I go, and it is done

What is the meaning of Death; for that matter, what is Death? When I was a very young child, I didn’t understand why my parents were upset when I used to wander off to play on the banks of the fast-flowing river near our house. I realized why they might be concerned when I ventured onto a busy road, or when I insisted  on climbing higher on the tree in our back yard: I might get hurt, and I knew what it meant to feel pain. But Death? That was beyond me. And anyway, Death was something you didn’t actually feel, they tried to tell me; it just happened, I think they said.

 So, for me, Death happened in other things -not in me things. Death meant that an insect, or whatever, no longer moved, no longer did insect things; and furthermore, it would never do them again. Never. And yet, that seemed inconceivable for the I that lived inside me. Pain, the occasional stranger who played beside me, I knew quite well; the forever-unmoving Death, however, played with others -and only with careless others with no parents around to protect them.

But Time and the ever accumulating weight of years eventually sprinkled Death around me and I came to understand that I was not immune. Even I would cease to do me things; even I, would stop. Perhaps it’s only the increasing infirmity of Age that allowed it access to my thoughts, and the budding realization that I have lived a full and largely gratifying life that has finally left the door unlocked. And there you have it: I can now appreciate the epilogue years that attempt to justify and understand all the days past and the tired and halting shuffle towards the slowly opening gate at the end of the garden.

And yet, is the expectation of Death, the awareness of its approaching footsteps, a uniquely human thing? Are we the only creatures who cry about how bright their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay, and wonder about the dying of the light -to paraphrase the words of Dylan Thomas? I’m not so sure anymore.

I wandered into an essay a while ago by Susana Monsó, at the time an assistant professor at UNED (the National University of Distance Education) in Madrid, entitled ‘What animals think of death’. https://aeon.co/essays/animals-wrestle-with-the-concept-of-death-and-mortality

As she writes, ‘Our concept of death is one of those characteristics, like culture, rationality, language or morality, that have traditionally been taken as definitional of the human species.’ And yet, there are other frameworks in which to conceptualize Death. ‘Understanding death does not require grasping its inevitability… the concept of death is simply made up of two notions: non-functionality and irreversibility. This means that all an animal needs to grasp in order for us to be able to credit her with some understanding of death is that dead individuals don’t do the sorts of things that living beings of her kind usually do (ie, non-functionality) and that this is a permanent state (ie, irreversibility). This minimal concept of death requires very little cognitive complexity.’ A child could understand…

Monsó goes on to describe how some animals feign death to fool predators -either by tonic immobility, a kind of paralysis, or by something called thanatosis, where there is a more physiological depiction of death with, say, tongue hanging out, bowels and bladder emptying and, in the case of the Virginia opossum, even emitting an off-putting odour of death. But even this might not dissuade scavengers like vultures and the like because they, as their designation implies, scavenge things already dead; they do not hunt to kill, and presumably have acquired adaptive defense mechanisms to prevent them from acquiring disease from seemingly rotting cadavers.

My point, though, is that there must be some appreciation of death in these death-feigning animals -although not necessarily an existential one like Hamlet’s ‘Alas, poor Yorick’ in the gravedigger scene. For most animals, there is unlikely to be an appreciation of the fleeting nature of Life, nor a concession that the predator, too, has to eat. Still, could there be a vague understanding in some that this, after all, is the way the world works?

Perhaps death is experienced quite differently in various taxa. Many years ago when I lived close to a large lake, I remember seeing a swarm of what I assumed were mayflies hovering around the shore. At first I was annoyed when I was sitting on a rock trying to read while they kept bumbling into me, so I closed the book and walked along the stony beach to get away from them. I did manage to outmaneuver the main swarm I remember, but then I became concerned that so many of them were fluttering helplessly on the shore. Poor things, I thought, witnessing what I assumed were casualties that were trying desperately to regain the air. I even reached down to help a few of them and carefully launched them from my hand, only to see them flail helplessly to the ground again. What I interpreted as suffering appeared so pointless to me at the time -an unnecessary agony.

Only later did I read that, although their development as nymphs can last for as long as a year; their winged adult stages that are easily visible to us, last only a few hours, to a day or two; and their only purpose then is to reproduce, so they have no useable mouthparts or gills. There is no need for food; they need only procreate and they are done because their purpose is accomplished. Death, then, is merely absence.

But, the more I thought about it, the more I wondered whether this apparently cruel disappearance was really an apotheosis -the culmination of a job well-done. And perhaps what I was interpreting as agonal suffering was actually the arrival of a long anticipated joy: a release, of sorts -a climax, if you will. We all die in our own way.

How can I know what another creature might feel under circumstances so different from my own? Perhaps what I was witnessing was simply the welcome end to a life well-lived. And that, after all, is what we hope it’s really all about…

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