The stories we are told as children make a difference: are other people basically kind or competitive? Is everybody beautiful or am I never good enough? Is death friend or enemy? I was told from an early age that while I would probably live to old age, I might get run over by a bus so I should value each day.

My parents were Christians but they didn’t worry about death and they didn’t believe in hell. The focus was all on how to live this life.

So, that’s cool. I have always known that death waits at the end of the road and sometimes nips up on you like a joker. Friend then, rather than foe. My nonchalance ended when my 92-year-old mother became very ill and entered a nursing home. She is lonely and confused. I am sometimes overwhelmed by sadness at what her life has become, and I fear it for myself. It is fear of dying rather than death – I know death is the end of consciousness and a welcome relief for an old body – but they are imaginatively connected. If dying means losing freedom and control, it sounds like being dead but alive enough to experience it, which is scary!

I aspire to grow old as Bertrand Russell advised: like a river which flows more quietly and eventually merges into the sea, not lost, just dispersed. We all influence and change each others’ lives in an endless evolution. Our moment passes but future generations stand on our shoulders. I hope the values I hold in life will serve me in dying – thinking of others as well as myself, making myself busy with lovely or helpful things, not off-loading too much on others – though at the age of 60 I still need lots of practice!

The End

I have felt the keen challenge of a brilliant new dawn and the still contentment of a garden at twilight, been entranced by the kaleidoscopic life in a sparkling rockpool and embraced by the beauty of an ancient forest. I have joined the excitement of a bustling city and dreamed in the transcendent solitude of a mountain vista. I have experienced the timelessness of helpless laughter and the fulfilment of a lifetime of love.

These are enough to make anyone grasp for permanence, but wishes do not change reality, and luckily so. Eternity would crush all the joy from life, as transience is essential to its value.

I will not throw away my one chance by waiting for a mythical perfection to come. I will goad this procrastinating sloth to wring the most out of my time and when it is done I accept it will be the end.

And as for legacy, I am amused to think that I will continue for a generation or two in the memories of others. The readers will sometimes ponder the author. One quarter of my genes will slowly be diluted further by my grandchildren and the molecules borrowed by my body will be shared throughout the world and beyond.

Eventually even the universe will end. It is now that matters.

I remember the moment when I realised that I was going to die. As a life-long atheist, I was aware that my existence was finite but, when I was around the age of ten, I comprehended the prospect of my own annihilation for the first time. The idea of death as a negation, a state of unbeing, became suddenly clear.

At the time, I was momentarily struck by paralysing fear and an urge to shrink away, to deny the reality of my mortality. I have regularly revisited that thought since and, although the fear has lessened with time and maturity, the idea of my death still has the ability to stun me. My fear of death is a fear of incapacity; of absence; of an inability to think, feel, and act as I want. Some of these things may well be visited on me by old age, injury, or dementia. I fear that too.

Yet my awareness of, and engagement with, my mortality has had a profoundly beneficial impact on my life. My fiancé’s parents believe in an afterlife and have asked me, with some curiosity, about my lack of belief in life after death. My slightly glib response was that mortality is a good motivator.

My awareness that I have one life, that every waking moment is precious and gone in an instant, gives me focus. I pour as much time and effort as I can into the things that matter most to me: family, friendships, and relationships; writing, reading, and music; and supporting causes that make a positive difference in the world. I want to make my finite life as meaningful and as packed-full with pleasure and personal achievement as I can, because it’s all I have.

I started to think about my mortality when my children were quite small, and it was largely a negative feeling, that my children needed me to be around for them, that it would be awful for them if their mother died while they were still so young. It was some years later when I felt that I could die now and my children would manage without me. It was a huge relief to know they were independent individuals who had developed their own identities.

When I was in my early 50s my husband died very suddenly; he killed himself after leaving a note saying he couldn’t cope. Early in my bereavement I felt I had no future, but despite the grief and shock I knew also that I wanted to live my own life to the full. I made positive changes in my work (becoming freelance) and in my lifestyle (giving up smoking) to ensure I was in the best possible place to enjoy the life I had in front of me. I’ve always embraced change, enjoyed making decisions and being in control of my own life.

Now I’m in my early 70s, and I think about my own death more often. I’m amazed to have lasted this long, as my father died when he was the same age I am now. I still want to pack in as much life as I can – I want to see my grandchildren grow up, and to continue to be healthy, active, constantly learning, and politically engaged. I want to be able to choose the timing of my painless, peaceful death and I’ve written my wishes for my funeral. Then, my only wish is that I am remembered by those who love me.

