Illustration by Martin Rowson

This article is a preview from the Winter 2017 edition of New Humanist.

Death is a fundamental feature of our lives. Fear of death has been present in most cultures for a very long time. It is a basic human emotion, and affects nearly all of us. In the whole animal kingdom, we humans are the only creatures aware of death. “The fear of death is worse than death,” wrote Robert Burton, in The Anatomy of Melancholy (1621). Long before this, Aristotle had argued that we should learn to accept death as a part of life. Easier said than done, maybe.

Both the Bible and the Koran have important views about the fear of death, and the basic premise of many religions is that there is some form of life after death, which is more glorious than the life we lived before on earth. I would argue, like the anthropologist Bronisław Malinowski, that religion itself had its origin in relation to death by introducing a belief system that helps to reduce the fear of it.

My own belief is that once humans developed tools and began to understand cause and effect, and language evolved, it was inevitable that people should want to understand the causes and the nature of the major events that affected their lives. They wanted to know the causes of death and what happened when we died. The one causative agent that our ancestors were sure about was their own and other peoples’ actions, and this led to belief in human-like gods who could account for death and an afterlife. The earliest evidence for religious thinking is based on how the dead were treated, and their burial with various objects such as stone tools and animal bones, which implies a belief in an afterlife controlled by gods.

By contrast the simple view held by most atheists and humanists, and myself, is that once dead we are dead, despite the fact that more than half of the public in the UK and US believe in life after death, for which there is zero reliable evidence. Reports of near-death experiences, which are quite common, are essentially mystical, and tell us nothing about death itself.
Fear of death occurs in some children as young as three years old. But very young children think of death as being like going to sleep, not as something final. Once they better understand the biology of death – maybe when a pet dies – there is less fear. Older children realise that death is permanent, and will happen to us all, but fear of it can continue through adolescence.

Soldiers may have to deal with the death of their enemy or their own, and this can cause paralysing fear. In order to avoid this, the United States has spent a lot of time and money on developing basic technical training that ­involves simulating a battlefield. A successful soldier has to be ­exceptionally tough, both mentally and physically.

For most of us, the prospect of death is, at the very least, unsettling, and, at the worst, terrifying. If we know that we have a terminal illness, we may become reconciled to it, but this is not always an easy state to achieve. For our loved ones watching, it can be even harder.

Being religious serves to reduce certain fears about death, such as fear of the unknown, The Ars Moriendi, or “art of dying,” from the 15th century, which was widely read in Europe and illustrated with sometimes frightening woodcuts, tried to help Christians die well. It provided practical guidance on how to avoid temptations presented by the devil, such as despair. It tried to persuade the ­dying to maintain their faith, prescribed rites and prayers, and instructed those around the dying person on how to help achieve a “good death”. Today, we have no such ­practical manual.

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Part of the mythology of death is the existence of the soul. The 17th-century philosopher and scientist René Descartes believed there was a human soul that was entirely distinct from the body and thus able to continue its existence after the death of the body itself. This belief has continued in many religions, which believe in the soul’s existence in another world after death, its treatment a reward or punishment for behaviour in this world. The Koran says “Every soul shall have a taste of death: and only on the Day of Judgement shall you be paid your full recompense.” The concepts of hell, purgatory and heaven in the Judaeo-Christian tradition were also based on this premise. ­Belief in an afterlife may give the living a more positive view of death, but its main purpose seems to me to provide threats that if the beliefs of the religion are not strictly followed, punishment comes in the afterlife.

The main biological facts of death are straightforward. Cells, the basic units of life, had their origin on earth, ­remarkably by chance, some 3.5 billion years ago. The main molecules were already there, and those first cells evolved to give rise to all living organisms including ourselves, with our ability to think and understand cause and effect. Darwinian evolution based on genes and death played a key role.

We humans are alive the moment the sperm enters the egg and it begins to develop. Death of our cells is a basic and everyday part of our lives and is essential for the normal functioning of our bodies. It is programmed in our embryonic development, for example in separating our fingers. In daily life, we shed dead skin cells at an enormous rate and they are replaced by new ones. Our death is essentially the death of the cells of the brain. Heart attacks, cancer and infectious diseases are the most common causes leading to our death, but we may recover from these. But when our brain dies, everything else goes with it.

Early death was common with our ancestors, principally through infections and accidents. Now that we live longer, about two-thirds of us die from age-related causes. Ageing can make the organism more vulnerable to dying, but ageing itself does not cause death, nor is ageing pre-programmed, as is foetal development. Ageing is the outcome of an accumulation of damage in cells. The decline of the immune system with age leads to an increased susceptibility to infectious diseases. Gains in life expectancy worldwide have been enormous during the past century, owing to better sanitation, preventative medicine and an improved supply of water and food. Model animal organisms have been invaluable in investigating what determines ageing.

Taking one’s own life goes against all the attempts to stave off death. There were 5,668 suicides in Britain last year, around three quarters male. Men aged 40-49 were most at risk. Assisted death – being helped to kill ­yourself – is forbidden in the United Kingdom and most other ­countries; if you help someone to die in the UK, you can get a prison ­sentence of 14 years. But I agree with the view that in many circumstances ­assisted dying, or voluntary euthanasia, is morally right.

There are just a few countries, and states in the US, where assisted death is lawful. Even in some of the countries where it is permitted, the Roman Catholic and Protestant churches are against it because they say it is against the will of God. In my view, we should all be able to choose the manner of our own death at a time of our choosing, with no penalty imposed on those helping us and without having to have recourse to travelling abroad to do so.

Our basic biological evolution means that most deaths are natural and to be expected, even if the Biblical “three score years and ten” has long been exceeded. Grief and sadness following a death are due to the permanent loss of a loved one, and can cause extreme sadness, which is a ­basic emotion. Rituals, both religious and non-religious, may help to give a feeling of closure to relatives and friends. Mourning can be very varied and some African cultures add material from the dead to their food as part of their mourning. There is even evidence that some animals, such as elephants, mourn their dead.

I hope that when I die a few people will mourn me – but please, no religious ceremony.