frequent references to death have piqued the interest of a lady named Ruth
Ostermyer, or at least aroused her curiosity, for she writes to ask if I
regard death as the end or the beginning of things vital.
presume she means whether I subscribe to the theological concept of life
after death or the cynical theory of the final, irrevocable curtain; or
perhaps to a confessed uncertainty, like Henley's "horror of the
this is a subject that has fascinated and intrigued mankind from the
beginning of time, and has engaged the attention of all philosophers. I
suppose a man becomes a philosopher in the first place by reason of a
certain perplexity from which he seeks to free himself, and what question is
more perplexing than this, with its conclusions rooted in faith? Emerson
says the faith that stands on authority is not faith. So men believe or
disbelieve, and rarely do they cast about for proofs and supporting
evidence—unless they are philosophers or scientists.
is no death," said Longfellow unequivocally, "what seems so is transition;
this life of mortal breath is but a suburb of the life elysian, whose portal
we call death."
is indeed a great deal of learned support for the conviction that death is,
in the words of Milton, "the golden key that opens the palace of
death the last sleep?" asked Scott, and proceeded to answer himself
firmly: "No, it is the last and final awakening."
belief has been accepted by many profound thinkers. The ancient Hindus
admonished all to grieve neither for the living nor the dead . . .
"Never did we not exist, nor will any of us ever hereafter cease to
Pindar: "All human bodies yield to Death's decree; the soul survives to
there is a whole history of scientific and intellectual literature on the
other side of the question; there are, too, diversions and tangents which
serve to obscure and confuse.
example, devachan cannot be squared with faith-rooted acceptance of
the soul's immortality, although it embraces the philosophy of spiritistic
phenomena. The devachanee professes to know; he is a devotee of occultism
whose pretensions to divine wisdom, based on a theosophic concept of
extraordinary illumination, lead him to certain, assured enjoyment of life
farther removed from pure belief is metamorphosis, although this
materialistic approach has persisted in varying degrees for centuries.
original exponent, Pythagoras the Samian, preached the doctrine of the
transmigration of souls. He insisted that he himself at the time of the
Trojan Wars was Euphorbus, son of Panthus, who fell by the spear of Menelaus,
cuckolded spouse of Helen, daughter of Jupiter and paramour of Paris of
widespread was the influence of the theosophist of Crotona that his
disciples held no regard at all for life, considering it merely a transitory
state in present form.
through the ages has been inclined to scoff at death; whether its
practitioners believed in reincarnation, or accepted unending existence as a
fact in faith, or felt death was truly the end of the road, they yet held it
only dreadful thing about death is man's judgment that it is dreadful,"
said Epictetus nineteen hundred years ago. Even earlier, Epicurus deprecated
worry on so uncontrollable a subject: "The draught swallowed by all of
us at birth is a draught of death . . . against all else it is
possible to provide security, but as against death all of us mortals alike
dwell in an unfortified city." And long before that, Sangaya
recorded in the Epic Phagavadgita:
"To one that is born, death is certain; to one that dies, birth
is certain. Grieve not about this unavoidable thing .... what occasion is
there for lamentation?"
the old boys took a dim view of life. The difficulty, said Socrates, is not
to avoid death but to avoid unrighteousness, "for that runs
faster than death," and the great Athenian translated his words into
action when he drank the poison potion after spurning proffers of release.
Plato, his pupil and chronicler, added: "Think not of life first, and
of justice afterward, but of justice first."
was this strictly a Grecian approach, this disregard for earthly existence.
The Romans waged war, as they said, to reduce the over-vehement heat of
youth: "to lop off sprigs and thin the branches of the over-spreading
tree, growing too rapidly in the foliage."
ancients actually embraced death, accepted it eagerly as something to be
desired, just as the Kamikaze of Japan were taught to do during the war by
alluring portraits of the life to come.
tells us that Agamedes and Trophonius, the architects who built the temple
Apollo at Delphi, begged the sun god to give them "that which is best
for men." Cynthius promised their wish should be fulfilled on a
stipulated day. When the day came, both died.
cites the case of Bitone and Cleobis, devoted sons of the priestess Cydippe,
who prayed to Hera to grant them what was best of all gifts for mortals. During
the night both died in their sleep.
some extent this disdain for materialism has come down through the ages.
