A Eulogy for My Death

By Jacques Schlanger

A very personal contemplation of a very universal problem.

(page 1 of 1 - view all)

What a strange idea, to eulogize my own death! And yet, we are speaking of such a decisive event in my life! How can I not think about it, how can I not treat it with the degree of interest and respect that it deserves? I want to scrutinize my death, to look at it with an eye that is at once realistic, optimistic, and sober, since it is my death we are talking about. All my life I have pondered my death, I have envisioned it, imagined it. My death has always aroused my curiosity, both the fact of its existence, and its meaning to me. I stand facing my death; my death is within me and I am within it. My death intrigues me: I want to know what it means to die, and I would especially like to know how I will die. I want to die a good death, as I want to live a good life. Can one consider the possibility of a good death, just as one considers the possibility of a good life? Many have thought about death, many have spoken about it. They have said many important things, and often many banal things. But this time we are speaking of my own death; I am the one who will die. And nothing here is banal anymore; everything is essential.
To prepare oneself for death, this is the classic injunction of ancient wisdom: A man must get ready for the death of his own unique personality, for the death of his emotions. He must learn to see his death from the perspective of eternity. In the face of death, he must liberate himself from blind panic and learn to accept it with open eyes. Today, what becomes of this aspiration, of this ambition, when everyone now sees himself as a singular “I,” the cessation of whose individual existence is, for each of us, equivalent to the cessation of everything that is? When I praise my death, I wish to transcend my “I” and to know better my death, so as to prepare myself to accept it in a manner worthy of it and of myself.
It requires a certain amount of impudence, along with a strong dose of recklessness, for a man to eulogize his own death. As we all know, a day will come, after a man’s death, when everything he has said about it will have to stand the test of reality: This is how so-and-so spoke of his death, with such beautiful words—and this is how things really happened. He spoke beautifully, but he died ugly, in vomit and urine, enveloped by foul smells. Nevertheless, something deep down tells me that my death deserves more than mere avoidance, whether out of anxiety or laziness.
I would like to find a peaceful way to relate to my death. I would like to avoid panic, anxiety, and paralyzing fear, as well as the lure of the exalted call of a higher world. I want to learn how to look at my inevitable death without excessive terror, but also without imposing stupefying mounds of words and images upon it in order to subdue it; in other words, without deceiving myself. Will I know how to speak properly of something that, from the moment you begin to examine it up close, can only be approached indirectly? Is it possible to write about death the way one writes about life? Is it possible to write about the good death the way one writes about the good life? Moreover, is it possible to hope for a good death and to work toward it, the way one hopes for a good life and works toward it?
I know very well that, in speaking of my death, I remain necessarily at the surface of myself, and that many things which I cannot bring to light will remain hidden inside me. In spite of this, confronting my death is an inseparable part of my life, the life I lead and the life I would like to lead. I, who is going to die, how should I live?
The thought of my inevitable death often helps me distinguish between what is important and what is less important in life. In a way, my death serves as the measure of my life. The thought of my death as the final destination of my life seems to be the proper way to think about life, and to consider a way of life appropriate to both life and death.
On the other hand, my death is meaningful to me in relation to my life, or more precisely, in relation to the meaning that I give or attempt to give it. I try to live and act in a certain way. That is to say, I strive not to allow myself to be swept up by life, but to steer it in the direction I consider most suitable, always having in mind that I will die. It is often said that to engage in philosophy is to learn how to die, and it is said equally often that to engage in philosophy is to learn how to live. In fact, both of these platitudes mean one and the same thing.
If my life has meaning, will the death of this life, in itself, also have meaning? Can death have meaning, in what way, and for whom? For the one who is going to die, or the one who remains? Must one live well in order to die well? Since death is the absolute cessation of life, how can one death be better than another? And for whom can a death be good—for the one who “lives” it, who experiences it, or perhaps for the one who witnesses the death of his fellow?
I cannot anticipate my death ahead of time, I cannot imagine it, I cannot think about it except on the basis of another human being’s death. It is other people’s deaths that cause me to know my own death. I know that I am going to die, and I imagine the ways in which my death might occur, because I know that others have died, and that they died in different ways.
My death, the death that I contemplate, sense, and fear, is composed of all the deaths that are not yet my own, deaths that others have “experienced,” and which I project onto my future death. I know that I will die because, to the best of my knowledge, no human being has ever not died. The fact that others die and, most importantly, the way they died, opens a window onto my own death. Only one who knows that he is going to die is aware of his future death, and he can know this only because others have died before him. If I were alone in the world, I would not even know that I am mortal.
