A while ago, I was asked to contribute 300 words outlining my attitude to death to a publication and for a reason that currently escapes me. As far as I know, they sank without trace, but in these days of easy online self-publication no gobbet of text, wrung painfully from my consciousness on to the hard disc, need be wasted. So here it is:
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, and people inviting me to write 300 words on my attitude to death, affording 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. And 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.
And that was it. Now I realise that to some of you that reference to stardust will trigger something akin to nausea, as you recall mawkish funereal references to ‘a new star in the sky tonight’. But of course, it’s true – we do all come from stardust. When I was a funeral celebrant, I often used part of the quote that follows after I referred to our bodies “returning to the earth and air, which is the origin of all living things”. It comes from Neil deGrasse Tyson, the American astrophysicist.
“The atoms that comprise life on earth, the atoms that make up the human body, are traceable to ancient stars that converted heavy elements to light elements under extremes of temperature and pressure. These stars went unstable in their later years and exploded, scattering their enriched contents across the galaxy – carbon, nitrogen, oxygen and all the fundamental ingredients of life itself. These ingredients became part of gas clouds that condensed to form the next generation of solar systems: stars with orbiting planets; planets with the ingredients for life.
So when you look up at the night sky, know that yes, we are part of the universe, and we are in the universe, but perhaps more important than both of those facts is that the universe is in us. Don’t feel small, feel big, because the atoms of your body came from the stars. Feel connected too, because everyone around you is just the same, we are all atomically connected to one another. We are, not figuratively but literally, stardust”.
I especially like the last two sentences (although I always read it as “anatomically connected”, and have to correct myself). That essential connectedness is at the heart of humanism, with its ‘we’re all in this together’ vibe. I suppose it’s at the heart of many religions too, but with religion, the dogma can get in the way of that underlying truth, and result in people flying aeroplanes into high buildings. Which is a shame.