Schopenhauer, the philosopher of disillusion and doom, held a scant century
ago that the world is only object in relation to subject, anyway; perception
of a perceiver— an ideal. "Man knows not a sun and earth but only an
eye that sees a sun, a hand that feels an earth," he taught, and as the
world exists only through the understanding, it exists only for the
understanding. To Schopenhauer, death was preferable to ignorance and error:
"Nothing-serves as a mode of escape from suffering except death."
too, found death "the liberator of him whom freedom cannot release; the
physician of him whom medicine cannot cure; the comforter of him whom time
cannot console." Hawthorne saw death as surcease: "We sometimes
congratulate ourselves at the moment of waking from a troubled dream; it may
be so the moment after death."
more fanciful poet, Swinburne, put it this bluntly realistic way in The
Triumph of Time: "At the door of life, by the gate of breath, there
are worse things waiting for men than death."
gods," old Lucan wrote, "conceal from men the happiness of death,
that they may endure life."
looked long and quizzically upon the subject of life and death, found the
former scarce worth the candle, the latter so desirable that he felt it
incumbent to warn against seeking it prematurely. Thus the dying Hamlet,
imploring Horatio against draining the poisoned cup: "Absent thee from
felicity awhile, and in this harsh world draw thy breath in pain to tell my
wounds heal ill," Patroclus warns in Troilus and Cresside,
"that men do give themselves." And Edgar in King Lear:
"World, world, O world! But that thy strange mutations make us hate
thee, life would not yield to age."
Bard could deal flippantly with death. Antony's and Cleopatra's Order of the
Inimitable Livers is supplanted, after his defeat at Augustus Caesar's hand,
by the Order of the Diers Together, not one whit inferior to the other in
splendor, luxury, and sumptuosity. "The stroke of death,"
Cleopatra vouchsafes, "is as a lover's pinch, which hurts, and is
his calm acceptance of death's inevitability, Shakespeare echoed the
philosophers of old. Thus the Queen in Hamlet: "All that lives
must die, passing through nature to eternity."
noble Prince of Tyre, knew the key to the boundless abyss of the past and
future into which all things disappear: "Time's the king of men; he's
both their parent and their grave, and gives them what he will, not what
Julius Caesar and Brutus philosophized upon death in Shakespeare's gifted
hands. Said Pompey's conqueror: "Cowards die many times before their
deaths; the valiant never taste of death but once. Of all the wonders that I
yet have heard, it seems to me most strange that man should fear, seeing
that death, a necessary end, will come when it will come." And the
noblest Roman of them all: "That we shall die, we know; 'tis but the
time and drawing days out, that men stand upon."
Marcius in Coriolanus spelled out the type of men he wanted around
him: "If any fear lesser his person than an ill report; if any think
brave death outweighs bad life, and that his country's dearer than
English general Siward, told of his young son's death at the hands of
Macbeth, reacted with Stoic indifference, with Buddhist calm: "Had I as
many sons as I have hairs, I would not wish them to a fairer death: and so,
his knell is
could be unfeeling, as witness the prologue to Comedy of Errors:
"Hopeless and helpless doth Aegon wend, but to procrastinate his
lifeless end." But he also has Capulet say of Juliet: "Death lies
on her like an untimely frost upon the sweetest flower of all the
field." And in Love's Labor Lost, Berowne protests: "To move wild
laughter in the throat of death? It cannot be; it is impossible; mirth cannot
move a soul in agony."
known, of course, of Shakespeare's penetrating poetic analyses of life and
death is the melancholy passage by the disillusioned Macbeth:
and tomorrow, and tomorrow, Creeps in this petty pace from day to day, To
the last syllable of recorded time; And all our yesterdays have lighted
fools The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle! Life's but a walking
shadow, a poor player That struts and frets his hour upon the stage, And
then is heard no more; it is a tale Told by an idiot, full o-f sound and
fury, Signifying nothing.
two thousand years before the Bard fingered his first quill, Aristotle took
cognizance of the appeal in death, and found it advisable to warn against
self-destruction. "To die to escape from poverty or love or anything
painful," he wrote in his Nicomachean Ethics, "is not the
mark of a brave man, but rather of a coward, for it is softness to fly from
what is troublesome."
would indeed appear that death held no terrors in those days of antiquity.
When the temple of life no longer afforded a santuary, many took refuge at a
mightier altar, freeing themselves from travail and laughing to scorn the
cruelty of fate.
the feeling that death is release, escape, has to some extent persisted; at
least, placid acceptance. Thus Edwards observes that one of the great
lessons of the fall of the leaf teaches us this: "Do your work well,
and then be ready to depart when God shall call."
applied the force of his intellect to this subject and reasoned: "One
may live as a conqueror, a king, or a magistrate, but he must die a man.