The deaths of other people present me with beautiful and ugly deaths, peaceful and tormented deaths, respectable and shameful deaths. The deaths of other people lead me to my own death, the deaths of other people teach me about my own death. Through the deaths of other people I understand and I feel, I assume and anticipate my own death. Everything I know, everything I hope, everything I fear in regards to my death, I discover through what I see happening to other people. The deaths of other people put my own death to the test.
The deaths of other people appear before me as inevitable. I know that one of these deaths will be my own. I know also that certain deaths, different paths leading to death, are preferable to others. And because I know that my death is inevitable, I hope that one of these will be my own death. So-and-so died on his feet, this one passed away in his sleep: how lucky! Not to suffer, not to be aware, not to know that you are about to die. (Who, incidentally, is the lucky one—the one who died or the one left behind, astounded, awestruck, but also jealous, in the presence of this unexpected death?) How lucky to die while still in command of all of your faculties, at peace with the inevitable; to die like the sages of antiquity, with dignity. A good death is the death that I wish for myself: a quick death, free of suffering; a timely death; a worthy and dignified death.
To reflect on my death means relating to my death in light of the deaths of other people. As I look at those deaths, to what degree am I capable of directing my own inevitable death toward that which seems most appropriate? This is the crucial question. I meditate upon my death because I would like to choose it, to prepare it, and if possible to control it—all in light of the deaths of other people. I would not like my death to be merely the consequence of an incident forced upon me by circumstance, whether external or internal. I would like to be capable of using its occurrence for my own benefit. From this perspective, to reflect on my death, to relate to it, and even to prepare for it, is not perverse but an eminently healthy, well-balanced behavior. My desire is to live a beautiful life now, and afterward to die a beautiful death, because I recognize that there are lives more beautiful than others and deaths more beautiful than others.
If I try to imagine my death ahead of time, it is because I know that there is no use in struggling against the fact of my death, and I would like to undergo this unavoidable outcome with dignity. I foresee my death as I would like it to happen, as I hope it will happen, and also as I fear it will happen, so that I shall be ready to accept it, however it may befall me. The thought of my death leads me in many directions: what will unavoidably happen to me, the manner in which it will happen, the black hole that will swallow me, my body/spirit which will disintegrate, the world which will go on without me. What is that death which I ponder incessantly? What is this death which, for me, is specifically my own death? My own death, I insist, and not the death of my close kin, which would be for me an external event, an event forced into my life that has nothing to do with my own death. Here I am dealing only with myself, my death, not the deaths of others that afflict my life—the deaths of family and friends.
Which death are we speaking about? More precisely, which death are we not speaking about? In many circles today, people dare not speak of death, and fewer still of their own death. We reject death, hide from it, close our eyes to its obviousness, and wail in fear as it draws near. The word “death” itself has become a taboo: People do not die; they “pass away” or “depart from this world.” Death is something offensive, like flatulence or belching, which one must learn to ignore; something vile hovering around us and casting horror and fear over us.
Another way to ignore death is to try to get around it. In many religions, life on earth is considered little more than a corridor leading to true life, spiritual life, divine life, eternal life. Death is nothing but an intermediary between a lower level and a higher one, between mortality and immortality. This approach overcomes death, circumvents it by struggling with it on its own terms: Yes to death, meaning only the death of the body, in order to arrive at another life, true life, the life of the soul, the life of eternity. We should not fear death; we should even desire it; for by its leave the gates to the only life worth living are opened before us. In this spiritual context, we do indeed speak of death, but not about death as we truly experience it; we ignore this death, and speak as if it were merely a transient stage which we pass and then transcend.
The religious, then, speak of a death which has lost its sting, a death that is a passageway, nothing more than jumping to a goal that is expected and welcomed. This invites the classic rejoinder: If the gates of heaven are open so wide before us, why should we not leap through them of our own free will, as quickly as possible? Most religions reply to this with the same cautious admonition: It is forbidden to hasten the end. One must allow events to unfold of their own accord, in their own time. We must know how to subject ourselves to the divine will.
In short, against the conscious and fearful attempt to ignore death, which closes our eyes to its inevitability and causes us to live with our heads buried in the sand, the religious outlook seeks to overcome death by accepting and transcending it, all in order to arrive at the other life, the true life. Against the distracted mindset of those who hide from death out of fear, religion supplies solace, one of its main goals being to pave the road that circumvents death.
In contrast to these two ways of ignoring death—by turning one’s back to it or changing its meaning—increased interest in everything relating to death has arisen in a different field. Scientific discourse on the issue of death pretends to be neutral. It turns to reason and objective knowledge, to what can be known about death when it is seen as a phenomenon that can be observed and studied. This is the kind of death that can be constructed and catalogued, everyone’s death; which is, of course, not the death of every one of us. Fear, anxiety, and apprehension all become observable data, even if they cannot be quantified. One can analyze and incorporate these data into a framework of phenomena from which it is possible to generalize.
