Reader Request Week 2020 #8: What It Means to Be Dead

Juan Preciado asks:

What does it mean to be dead?

For the person who is dead, not much! Because they are dead. They are no longer thinking about anything or doing anything or being anything, other than dead. Dead is a state of not; there is very little meaning in not. When I am dead, it won’t mean anything to me, and I know that from experience, since I’ve been not alive before (see: the roughly 13.7 billion years before May 10, 1969, the day I was born), and it didn’t mean anything to me then, either. I understand lots of people believe in an afterlife, and I think that’s fine, as long as you don’t use it as an excuse to be an asshole to people in life; however, I don’t believe there’s an afterlife (or a different life, or reincarnation, etc). I could be wrong! Won’t I be surprised! But I’m pretty sure I won’t be — in fact, I won’t be anything, because I’m dead.

“Death” in itself is a concept that, aside from the mere and banal scientific concept of what it means to be “alive” or “dead,” relies on the living to apprehend it; you have to be of a certain level of cognizant to even recognize that things are alive or dead; you have to be of an even higher level of cognizant to attach meaning to it. You don’t have to be human — we have very good evidence that animals other than humans recognize what death is and mourn those who die — but certainly humans are of the set of creatures who understand what death is and attach meaning to it.

While we’re alive, that is. “Death” is a concept for the living, who are in a state to apprehend it, understand it, and in doing both, attempt to attach some meaning to it, because we are pattern-seeking creatures, and we want things to mean something: To happen for a reason, so we can explain to it to ourselves, and to others.

So, for me, a pattern-seeking creature, what does it mean to be dead?

For one thing, when someone (or something, but for the purposes of this piece, I’m mostly going to stick with humans) is dead, it means that all your agency is done. You can no longer do anything, and you can no longer cause anything to happen. Yes, you can leave instructions for things to happen and you can even, while you are living, employ the levers of law/tradition/social conditioning to try to ensure those things happen after you’re gone. But once you’re gone, it’s up to others to decide whether to honor those instructions. Think of all the dead writers who left instructions for their writing to be destroyed by a spouse or friend, only to have that spouse or friend go “Yeeeeeeah, not only won’t I burn this manuscript, I’ll have it published instead!” Look up Franz Kafka and Max Brod, just for funsies.

This doesn’t mean that the repercussions of what one did in life end once one is dead; simply that one’s ability to meaningfully control them directly in one’s self is gone. Now one must rely on children, or acolytes, or lawyers, or whomever, to try to approximate one’s intent, to the extent that they will bother at all — if, frankly, one’s life and acts merit such consideration. Most of us do not leave charitable foundations, or social organizations or religions behind to be tended and cultivated. Most of us can barely remember to do estate planning. For most of us, what is required by the living once we are dead, in terms of our wishes — the very last suggestion of our agency — is to honor them, or let a probate judge sort them out if we didn’t leave behind a will. After that, whatever agency we had is done, and what is left is memory.

For a while, anyway, because one other thing it means to be dead is to be eventually forgotten. There’s a nice sentiment out there (well, nice to extent you like the person in question) that suggests no one is really dead if there is someone who still remembers them. For the vast majority of us that means family and friends. Their memory of us lasts only as long as they do, and in some cases, less time than that, after which point we are at best names on a family tree.

Most of us do not leave much in the way of tangible expressions of who we were — letters, articles, creative works — and if we do the things we leave behind are often banal, and of little interest beyond those who are in our immediate circle of confidants. Yes, your Facebook wall will remain after you die (well, maybe; social media companies have a way of disappearing and taking user accounts with them when they do), but very few people even now go back to read what’s there once people die. They are the unvisited testimonies of (usually) fairly ordinary lives.

Which does not mean that they — or the lives they represented — did not have value. Everyone has lost people they love, and cherish them in their memory. But just because you loved your uncle, doesn’t mean that your great-great-granddaughter will, or indeed should have any memory or thought of him other than a name and perhaps a picture or two. Your uncle will be forgotten. In time you will too. And so will your great-great-granddaughter. This is neither good nor bad; it just is. The living can keep only so many people in their heads; they are understandably going to prioritize the living.

Famous or notable people get to be remembered longer, but let’s be clear that the quality of that memory doesn’t tend to be all that great; in almost every case even the greatest and most powerful people of their time are collapsed down to one or two things that they did, not who they are. I can, for example, name you (probably) all the presidents of the United States, but with the exception of the very early, and the most recent, ones, I can’t tell you much of what they did or who they are as people. Literally the only thing I can tell you of Millard Fillmore off the top of my head, aside from his name, are his last words: “The nourishment is palatable.” Creators tend to be remembered for one or two works; in the memory of our culture, we all eventually become one hit wonders. And then we slip off the radar entirely.

