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.

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!

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.

Attitude to Death 

As a 72 year old who’s highly vulnerable to COVID infection, I’ve had good reason to consider my mortality recently, and while I may claim not to fear death, I do fear dying alone on the ITU, away from my family.

In more normal times I suppose I view death as something to be postponed as long as possible, but because I can’t choose when to go, I have to (cliché alert) live each day as if it was my last. And I’m lucky – I have a good life, with a lovely family, a comfortable pension and reasonable state of health. This affords me the luxury of concentrating on the here and now and making what’s left of my life a good one, in line with my humanist principles. But it’s easy to imagine circumstances where that might not have been the case, and where I would now be viewing death as a release.

Of course, if I get time to prepare for death, rather than going under the wheels of a bus, there will be regrets at the stuff I’m going to miss as my children and grandchildren’s lives unfold, but I hope there will be some good memories for those who survive me. While I find it odd (doesn’t everyone?) to imagine the world going on without me, I remember that in a few billion years the sun will become a red giant and engulf the earth, so in the great scheme of things, mine is just one little life and my death will be equally inconsequential. From stardust we come, and to stardust we return, and while religious folk may find that a bleak outlook, I would rather rejoice while I can at the wonderful improbability of my brief existence.

In my late sixties, a routine blood test gave an off the scale reading. I knew I’d got a problem. The consultant confirmed the worst.

‘Is this going to kill me?’ I asked.

He didn’t mince words. ‘Most certainly it will’

Dozens of appointments and treatments followed and a lot of thinking. I decided to confront, not deny, to be happy, not miserable, and to use every minute.

For me, the issue has three parts.

One: That I’ll be dead. I really do believe it will be just like it was before I was born. So being dead holds no fears.

Two: The potential pain, indignity and distress of dying. I have always supported campaigns for assisted dying. Now I have even more reason to. I have spent time researching how I might protect myself and have taken what steps I can.

Three: The frustration of leaving the party while I’m still enjoying myself. I don’t begrudge others the fun they’ll have when I’ve gone, but I could be fed up thinking of all the happiness I’ll miss – my family and friends, especially the grandchildren growing up, the countryside, music, good beer, hot buttered toast and other pleasures of the flesh! So, I set about squeezing maximum enjoyment into what time there is – seeing more of the family, walking every day, exploring Wagner’s operas, drinking more beer, and the rest.

Postscript: My initial prognosis was two to three years. I’ve been spectacularly lucky. Things were not quite so bad – one important diagnostic parameter was atypical and deceptive. My salary package included health insurance which paid for an expensive, unproven but promising treatment not available on the NHS. Now, four years from diagnosis, I’m almost completely without symptoms and enjoying life – perhaps more even than I did before!

My Mortality is like the mirage-image ship above the horizon: it is not approaching, but it won’t vanish. One day, I may sense that it is nearing, but until then I won’t give it much thought.

Today, the weather-doll Life is out in the open, while Mortality has gone indoors. I’ve been enjoying a blackbird on the chimney, seeds sprouting in the cold-frame, the sounds of Bach and gutsy gusts. Seizing the day means that I’ll work, walk, write.

Humans, like a coral reef, are composed of infinitesimal cellular bodies of different shapes and sizes, beautiful and multi-coloured when alive, but white when dead. I’ll opt for the colour version while I can.

Still, I shall look forward to my final examination. Will I do? When I have no blood left to give, they can take away my body. The medical students who probe and explore will marvel, not at my wasted shape, but at the intricacies of the human body and its thirty-seven or so trillion cells. Until that day, I’ll carry on marvelling at Life.

All animals are the products of natural selection and it is unsurprising that one of the most important tasks of any nervous system is to identify circumstances leading to death or injury and to avoid them. Yet, as far as we can tell, humans are the only animals that are aware that death is sooner or later inevitable.

We can conjecture that when our ancestors first discovered this, it must have caused a debilitating fear. But to spend one’s life worrying about its end would not contribute to survival and reproduction, so mechanisms were selected to avoid this. The first is that we have acquired a wonderful ability to not think about it, despite its massive importance. The second is that we lower our critical judgement to accept fanciful stories about an afterlife.

Of course, the second of these adaptive mechanisms created an opportunity to practice the trade of shamans and priests. This is probably hundreds of thousands of years old, but I suspect that it became more organised when humans began to live in settled agricultural communities over 10,000 years ago.

We humanists have figured out that the priests’ stories are without evidence and the knowledge that we are the products of evolution makes it certain that animals simply cease to exist when they die. So what will it be like to be dead? It will not be like anything to not exist. If you would like to think what it was ‘like’ during the millions of years before you were born, that should give you an idea.

As I write this, I am approaching my 82nd birthday. I am using the defence of not thinking about it too much, and I will try to use whatever time remains as usefully as possible.

