During the COVID 19 pandemic, death has permeated our cultural consciousness—and it’s terrifying. We have been conditioned by our culture to avoid thinking about death. Scientific studies have even shown that the same neural circuits that give rise to the mind, filter out thoughts about our own demise. As an interfaith fellow, I have learned a lot about different theistic perspectives on death. Like how most forms of Hinduism advocate for reincarnation of the soul to a different form, or how Christian and Islamic traditions endorse the view that the soul is transported to another realm like Heaven or Jannah. But to achieve a full understanding of death, non-religious viewpoints are useful as well.
My own studies of philosophy have led me to consider more secular ideas about death. From Socrates’ famous claim that death is a blessing to Heidegger’s concept of “Being towards death”, philosophical analyses of death help one internalize the finite nature of life and examine whether one is living a truly authentic life. Even more contemporary ideas like Dr. Paul Kalanithi’s ruminations about the fragility, beauty and sense of urgency that comes with living a human life contribute to the discourse on death. Maybe there is reincarnation or an afterlife. Maybe the only certainty about death is the cold reality of oblivion. I don’t know, but I think theists and atheists both cling to the core idea that some part of us persists after death. That could be our souls, but also the idea that our actions and choices reverberate and echo beyond the grave, shaping the world that we are fated to leave behind. If one’s life on this earth in its current form lasted for eternity, most choices would not carry the same consequences because there would be an infinite amount of time to correct/reverse our decisions. Death is what gives weight and finality to the decisions and desires we have sewed into the tapestry of human history and experience. Death gives these choices meaning.
It’s the unfortunate reality that pandemics and tragedies are usually the only things that lead us to really ponder the implications of death. Death is part of life: engaging with death and having internal reflections within oneself can lead to a richer and more complete understanding of the world and ourselves. When the philosopher Heidegger was asked at a lecture how to find more meaning in life, he answered that you could start by spending more time in graveyards. Quarantine is the perfect opportunity to grapple with our own mortality and really evaluate how we are spending our precious amount of time on this earth.