Last Friday, I watched my father die.
It was the first time I had witnessed death in a human being, though I have seen it in animals. I will never forget what it looked like. The pallor of death is quite different from paleness due to shock or illness. Even before death arrives, the blood drains away from the face as if bleached, leaving behind something more like wax than human flesh.
Right up to the end, I knew he could hear. He tried to open his eyes when I spoke to him. He knew that my brother and I were there. I don’t know if he was in pain, but his breathing was distressed, so I asked the palliative care nurse to give him morphine. Perhaps the morphine stopped him fighting the process of death. He died shortly afterwards.
I have sung about death many times: in the classical song repertoire, death is almost as ubiquitous as love. And I have read many, many words about death. But nothing prepared me for this. So many of our ways of describing death are euphemistic. Perhaps we want to shy away from the brutal finality of death towards something gentler, something that preserves hope. Sleep, for example. “To die, to sleep,” says Hamlet. If the loved one is merely asleep, they will wake up, won’t they?
No. Death is nothing like sleep. Sleep is renewal of life and refreshment of consciousness. Death is extinguishing of life and crushing of consciousness. They are opposites. Of that I am now certain. I have seen my father asleep many times, and this was completely different. He did not “fall asleep”. He died.
I am also now as certain as I can be that consciousness does not survive death in any recognisable form. I did not witness my father’s consciousness “leaving”. It was more like a light going out. We don’t say the candle flame has “left” when it goes out. We say it has died. Similarly, we should not sanitise death by pretending that the light of consciousness has “left”. It has not. It has died.
My father is no longer there. He is no longer anywhere. His body still remains, for a short while, but all that made him who he was is gone forever.
And yet…..we are creatures of energy. Just as a candle flame consumes oxygen and wax, and dies when one or both runs out, so we consume physical energy sources – air, light, water, food – to maintain our life force, and we die when one or more of our energy inputs runs out. My father died when he could no longer take in enough oxygen. The pallor of death is hypoxia.
Energy never dies, it is merely transformed. So although my father’s life force no longer exists in a form recognisable as “Dad”, “Grandpa” or “Frank Cooke”, it is still with us. It has been transformed, not crushed out of existence.
I don’t know in what way life force is transformed at death. I don’t know what it becomes. And although I think consciousness is crushed beyond all recognition, I do not know to what extent it remains. Death is intensely personal: although I was present when my father died, only he experienced it, and he will never be able to tell me what it was like. As a Christian, my model is the transformation of Jesus after his resurrection: he was the same, and yet different. But the Christian model of resurrection is uncomfortably close to pretending that death is not really death at all, just another life phase. And so too are other models of resurrection or reincarnation. I don’t want to sanitise death. Death is final.
Death must be final, because otherwise we have too many excuses to treat life lightly. For too many centuries, the promise of “life after death” has been used to permit suffering and justify the brutal extinction of life for any reason or none. This life is horrible, but life after death will be much better. No, worse – the more you suffer in this life, the better life after death will be. These are the promises made by those who will do nothing to relieve suffering, who will condemn others to a life that is, in the words of Thomas Hobbes, “nasty, brutish and short”. They are snake oil.
Having seen my father die, I am more convinced than ever that we have only one life. Our job is to live it to the best, using our talents and abilities to the full, overcoming the constraints of our circumstances and our disabilities to the extent that we can. And because we are social creatures, living life to the full means helping others to make the best of their lives, too. Being truly human means giving the best that we have to offer without restraint, without counting the cost, and without any expectation of reward. Selfishness, that hoards what we do not need while those in need suffer, is inhuman.
Those who deliberately seek to deprive others of the opportunity to make the best of their abilities and overcome their circumstances are evil beyond belief. Depriving another person of any hope of a better life is the most terrible thing you can do to them. When hope is gone, life is not worth living – and there is no other life that we know about. Ending someone’s hope is tantamount to murder.
As I write, far too many people are being deliberately deprived of hope simply because they are the wrong colour, the wrong race, the wrong religion, the wrong sex, or have the wrong life circumstances. There is a mass outbreak of selfishness. The most obvious manifestation is the increasingly cruel treatment of refugees and economic migrants in many countries, including my own. These people have committed no crime. All they are doing is seeking a better life – which is what they, like us, are placed on this earth to do.
And yet – migrants still have hope, or they would not be migrants. This is perhaps what fuels the anger of those who want them shut out, brutalised, condemned to a horrible death. If you are poor in the richest countries on earth, what hope is there for you? Where can you go to find a better life? Migrants are richer than you, because they have hope and you do not. Despair is found even among those who are, in global terms, rich, when their hopes are dashed without reprieve.
As long as there is hope, there is life after death. Never again will I be able to sing the words “Ich starre dann, mit nassem Blick, und totenbleich und hager, den Himmel an” from Brahms’s song An die Nachtigall without seeing my father’s waxen face. But the song ends with hope, and the prospect of new life: “Fleuch, Nachtigall, in grüne Finsternisse, ins Haingesträuch, und spend’ im Nest der treuen Gattin Küsse. Entfleuch!”.
My father is gone, but I live on, and so do my children, his descendants. The night after he died, my daughter and I shared a meal and a bottle of wine, and watched a film together. Families are eternal, and life is good.
Reflections on death and immortality
Video is An Die Nachtigall, Brahms, performed by Anna Hofmann, soprano. Lyrics and translation can be found here.