Death, Dying & Disaster
A Humanist contribution to a Forum of Faiths, Suffolk College, 11 October 2006
Humanists think we can be good without God. We’re atheists or agnostics. There are other words to describe a positive, non-religious approach to life; they include secularist, rationalist and freethinker. I particularly like the last one. Humanists are independent thinkers, so it’s sometimes hard to agree. However, there are some things that we do agree about, and one is the notion of an afterlife; we don’t think there is one. In fact, I’d be disappointed if I find there is one; I find the idea very unattractive.
We’re here to talk about death, dying and disaster. I have some experience of the first two (though not first-hand, obviously) but not of the last.
Since 1991, I’ve conducted nearly a thousand funeral ceremonies, so I’ve listened to what other people have thought about death and dying. Sometimes people who’ve been diagnosed with a terminal illness have asked to see me and shared their thoughts about something that many prefer not to think about. I’ve been impressed by those whose thoughts were about the effect their death would have on their loved ones, rather than about themselves, and by the way that some retain a sense of humour even when they’ve been very ill.
I’ve had to consider my own death because I’m a cancer survivor. I’ve got so many things wrong with me that I’ll be surprised if I make it past my mid-seventies, which is how old my parents were when they died.
So these are my credentials, when it comes to talking about death and dying. I’m talking from personal experience. Humanists don’t have a rule book, the equivalent of a holy book for religious people. We don’t usually presume to talk on behalf of anyone else, though I do when it comes to asserting our right to live freely in an open secular society, without having other people’s beliefs imposed on us.
In a couple of days, I’ll sign my new will. The reason so many people die intestate, or without a will, may be because they feel that if they don’t acknowledge the prospect of dying, it’ll never happen. Michel de Montaigne, a 16th century French philosopher, wrote, “Make room for others, as others have done for you.” Once you’ve accepted your mortality, he said, you’re free to make the most of life.
In my will, I specify who’ll receive all my worldly goods. I’m leaving my body to the anatomists at Cambridge University, who’ll use it to educate medical students. Not all Humanists donate their whole bodies, but from what I’ve heard, most carry a donor card.
As I said, we don’t expect an afterlife; when you’re dead, you’re dead, as far as we’re concerned, though this doesn’t mean that our bodies shouldn’t be treated with respect. However, we don’t expect any special rituals to be performed when we die. Our families are free to choose how to dispose of our bodies, though they’re likely to try to do appropriately. I’ve heard some old atheists say, “just put me on the tip” or “stick me on the compost heap.” Strangely, it is possible to end up in a compost heap; the Swedes have recently devised a method of freeze-drying bodies, which can then be safely used to boost your garden’s fertility.
The only people who’ve been denied a funeral or some other way of marking their deaths, have been criminals, soldiers who’ve died in battle, or those who’ve been caught up in some horrible disaster. When someone’s body is destroyed, there’s nothing to confirm what you might find hard to accept; that they’re really dead. These days forensic scientists can do what their predecessors couldn’t; they can identify someone from tiny fragments of DNA. There’s a fashionable term about needing to find a body, such as that of a murder victim; it’s “closure”. I’m not convinced there is any such thing, though it is important to know what happened to someone you’ve lost.
Grief is the consequence of love, when a loved one dies. As I’ve pointed out many times, if we never loved, we’d never have to grieve for anyone, but what sort of a life would that be?
Death isn’t all about doom and gloom. When someone has lived into old age and had a good, useful life, he or she will be missed but without regret or too much sadness. When someone has suffered a painful illness, people will say they’re relieved it’s all over. As the Roman philosopher poet Lucretius said of death, “From sense of grief and pain we shall be free; we shall not feel, because we shall not be.”
For some, dying is all over in an instant, as it was for my mother. She’d have hated to die like my dad, who took over a year to go. We’re fortunate to live in a society with a high standard of public health, healthy food, and amazing medical science, so we mostly expect to live into old age. When someone dies young, people ask why. Was it something he or she did or didn’t do? Was it something you could have done? In most cases, there wasn’t anything anyone could do. Considering how amazingly complex the human body is, it’s not surprising that things sometimes go wrong, and all over the world, the death rates are higher for young men than young women because of their lifestyles and risk-taking; the majority of those killed on the roads are young drivers.
As for disasters; with all the stuff about terrorism in the news these days, you’d be forgiven for feeling apprehensive about finding yourself in the middle of one. The odds are strongly against it. You’re far more likely to have an accident at home or on the road than to be killed by a suicide bomber. If you lived in Iraq, it would be different. However, if you were caught up in a disaster, I think most people would help you. That’s what’s happened on many occasions. My son questioned this when I wrote it; he wonders if people are as unselfish as I suggest. My feeling is that many are wary of getting involved if someone’s in difficulties but in a crisis, most people will help. Natural human altruism kicks in, the old “do as you would be done by” response. There’ll always be selfish people who climb over everyone else to escape or who won’t do anything but whinge, but they’re in a minority.
As you’ve probably guessed, I could talk about these things a lot longer, but I only have seven minutes. I could live a lot longer, but I may only have a few hours – you never know. Because none of us knows how long we’ve got, we shouldn’t postpone doing anything that’s really important. Show someone you love them; climb a mountain; write a book. Whatever matters to you, do it. If it doesn’t matter, and you don’t want to do it, don’t do it. As the Roman poet Horace said, Carpe Diem, or seize the day.