(If you don’t think I think this will happen to me — ha! If I were to die tomorrow, I will be written up as “The author of Old Man’s War and Hugo winner for Redshirts;” 50 years from now I’ll be the author of Old Man’s War and other works; 100 years from now no one will read me except people doing degree work and maybe some family members. Prove me wrong, history! Prove me wrong.)

Which brings us to the final thing I’ll address in this particular piece: What it means to be dead is to be assessed. When one is dead, one is at the end of everything — there are no longer things you are going to do, or things you are doing, only the things you’ve done. Other people, pattern seekers that we are, will then look at the whole of that life to assess it and to sum it up. For some people that will be a short process — “beloved husband and father” — and for others it will take years (I suspect they will still be finding previously unknown material in Prince’s musical vaults 20 years from now, for example).

If you’re a regular person, it’s family and friends who do this assessing; if you’re a famous person and/or leave behind a notable body of work, it’ll be other people as well. With the latter, it goes into the cultural memory bank of you, and will often supplant who you were as a person — which is not a bad thing for you if who you were as a person was a real asshole or an otherwise terrible human. What is bad — and good — about a creative or historical person often is diminished because the work they leave behind is easier to apprehend and to deal with (and often, bluntly, more interesting, too).

Again, all of this is about the living, not the dead themselves, because, again, they are dead. They don’t care. They can’t care. The meaning of being dead is for the living, who will themselves be relieved of agency, assessed and remembered, and then forgotten, in turn, and so on and so on, until there is no one left who cares to assess or remember, and then to forget.

In the meantime, what it means to be dead is: Someone is still alive to give death meaning.

18 Comments on “Reader Request Week 2020 #8: What It Means to Be Dead”

  1. Today I am 80, which means (in all probability) I’m a lot closer to the Big Nothing than you. And yeah, I was nothing before 1940, and I’ll be nothing for a long time after I’m gone. As Kurt Vonnegut said, so it goes.

  2. (1) We don’t know. (2) We’re all going to find out. (3) We won’t be able to come back and tell anyone what it’s like. Personally, I am in no rush to find out.

    Or as Keanu Reeves told Stephen Colbert, when asked a similar question: “I know that the ones who love us will miss us.” That answer is good, too.

  3. One of the consequences of digital storage is that some of us will leave much more evidence of our existence than was previously possible for most people. However, the same ‘decay of attention’ will still apply…most of the time, with search engines intermittently resetting the degree of attention decay. (And then there is the difficulty of digital storage, it can be easily destroyed….which allows for the possibility of huge suddenly-appearing holes in what we know of the past….)

  4. Yesterday, I would have not even been responding to this. Because I have never had an original thought in my life, as far as I am aware. TODAY, on the other hand, a) I have something to say, and b) my wife is intensely annoyed with me, and by extension with YOU. Because I giggled uncontrollably almost all night.
    I quite literally had to go get a shop towel because of the copious amounts of salty water my eyeholes were gushing.
    Huma Lagos.
    “I’ll be dead and I won’t give a shit. If I’m at home my children will decide what to do with it. It’ll probably be liquification since that’s the standard for Ikoyi habitats, but they could prop it up with sticks and twirl my corpse around like a puppet for all I care.”

    HOLY SHIT that’s funny.

  5. You put into words my exact feelings about death as it relates to living.

    While the history of humanity is useful to the living, the history of the individual is of little portent except to those who remember them.

    I suppose we can only hope the memories we leave behind are mostly good ones, maybe even useful ones.

  6. I find it incredibly ironic that you chose an illustration by Gustave Dore to include with this essay. He’s only been nothing for a little under 160 years

  7. I agree that death is a concept for us higher beings. Another concept is immortality. An author at a convention said that the reason vampires have such not-nice lives is to make the rest of us feel OK with being mortal.

    My favourite book for (4.5 out of 5 at goodreads) exploring folks being desperate for immortality was the four short stories (nicely re-written to fit the collection) by James Gunn called The Immortals.

    Reading The Immortals at a formative age, all I could do, besides saying it was silly to be desperate, was agree with the disturbed character in a Heinlein novel who said we all live the same amount because we all live in the present. … Of course I save money for retirement, but still, I am grateful for the present. (And grateful to live in a G-8 country with socialized medicine)

  8. My mother recently passed away so the whole concept of death and if there is something afterward has been on my mind. From what we know in science there is no proof of any existence after death. However, science also thinks that most of the universe is made of dark energy and dark matter, neither of which we have figured out how to measure.
    Does this mean I believe in life after death. I don’t have enough evidence to make that decision. My mother still lives in my heart and that is what really matters. If she or any of us will experience something more then I look forward to being surprised.

