Reframing Death: Stop Running From It And See It For What It Really Is

There’s a transhumanist movement led by billionaires and scientists that’s attempting to cheat death. It’s another quirk of human evolution where we are trying to dominate the natural world. Of course, it’s (probably) possible. I have no doubt that Jeff Bezos, Peter Theil, David Sinclair, and others will figure out a way for us to live longer. It might be through uploading our consciousness to the internet or adapting our genetics in some way. Who knows?

But do you think the pioneers of the industrial revolution thought of the environmental consequences of the combustion engine and pulling oil from the earth? Extending life and cheating death sounds amazing — who wouldn’t want to live longer or maybe even for eternity? However, we have no idea what the ramifications will be. I suspect that if we go down this route it will result in an overpopulation disaster where people who can’t afford longevity treatments will have to be executed to make room for the immortals. Pure speculation of course, but it’s not a big leap to imagine this being an unintended consequence of extreme life extension.

What we do know is that Death doesn’t care about your views on what happens after it or when and how you would most like to go. It is one of life’s inescapable and final events. It’s one that we will all experience, regardless of if we manage to extend the average life expectancy from 73.4 years to 173.4 years. Instead of running away from death, we should embrace it, and let the lessons that it teaches be heard.

The race to cheat death

Some call it physical immortality, others prefer super longevity, and the term ‘curing ageing’ is entering the zeitgeist. The Coalition for Radical Life Extension is a non-profit group looking to grow the physical immortality community. They state that ‘the deathist paradigm has to go; it’s time to look beyond the past of dying to a future of unlimited living.’.

It’s mind-blowing that death is being described as a paradigm that can be shifted to create room for a world where nobody dies. If that doesn’t sound strange enough, wait until you hear about how some companies plan to side-step death and press forward into the land of the immortals. It’s about to get a bit black-mirror — so, strap in.

Dracula — I mean Ambrosia is a startup that harvests young blood and pumps it around the bodies of older people willing to pay $8000 for the service. In 2019, the FDA issued a statement that warned consumers to think twice about infusing young people’s blood into their bodies (no shit, Sherlock!). This forced the company to halt operations, however, it was reported that Ambrosia was up and running again in two cities shortly after the closure. The Ambrosia treatment pumps one or two litres of plasma, which is blood with the blood cells removed, through your body. The theory is that plasma from young blood can stimulate changes to a patient’s DNA and can restore it to a younger version of itself.

George Church of Harvard Medical School and Co-founder of Rejuvenate Bio has spared young humans and instead is experimenting on mans best friend (specifically Beagles) to find a cure to ageing. The idea is that there is a market for extending the life of dogs. If they figure out a therapy that works, they can then use the knowledge and profits to begin testing on humans. Church’s method of life extension aims to add new instructions to DNA or in other words, they plan to rewrite the code to life.

I’ve got one more for you. Lots of transhumanists are bullish that the key to immortality will be found in their lifetime. Others see it taking more time than they have left. The latter are focusing on ways to stay alive long enough to live forever. Some members of the life-extension community, including PayPal founder Peter Theil, are actually signing up to freeze their bodies in the hope they can wake up again when someone’s figured it all out. The cryonics company Alcor charge $200,000 plus yearly maintenance fees to freeze your whole body. The kind souls also offer a cheaper alternative and will just freeze your head for $80,000. You can find out more about the process of cryonics here.

How have our views on death changed throughout history?

So how did we get here? And by here, I mean a place where blood-sucking, Beagle-mutating and brain-freezing experiments are commonplace. Has there always been a desire to live forever?

I believe that the answer to that question is yes and that the idea of immortality is likely to have been part of human cultures that predate history. The past is scattered with clues that prove this point. None other than the idea of the afterlife that is central to most religions. The name suggests a continuation of existence after death. It’s a refusal to accept that death is final and states that there is something beyond the world that we live in today.

While every religion and culture has its own take on what happens in the afterlife, the wide range of views on immortality can be broken down into four main categories:

  • The survival of the astral body — entering the afterlife in a form that resembles your physical body
  • The survival of the immaterial soul — entering the afterlife in a form devoid of matter
  • Reincarnation — the soul is resurrected into a new body of some sort
  • Death brings the end of existence — the view that existence is totally cerebral

The debate has been going on for millennia and the frustrating thing for anyone that tries to tackle this subject is that you cannot know the answer while you’re still in the land of the living. You’ll only find out once and for all when you die. The Greeks tried to find an answer, so did the pagans, and the medieval scholars, and the enlightenment thinkers. Yet, no one could get past a theory. However, what they all had in common was that they accepted that death was coming, they just didn’t agree on what happened afterwards.

The transhumanist movement highlights how our culture has a completely different view on death. There’s much less thinking about what happens after death. All of the thinking is now focused on finding ways to cheat death. The scientific elite is aiming to reprogramme our bodies so that we can ‘cure ageing’ and live for much longer, or even forever. There might still be a way to live in the clouds once we die, it might just be a different type of cloud. This change in thinking is largely due to the secularisation of society which has made the materialist view that ‘death is the end of it, and that’s that’ more popular than ever before.

So, I would argue that modern society and the transhumanist movement is framing death as something negative, something to be fearful of and as another ‘problem’ that can be solved. This is wildly uncharted territory for us humans. Throughout history, we have always been aware of death and thought about what happens after it. However, now most people seem to ignore it for as long as possible, refusing to believe that it could happen to them until it does. While others think we can get around it through a technological advance that is yet to happen.