The bed of death brings every human being to his pure individuality, to the
intense contemplation of that deepest and most solemn of all relations—
the relation between the creature and his Creator."
most pithy and succinct apothegm on death, perhaps, was uttered eighteen
hundred years ago by the great Roman emperor, Antoninus: "Thou hast
embarked, thou hast made the voyage, thou art come to shore: get out."
for me, I have no profound observations, certainly nothing to add to the
writings on this fundamental subject through the years. I don't suppose the
prospect or sight of death ever is pleasant, except perhaps when it involves
a mosquito that has just nipped you. Timorous as I am, I'm not overly
squeamish in death's presence, for I was subjected to an early baptism.
wasn't seventeen yet, covering the old Pyne Poynt beat in North Camden for
the Courier, when I ran up against death in perhaps its most
revolting aspects. The old city morgue was on my beat, at 5th and Arch, and
part of my job was to view the remains of derelicts, accident victims,
murderees and others, unidentified, waiting on a cold slab for a possible
claimant. My first case was a girl who had been pulled out of the Delaware
some three weeks after plunging into it.
is not a preservative.
also was my unpleasant duty to be present when relatives or friends looked
upon a once smiling face and provided identification.
can be horrible.
being fanatical about it, I can say firmly, with certainty, that I am a
believer, and my belief is based not so much on blind, unquestioning faith
as on commonsense appraisal. Notwithstanding Einstein's equations, the
splitting of the atom, the harnessing of hydrogen, there are too many
unexplained mysteries to say of our amazingly complete, complex,
comprehension-defying world: "This is man's work."
is not man's work—it cannot be. It is too vast, too intricate,
too old, too everything to brook mortal explanation; the perfection of its
operation too astounding for frail, error-fraught human achievement. This
paltry little dog-cage of an earth that waited thousands of years to uncover
the secrets of aerodynamics and aerostatics, of electrokinetics and
electrolysis, of radio and radiography, cinematography and cinerama could no
more have conceived and executed our habitable
and habilable globe than Gorgidas' Sacred Band of three hundred Thebans
could have withstood a modern army.
marveled at the Colossus of Rhodes, a mere 126-feet-high brass statue; paid
homage to Mnesicles, the architect who designed the Acropolis. Hannibal,
wily, crafty leader of the Carthaginians, master of traps and ambuscades,
won the battle of Casilinum by lighting fagots on the heads of two thousand
oxen! Great Marcellus was confounded by the geometrical engines of
Archimedes the Syracusan. It was out of such crude Teufelschmiele,
such a devil's smithy of a world that Man, as in Prospero's island wonderlighted,
wonderbodied himself forth, scarcely knowing the difference between darkness
and light, between Nifl and Muspel. The wonder is that any
survived those unenlightened days of incredible cruelty, of human
sacrifice when the so-called higher animals knew no more about the
systole and diastole of the heart than of centrifugal and centripetal
how far have we progressed? We still are, in the biting words of Carlyle,
"little visual spectra of men, hovering with insecure enough cohesion
in the midst of the unfathomable, to dissolve therein, at any rate, very
soon," and yet rarely content to wait, intermittently exploding one
another into dissolution. "What with the labors and ardent genius of
our scientists," the satirist tells us with tongue-in-cheek irony in
Sartor Resartus, "it has come about that now the Creation of a World is
little more mysterious than the cooking of a dumpling!"
must needs laugh outright," said von Trimberg, scornfully, "to see
his wondrous manikins here below."
all our progress has brought us no closer to a solution of the Great Mystery
than Newton's vague wave of the hand toward Fortune's wheel in the
expositive delineation of his corpuscular theory of light— his corpuscles,
he said, were subject to alternate fits of easy transmission and easy
reflection. "We are like children playing with pebbles on the seashore
while the great ocean of truth rolls, unexplored, beyond our reach,"
admitted the mathematician in his Philosophiae Naturalis Principia
Mathematica— even after the apple hit him on the head.