  9. Dear Paul,

    Brother Guy Consolmagno (fairly well-known science fiction fan, director of the Vatican Observatory and the author of several books) was Science GoH at Minicon a few years back. Inevitably, during a Q&A session, someone asked him “Do you think there is life after death?”

    His answer was that he didn’t know what to think, because he had no data. He knew of no validatable information being reported back postmortem. He said that if you gave him one piece of data he would be able to decide what he thought, but absent that it was a question he found unanswerable.

    To coin a phrase (on my part): null in, null out.

    Had he been asked what he felt, he would’ve given a different answer — I know that because we’re friends. If he been asked what he BELIEVED, any of you can figure out what his answer would be.

    But he wasn’t, he was asked what he thought, so he answered it as a scientist.

    (Always be careful when questioning a Jesuit because they are very good at answering precisely what you asked. )

    Since (at least) World War II, there have been innumerable sociological surveys that have asked Western scientists (and more recently techies in general) about their beliefs. Depending on how the question is phrased, somewhere between just under half and a bit more than two-thirds self-identify as religious. It’s pretty safe to say that this does not present a conflict for the majority.

    (If you were to include Asia in the surveys, the numbers would likely go up but then you get into real definitional problems: is Buddhism a philosophy or theology? Buddhists argue about this!)

    In that same vein, what the surveyed scientists mean by “religious” is a whole ‘nother thing. In fact, Brother Guy wrote a book about it: God’s Mechanics: How Scientists and Engineers Make Sense of Religion (which not so incidentally, is how he and I became good friends — I was one of the people he interviewed). Many different things to different people. But it doesn’t present a conflict to most of them to believe in something non-scientific, because it’s a metaphysical not a physical matter.

    If you choose to think one thing and believe another, understand that you will have ample and respectable company.

    And if you don’t, you will still have ample and respectable company.

    – pax \ Ctein
    [ Please excuse any word-salad. Dragon Dictate in training! ]
    ======================================
    — Ctein’s Online Gallery. http://ctein.com 
    — Digital Restorations. http://photo-repair.com 
    ======================================

  10. Venus de Milo can have my arms, and give my love to Rose.

    The door to wherever will hit you on the ass when you go through it, but which door is it?

    Mayhap I will come back as a puppy, maybe not.

    Best I can do is leave a peaceful impression to those my death will damage. I hope they are strong and smile when they think of me.

  11. Worm Fodder… At least if you decide not to be buried in a Hermetically sealed coffin.

  12. Don’t be too sure that 100 years from now no-one will read you.
    Now, they won’t pay your heirs, mind you, but they’ll probably read you.
    One of the Internet’s greatest gifts IMHO is all the out-of-print works that become available, for free, via kindle, as soon as they get out of copyright.
    And now I can download all pulps, penny dreadful, and early SF I want.
    Turns out the original Zorro tales & Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Mars stories & the Skylark of Space are pretty fun & so were a lot of the other pulp writers!
    Writers are immortal.
    Although I have to agree with Woody Allen, who quipped, “I don’t want to become immortal by having everyone read my works, I want to become immortal by not dying.”

  13. “Life is pleasant. Death is peaceful. It’s the transition that is troublesome.”

    Often credited to Isaac Asimov, but as a sometime scholar of his works I can’t confirm.

  14. That’s kind of depressing.
    But no where near as horrible as most popular notions of Heaven. I took one look at the alleged “good place” in The Good Place and said “That would be Hell.” Same instant reaction to the virtual afterlife in Upload. A work friend of mine tried to sell me on a biblical city of gold, and I’m like Nope Nope Nope Nope, not goin’ there.

  15. Some years ago I read about a non-European culture that had different words for “recently dead” and “dead.” When someone dies, they are “recently dead.” When the least person who remembers them dies, they become “dead.”

    This dovetails neatly with the sentiment that “my mother lives in my heart” expressed by Paul DeConinck above. I feel the same way. As long as I remember my parents, they’re not completely gone. But at some point nobody who remembers them will still be around.

  16. I somehow managed to misread “Reader Request” as “Big Idea” and so spent almost all of this article excitedly waiting for the concept that this unknown book about death was based on. It wasn’t until being remembered as the author of Old Man’s War that I realized what I was actually reading. Now I à) have to go back and re-read with the proper mindset and b) am mildly disappointed that I didn’t get to see where that Big Idea was going.