quite mindful of the many women who take days to deliver, days of pain and labor, and who resort to drugs to mask this suffering; and, as well, the work of suffering which precedes death, and the quite natural desire to be relieved of it when it has gone on for what seems like such a long period of time.
I only hope, when confronted with the suffering accompanying my own demise, to comport myself in a manner so as to be worthy of the joy and comfort I expect to find beyond the gate of death. I already know I don't do well with pain, and I have no desire to be a martyr, but I can't help feel that the labor and suffering which accompanies the end of life has just as much meaning and significance as that which accompanies its beginning. The labor preceeding the gate into death is worth enduring, because, like the labor preceeding the gate into birth, it has a purpose.
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