hasn't been a hundred years since Comte, the French sociologist who founded
positivism, conceded that "our intellectual resources are too narrow,
and the universe is too complex, to leave any hope that it will ever be
within our power to carry scientific perfection to its last degree of
Darwin the evolutionist, with his theory of gradual development of plants
and animals—"species are produced and exterminated by slowly acting
and still existing causes, and not by miraculous acts of
creation"—acknowledged the existence of God and saw nothing
inconsistent between his doctrine and his early religious training. To him
it was simply inconceivable that the busy Lord should have bothered
himself with each of the multitudinous forms and varieties of life:
"From the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object
which we are capable of receiving, namely, the production of the higher
animals, directly follows. There is grandeur in this view of life, with its
several powers, having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few
forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on
according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless
forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being
our own day, the brilliant astronomer Eddington, he who coined such terms as
mind-stuff reality (loud cheers), hero now, took a typically discerning look
at the whole matter. Here is his conclusion: "Descriptions of the
phenomena of atomic physics have an extraordinary vividness. We see the
atoms with their girdles of circulating electrons darting hither and
thither, colliding and rebounding. Free electrons torn from the girdle hurry
away a hundred times faster, curving sharply round the atoms with side
slips and hairbreadth escapes. The truants are caught and attached to the
girdles and the escaping energy shakes the aether into vibration.
impinge on the atoms and toss the electrons into higher orbits. We see these
electrons falling back again, sometimes by steps, sometimes with a rush,
caught in a cul-de-sac of metastability, hesitating before forbidden
it all the quantum h regulates each change with mathematical
precision. This is the sort of picture that appeals to our
understanding—no insubstantial pageant to fade like a dream. The spectacle
is so fascinating that we have perhaps forgotten that there was a time when
we wanted to be told what an electron is. The question was never answered.
No familiar conceptions can be woven round the electron; it belongs to the
waiting list. Similarly the description of the processes must be taken with
a grain of salt. The tossing up of the electron is a conventional way of
depicting a particular change of state of the atom which cannot really be
associated with movements in space as macroscopically conceived.
unknown is doing we don't know what—that is what our theory amounts
and scoffers may liken our reliance on a Supreme Being to the heathen's
belief in idols, to the ancient's worship of mythological gods— and call
it all superstition, self-delusion.
when I behold the mighty firmament and consider the precision with which it
all functions; when I think of the study and work that goes into the
manufacture of a mere motor and then place it in my mind's eye against the
incomprehensible, awesome machine that is the universe; when I marvel at the
process of reproduction, and see something as minutely perfect as a child
shaped from nothing— from less than nothing; when I grope for some
realization of the enormity of existence and the way factors of space, time,
gravity, solar attraction, symbiosis, isostacy complement one another in
orderly teamwork; when I strive to understand how I can be always moving in
three directions at unbelievable speed and yet am seemingly motionless: (1)
the earth is rotating on its axis, (2) it is racing on its orbit around the
sun, (3) the sun is carrying the earth and me with it through space, all
simultaneously and all without mishap— and without disturbing my
equilibrium and equanimity— I know such omnipresent, omniscient and
omnipotent, albeit commonplace miracles cannot be explained by any
scientific formula or theory.
agree with the scholars that death is nothing to be feared, for what can
we gain by fearing it? Fear is a useless flagellant, anyway. But that is
not to say that I wouldn't dislike dying, and wouldn't fight against the
sweet light of ebbing life with all the strength at my command. I enjoy
living too much to surrender easily to death. Maybe, as Plutarch said, in
ceasing to be numbered with mortals we enter upon the heritage of a diviner
life; "the briefer life, the earlier immortality," as Millman put
it— but I can wait. I'm in no hurry.
what I'd have missed if I had died yesterday; and what I'll miss if I die
today! But if I do, grieve not for me: I'm away ahead of the game. I've
has been my credo that insofar as life is concerned, it's not length that
counts so much as breadth. I realize that I've roamed and rambled all
over the center spread and still haven't answered the question. The truth is
that I don't know the answer, nor have I any really well-considered
convictions on the subject. But come what may, I can face up to it and
accept the inevitable. I think, when the time comes, I will be able to
embrace death without cringing. Emerson didn't mean me when he wrote:
"The sinews and heart of man seems to be drawn out, and we are become
timorous, desponding whimperers. We are afraid of truth, afraid of fortune,
afraid of death, and afraid of each other .... We shun the rugged battle of
fate, where strength is born. We are parlor soldiers."
would rather say with Epicurus: "I have anticipated thee, Fortune, and
entrenched myself against all thy secret attacks. And we will not give
ourselves up as captives to thee or to any other circumstance; but when it
is time for us to go, spitting contempt on life and on those who here vainly
cling to it, we will leave life crying aloud in a glorious triumph-song that
we have lived well." Dum vivimus, vivamus. So be it..