I have enjoyed the comfort and thrills of experiencing life with a loving partner for more years than I have without him. I have lived a life of love and fulfilment, of academic and career successes, with many joys and challenges, including raising a beautiful daughter. There’s still more to come, I hope – a new business venture, my daughter’s successes and even retirement in India (maybe). But I wouldn’t want to live forever. The certainty of death is my friend. A friend who helps me lead a good life, helps me to laugh and cry, to love, to take a risk, motivates me to be brave and say yes to experiences whilst I can.

As a child, I was reflective, gentle, and artistic. I was a dreamer and at one with nature – rational and unafraid of dying. I couldn’t remember being unborn, so I convinced myself I wouldn’t remember being dead. I reasoned that when the time comes, it will be okay to go back to the earth and allow other organisms to live through me. These thoughts from a young child may have been naïve, and admittedly they have become more challenging to maintain as an adult. It is painful to think of my loved ones in grief and I worry about the challenges they will face as they inherit this messy planet. I hope I will live through them as they inherit my behaviours and traits – hopefully the good ones! I am certain my legacy will be remembered through them, so I’m trying to make good memories and to tread lightly on this earth for the fleeting time I am lucky enough to be here.

My mother and my grandmother both dropped dead – out of the blue – apparently well and happy one minute, and dead the next. I am now 10 years older than my mother was when she died, and twenty years older than my grandmother. I have regularly taken funerals for people much younger than me and have recently been treated for cancer.

You might think I should be well aware of my mortality. But I am not yet living my life as if I know my days were limited. If I have any fears it is that I will die too late – after the ‘me’ that I know and care about is long gone. I am thinking now of the woman with dementia who could scream and cry for days on end. Death can be a friend that keeps away for too long.

Recently, I was meeting with a woman, diagnosed thirty years ago with cancer, who set out making happy memories for her children who were then quite young, and trying to ensure that they would be strong and independent for when she was no longer here. Thirty years on, with a life full of happy memories and now terminally ill, her awareness and acceptance of the imminence of death made her determined to enjoy every single minute she had left. Her life was so rich for it. Looking at a tree was blissful.

So I questioned myself: am I living as if I actually believed my days were limited? Is doing ‘life housekeeping’ – preparing for being dead – enough? The answer was clearly no, on both counts. So, I asked myself, if I knew for sure that I had a matter of weeks or months left, how would I be fully savouring my gift of life? And I am currently working on this.

Speaking to an elderly friend, at that time in his 90s, he described himself as being in the ‘departure lounge’. Whilst feeling I’m not quite there yet, I’ve certainly gone past ‘check in’ and ‘passport control’ with more years to look back on than I have left ahead of me.

When younger, I never thought much about dying. Although I was heart-broken at the deaths of my lovely grandparents it seemed like the natural order of events – after all they were a good few years older than me at the time. Beloved aunts and uncles followed, but once I was orphaned in my sixties my thoughts turned more to my own mortality – I’m next in line!

Although I happen to have other plans for tomorrow, if I dropped dead instead, I would at least die happy. I would be sad for my family, but I have tried to minimise any grief by making a will and also a ‘living will’ and putting my affairs in order. I hope that I will stay in their memories, as my loved ones who have died have stayed with me.

I am fortunate to have no complaints about my life. I have travelled extensively and done and seen things my ancestors could only have dreamt of – the memory of a desert night sky and the myriad stars continues to fill me with awe and wonder and reminds me of how small and insignificant we are. I like to tell my grandchildren that our atoms come from stardust!

I benefited from a good state education, a wonderful childhood in a loving family, a happy marriage, children, grandchildren and friends – so until my time comes when I head out of the ‘departure lounge’ I am glad of each new day – what’s not to enjoy!

A great hero of mine, Michel de Montaigne, wrote that perhaps all the wisdom in the world ultimately teaches us one thing: not to be afraid of dying. Once you lose that fear, he said, you can get on with life.

Thankfully, I lost that fear very early in life. My father died when I was a baby and consequently, although I had no emotional connection to him, there has always been a father-shaped hole in my life. It meant I understood from an early age about someone being – in those smiley photographs on his ship, and in the anecdotes told by those who knew him – and then not being. Visiting the very spot in Teignmouth where he drowned, by then a father myself, is probably the most emotionally powerful experience in my life – because it rammed home how arbitrary is the line between life and death.

Having no fear of death means that I can put all my energy into what really matters – making the most of life and helping others to try and do the same. That sounds virtuous, but if we have that mindset it helps retain our optimism – and that can brush off on others. Wherever possible, we can turn that into practical help too.

If Covid has taught me anything, it is that I have taken the simple things in life for granted, especially carefree social interaction with others. Perhaps the pandemic is also breaking the taboo of talking about death. I want to use that to help others to lose the fear and get on with life, like the man said.