How to embrace death?

Another tangible difference between us and our ancestors (particularly those of us that live in democratic-industrialized countries) is that death is no longer part of our day-to-day lives. In the past, people used to die at home surrounded by family and friends. It would not have been uncommon to see bodies in the street or to attend a public execution. Now, death increasingly takes place somewhere else, usually in a hospital. Very few of us see the process leading up to death because that takes place in hospitals too. Even those of us in the hospitals are rushed out of the room during the doctor’s final resuscitation attempts. Therefore, removing us from the agonising visceral experience of death.

It may seem pretty crazy and a little morbid but as a society, we would be much happier if we stop trying to think of ways to cheat death and just think about our own deaths more often. Scientific research into this idea found that ‘the common response to contemplating death is a nonconscious orientation toward happy thoughts.”. We’ve been tricked into believing that thinking about death is depressing when in reality contemplating our mortality can elevate our mood.

Facing up to the fact that our time is limited and that we will cease to exist as we do right now, increases the scarcity of every passing moment. Also, realising that you have no control over how you will go makes you think differently too. It could be today, tomorrow or in 50 years. You just don’t know. Life really is an hourglass with each grain of sand representing a moment. It’s up to you whether each moment is filled with anger, regret and grudges. Or, if you make the most of the moments that you will never get back. Unless of course you’re a transhumanist and you believe that someone’s going to come and top you up with more sand. In that case, feel free to procrastinate and do everything tomorrow.

Maranasati — the practice of death awareness

For those of you that are looking for an alternative to becoming a blood-sucking vampire, there are ways to overcome our conditioning to ignore death. The Buddhist practice of death awareness ‘Maranasati’ is a type of meditation practice that encourages you to be mindful of your own death. It came from an ancient practice where monks were instructed to spend time in cemeteries, sometimes living there for a prolonged period of time. Often bodies were left unburied out of respect to the natural world so that animals could feed off the remains. This meant that monks would see dead human bodies in a variety of forms. They would see rigor mortis, animals eating human flesh and the body decaying into nothing but a pile of bones. When looking at the deceased, the monks were instructed to contemplate the following:

‘This body of mine, too, is of the same nature as that body, is going to be like that body, and has not got past the condition of becoming like that body.’

It’s a humbling mantra that reminds the individual that death comes for us all. It becomes more powerful if you are looking at what happens to our flesh vehicles once we die. You might not have access to rotting bodies but the following set of contemplations can be used in your Maranasati practice that will produce similar thoughts:

The inevitability of death

  1. Everyone has to die
  2. Our life span is decreasing continuously
  3. The amount of time spent in our life to develop the mind is very small

The uncertainty of the time of death

  1. Human life expectancy is uncertain
  2. There are many causes of death
  3. The human body is so fragile

The fact that only acceptance can help us at the time of death

  1. Our possessions and enjoyments cannot help
  2. Our loved ones cannot help
  3. Our own body cannot help

If you’re going to attempt this, just take one of the possible contemplations and go over it in your mind. Think about what it means to you, people you know, and your fellow humans. Then try to observe how those thoughts have impacted how you think about life.

Getting close to death

Some people in our society confront death daily, while others are far removed from it until one day the inevitable comes for them. Doctors, nurses, coroners, police officers, soldiers, disaster relief volunteers are some of the occupations that force the people that work in these professions to witness death. Often quite frequently and sometimes in its most disturbing forms. These are the people that are under no illusions of the visceral and emotional nature of death.

In Aldous Huxley’s book Island the population of the Kingdom of Pala, among other things, strive to confront suffering and death to achieve their goals of self-improvement and self-actualisation. It’s one part of the fictional Palanese philosophy that helps the people of Pala to be intrinsically connected with the moment. Huxley was no doubt influenced by Buddhist teachings. However, he was well ahead of the scientific research that suggests confronting death can lead to a happier individual and therefore, a happier society.

I have to admit that when family members have passed away I have been reluctant to see them in their dying days. I told myself I want to remember them how there were, not how they are just before they pass into whatever’s next. Part of me wants to hold on to that behaviour. After all, it’s easier, more comfortable and my natural instinct. However, after reflecting on the Buddhist practice of death awareness and Huxley’s fictional society, I think it’s holding me back from coming to terms with my own death. Pretending like it’s not happening might prevent short-term suffering but it might also be preventing me from living life to its fullest.

How then, can we reframe death to make us happier and help us to seize the day?

Fear of death is pretty healthy and stops us from putting ourselves in unnecessary danger. However, too much fear of death will force you into a sheltered life where you are missing out on lots of experiences just in case something bad happens. If you are unaccepting of death and think that you will get the chance to extend your life later (the frozen brain theory) then you’ll put off making the changes that will help you to enjoy the moment. The one you are in right now!

So, all you need to do to reframe death from something that’s to be scared of, to something that can make your life better, is to start contemplating it in all its forms. If this practice has taught me anything it’s to enjoy every single second that we are gifted because life owes us nothing.

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Jake is a freelance writer still searching for his niche. In the meantime, he will be writing about things that interest him.

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Jake Hughes

Jake Hughes

Jake is a freelance writer still searching for his niche. In the meantime, he will be writing about things that interest him.

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