A humanist perspective on death

We all suffer as a result of the death of those we love: family, friends, colleagues – even of people with whom we have no personal relationship but may admire or feel attached to. And most of us are, at least at some times, highly sensitive to the thought that one day we ourselves will die. 

For many, death is still a taboo and at the root of this is a sort of fear. Fear of the unknown, fear of loss, fear of ending. Many of our ancestors dealt with this fear by denial. They invented stories of a continuing life, in which death was simply a punctuation mark.

Today we know – from the application of physics and chemistry, to our own biology – that death is the end of our personal existence. This has always been the reality acknowledged by humanists, and generations of humanist thinkers and writers on death have sought meaning and comfort by facing this reality head on.

Death is our annihilation.

In contemplating this, we can find peace in understanding the big difference between (i) being nothing and (ii) being something that experiences nothingness. Unlike the poets, a humanist shouldn’t liken death to an eternal sleep. Life is finite, death is the end of it. You will not be aware of it because you will not be. Let this certainty dispel any fear you have of being dead or of the so-called ‘unknown’. 

In any case, it’s not unknown. We know it. 

Close your eyes and think back over your life so far. Try to think of your earliest memory. Perhaps you can just about remember an early birthday, a favourite toy. Try to think back further, as far as you can. Remember what it was like before you were born. You can’t, of course. And what was true of the time before will be true of the time after.

I think knowing that death is the end is what allows us to make more sense of our lives. It forces us to acknowledge how short and uncertain life is, and to question whether we’re making the most of it. It also brings structure to our lives. It book-ends our existence on this earth and gives our story a shape.

Imagine you are reading a novel. The characters are engaging, their relationships twist and turn and are full of interest. You can’t wait to see how they turn out in the end. But there is no end. The story just goes on and on. There is no resolution. Not ever. Without death, but with the prospect of eternal life instead, what could motivate us to do anything, to care for others, to seek achievements – what would be the point? I think what people really want is not to live forever, but to live for as long as they want to, in the best possible health, with family, friends around them, and with meaning.

Then there is of course the death of others. This is a very different type of experience because the death of others is not necessarily the end of them as far as we are concerned. Once those we love are dead, we still know them, and much of what they are to us remains: in our own thoughts, minds, and memories, and through our own interactions with the things they have left behind, like photographs or their own writings. As Samuel Butler once said, ‘To die completely, a person must not only forget, but be forgotten, and he who is not forgotten is not dead.’ We carry their legacy forward in the human story, just as the people coming after us will carry us when we are gone. 

Dying is the natural consequence of living and we must come to terms with it if we want to live well. When you honestly reconcile yourself to death, you can find the greatest peace, deepest resilience, and most authentic meaning a human being can know.


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