On mortality

To try to understand my own mortality I must look back at my life and look forward to my death. Mortality meaning the fact that I am subject to death, I am not immortal. In my mind I wish to dispute this solid truth. Although I am old, I try not to be old.

My death will be defined by my life; the life I have lived. On balance, without false modesty, I believe that I have been more positive rather than negative. I have experienced great successes and acknowledge dismal failures. Such has been my life’s pattern. I was an unwanted child but I am privileged to have known great love for forty years, from my wife who departed some years ago. In my life, I have touched people, influenced them or given cause for reflection. Those whom I have inspired or taught and, in more recent years perhaps, those whom I have married and the loved ones of those whose funerals I have conducted. I will have left behind some monuments, things that I have made or written, that will outlive me. Eventually, these also will fade away. So, what is this life of mine? I want to say that I have done my best to be a useful contributor to the kaleidoscope of events and philosophies that have surrounded me and, I suppose, none of us can ask for more than that.

I have no fear of death but great concern about the manner of my dying. I might come to the point where I am a burden on others or am stripped by disease of my dignity. If I see that coming I shall slip, quietly, away.

I am fortunate that my life has been a happy one. Now retired, my days still fill with simple pleasures, a favourite of which are walks with my wife Lek, our still-growing family, and my whippet. Lek and I treasure above all else these times spent with our family. But I am now getting close to the end of my life. This prospect does not trouble me greatly even though, as a scientist, I discounted long ago any supernatural explanation of life in favour of one based on natural forces, including evolution, genetics, and heredity. My own genetic make-up, inherited from my parents and theirs, has already been passed to our children and grandchildren in that cycle from birth to birth that bypasses death. Although I am saddened to think that my death may cause my family grief, they will surely be comforted knowing as they walk away from the grave, that they together represent more of me than lies behind. And they will know that I loved them each and that their company was my greatest pleasure. I find immense comfort also in knowing that the same ties of heredity binds us to all life on earth, in all its various forms. We must therefore be kind, and look after each other.

Looking towards my final days, I want to avoid that greatest of all indignities and distresses, of declining into mental confusion and helplessness. If that seems likely I have planned a merciful end to my own happy life.

My death is certain. There is no doubt. Life is not certain. It may be lost or hindered at any time. That is why it must be lived with purpose.

When I die I shall make way for those who follow, to build with renewed vigour and knowledge on the world as they find it, including the effects of my existence. I shall be no more than atoms available for recycling by some other animals, plants or rocks. Those who love me will be sad, that I regret, but lasting impressions have been made from the day I was born. My existence can never be erased. And that is surely more than enough.

Phil on Death

When did you first meet?

I first met Death when I was ten years old living in a boarding school. My grandmother and uncle died around the same time. I wasn’t allowed to go to the funerals. I became very depressed and it led me into an uncomfortable preoccupation with Death, which lasted for years.

When did you become friends?

I studied evolutionary theory at university and it is really through this that I recognised Life and Death as two great forces that drove creativity and change. They were both essential, and both responsible, for love, diversity and beauty.

What do you like most about Death?

As an artist I can’t help but be in awe of the power of death, the mystery and even the glamour. It can also be a motivation for exceptional behaviours, for creating and expressing life. Exquisite really…

What do you least like about Death?

I am still scared of Death. Of course I am. I can’t quite bring myself to accept Death. I hope that my ideas and actions live on, at least for a little while, in the memories of others.

Then finally, as my body balances on the cusp of nothingness, I will look back and know that I loved and cherished life. I think that will be my comfort.

‘I do not fear death’, said Mark Twain. ‘I was dead for billions of years before I was alive, and it caused me not the slightest inconvenience’. For me, the idea that my own mortality is something I have to ‘come to terms with’ is an odd one, like saying one has to come to terms with the fact that night follows day.

My consciousness and personality clearly cannot survive the death of my brain and the rest of my body. It’s obviously impossible. How could the various atoms and molecules which comprise my dead body somehow reform themselves into a version of myself and continue living in some way? And would I really want them to? Equally, the notion put forward by religions that human consciousness survives death in some ‘spiritual’ form can only ever be a matter of pure speculation and imagination. There is no evidence for it: on the contrary, all the evidence is that death is the end of the individual.

So I accept that after I am dead I will no longer exist, any more than I existed for the first 14 billion years following the Big Bang. The truly amazing thing is that I am alive right now, looking out of my conservatory window as I type this, watching the sparrows on the bird feeders, and admiring the snowdrops on the rockery as the weak February sunshine slants across them. For me to exist a certain sperm had to meet a certain egg. My parents had to be born and survive long enough to meet each other, as did their parents and their parents, and so on back (almost) ad infinitum. Being alive is so remarkably unlikely, statistically speaking, that it needs celebrating every moment of every day. So the answer to my own mortality is simple: I try to live healthily so as to postpone my death for as long as possible; and I try to live well and be happy while I am here.