My mother has had cancer twice and thankfully survived both episodes of illness, but we live with the shadow that it may return. This has brought my awareness of our relationship to a different and sometimes complex emotional place. My father/s and other relatives have equally been treated for cancer in alarming numbers. So, whilst Covid-19 has cast a shadow of fear of death globally, these realities have already played out for me and my family several times.

My brother-in-law currently has a terminal diagnosis of cancer and is living his remaining days in excruciating pain. We are only three months apart in age. As someone contemplating that I have at 45 likely lived over half my life, I can’t help but feel fortunate, whilst younger relatives and increasingly friends of my generation have since passed away. A close friend once told me aging is a privilege, having lost her own father suddenly in his forties. Years of indiscriminate loss of life around me has brought my mortality very much to the fore of my mind. Having had brushes with death, it has been survivor guilt that threatened to overwhelm me rather than fear of death itself. My hope is to have choice and dignity when it eventually comes for me.

Yet as a humanist I cherish life, love deeply, and endeavour to notice the seasons change, watch the sun set, and be here mindfully, now, without regrets. Life frequently challenges my philosophical efforts and I get distracted with stresses that in time I know will seem insignificant. I have spoken with my spouse and a few close relatives about our mortality and we have shared our wishes for the dealings of each of our deaths. In the meantime, I live each day reminding myself this life is truly spectacular.


As a confirmed humanist, I understand that when my body finally decides that enough is enough there will be no pearly gates; no paradise; no reunion with my loved ones long gone. That said, I must admit to a degree of envy of those who do believe that their end is not the end. How comforting that must be. However, for those of us who live in the real world, we must plan for the inevitable.

I have tried to live my life according to my humanist principles and so was thrilled when I found a way to extend those principles beyond the grave. When I die, my body will be whisked off to a designated medical school to be used for anatomical examination. How great to be able to contribute to medical knowledge for the benefit of mankind even in death. For me, death is about legacy – what we leave behind.

Life is about love, and death is about legacy. But how to combine the two?

Many years ago I took my lunch on a park bench that had carved into the backrest some words that have since provided me with the courage to face my inevitable death:

‘To live on in the hearts of those that love you is not to die.’

I am blessed with a loving, supportive family who, I know, will always remember me with a deep love and affection. Moreover, I have no doubt that our daughters and grandchildren will continue long after our deaths to adopt the humanist values that my wife and I hold dear.

If that is my legacy, I will die a contented man.

During my life I have been very fortunate, in that I have experienced and am experiencing many wonderful things, including great love. I have visited beautiful and interesting places, but have also had difficult times due to family illness. I derive great pleasure in talking to people from different cultures. These things all give perspective to life.

Being out in nature is important to me; I experience great pleasure in just looking at a tree, a river or a flower, or in seeing birds and animals. These vary so much depending on the light, the time of year and the situation.

My own mortality has only passed through my mind occasionally, though in a few weeks’ time I shall be the same age as my mother when she died. This fact is making me pause to reflect. As with many people getting older, I do have a fear of dementia. I really enjoy puzzles and games, especially with the thought that this may help to keep my brain functioning satisfactorily.

As a humanist, I believe that we have one life so must make the most of it and appreciate it to the full. We live on in the memories of other people, especially our family and friends.

I would like to have means to end my life if it becomes intolerable. Having that ability would, I think, be reassuring. I also fear not being able to action this myself. I have experienced three elderly relatives who, near the end wished their lives to end.

Being older also gives me the opportunity to reflect and focus on what is important to me in life and to savour it.

Humans are probably the first creatures that have evolved both a direct awareness of our own mortality and, through language, to be able to communicate the brute absurdity of our inevitable non-existence.

I would have loved to have been at the campfires of our ancestors as they collectively shared the emerging realisation that our embodied existence in this world is contingent and that our inevitable demise is a certainty. What a shocker!

This salience about our own individual non-existence is a scary thing for all of us at a deep, personal, subjective, emotional level. Our cognitive abilities have not really evolved sufficiently for any of us to truly touch directly at a deep level our own non-existence. None of us can physically kiss our own elbows, and likewise none of us can directly experience our own non-existence.

The resultant existential terrors have been a fertile ground for religions and all sorts of explanations that humans have developed throughout the ages to assuage our fears. We find our own paths to make the most of our lives – that brief moment in eternity when the light bulb of our own unique existence shines brightly as the filling in a dark sandwich of non existence marked by our birth and death!

This is why I am a humanist, a geoscientist, a husband, a friend, and a volunteer. I chose to focus on this one precious life that I experience directly and know about. I face squarely the mystery of existence authentically and with humour, and defy those who profess to know the answers as probably deluded. I yearn to live the most authentic, connected life I can, in all its glory and chaos, for myself and others, acknowledging honestly that this is all there is. This is it. Make the most of it.