Anthropologists, psychologists, doctors, sociologists, and even historians and philosophers—each in their own way—observe death and analyze it, as if to tame it, in all its various manifestations. To the biologist and the doctor, death is the end of organic life: The vital organs—the heart, lungs, and brain—stop functioning, and the body breaks down into its biochemical components. To the psychologist, death is a mental phenomenon that is recognized and feared, and one must learn to live with it. To the anthropologist, sociologist, and historian, death is a social and cultural event that is part of a set of customs, ceremonies, social roles, and stories. Finally, to the philosopher, who is supposed to see all of this from a little further away, death is a metaphysical event which exceeds the physicality of our bodies and becomes part of a more comprehensive view of humanity and the universe.
It seems to me that everything said about death in this detached and scientific manner is important and to the point. Death is worth lingering over, of examining from every angle, of studying until we have learned everything there is to learn. This approach toward death is akin to that of the ancient philosophers: Learn to know death as it truly is, so that you do not fear your own death. Yet by this distancing of death, which allows us to better see its different features, we overlook a more essential aspect: the subjective emotion every one of us feels about our own death.
On the question of why I am so interested in (my) death, I reply with another question: Am I going to die or not? If not, my efforts are indeed pointless. But if I am, why not pay attention to what is certainly going to happen to me? It seems to me, in fact, that I have a duty not to let such a significant event in my life take place without trying to take the closest look possible at what it is, how to relate to it, and what I can do with it.
I think of my death often, as opposed to thinking about my death. To think about my death means that my death interests me in its various physiological, psychological, and sociological aspects. When I think of my death, in contrast, I focus more on the fact of my death, and what the thought of my death provokes within me. My imagination causes me to become engrossed in my death and to fear it, while my reason—to the very limited extent that it can instruct me on this issue—struggles to put things in more reasonable proportions. This makes all the difference between what I feel about my death and what I know about it.
All this reflection on my death—even the more experiential, intimate, personal, and subjective aspects—inevitably makes it an object of observation, and thus it loses a little of its sting. When I think about my fear of death, I succeed to a certain degree in overcoming this fear. When I observe my death from a certain distance, its presence at the edge of my consciousness becomes less agitating and aggressive. I alleviate the sting of my death when I speak of it in a detached or even practical manner. It is as if my death draws satisfaction from the fact that I can deal with it in a different tone, a more liberated, contemplative tone, and not the terrified one that usually characterizes the discourse on death. I tame my death by unfolding it: I hold it at a certain distance, stare into its eyes, and forget that it is, in fact, infiltrating me through my own entrails.
I forget this to such a degree that I must remind myself I am speaking of my own death, the cessation of my being, the decay of my body, the decomposition of the hand writing these lines at this very moment. Of course, I know I am speaking of my body, the body that I touch, that I live, that I experience. I know I am speaking of my spirit, the spirit contemplating my death at this very moment. And I know I am speaking of my most intimate “I,” the single “I” that will completely disintegrate into organic particles. And despite this, thinking about my death in this way distances me from it and suppresses it. It conceives of death as an object of thought and a subject for conversation, and diminishes the sensation of death as it is. The words I use to speak about it blunt reality, silence anxiety, and thus take on the role of a protective shield between me and my death.
I think of my death while striving to anticipate it with maximum rationality and self-control, to see myself as I am and as what I will be, or more precisely, as what I will not be. I think of it—that is, I distance myself from myself in order to observe myself better. I hold my death before my face, at a slight distance, in order to see my end unfolding while I am still among the living. And what I see is a stopping point in my life, the final, fated stage at which I will inevitably arrive, an event in which I see myself emptied of myself, ceasing to be the living “I” that I was until then. I see the end of a path, which terminates in my plunging into an emptiness of being, something very difficult for me to grasp. As I think about my death, I see it as a kind of summing up of my time of life. I see myself losing my human faculties, my reason, my language, my consciousness. My body continues to function, but now without my mental “I,” so fragile, accompanying it. And then, after awhile, my brain ceases to function. I continue to breathe until my heart stops, and then I give a final sigh and die completely.
When I look at my death straight on, I think of it in the context of my ideas about life and death. I live in a world devoid of the supernatural, a world in which my death, just like my life, is strictly a natural event. My life and death are part of my nature as a human being, and they take place according to natural processes.
For the natural being that I am, my death is located within me, present inside of me, waiting. And I know I am going to meet it, at whatever moment it overtakes me. My death is located within me, but what is it? What does it mean to me to be dead? The organic death of my material soul, the emotional death of my emotional soul, the intellectual death of my rational soul, the social and cultural death of my personality—all these aspects of my life and my death are equally natural to me.
As the organic being that I am, to die is to cease to be an organized assembly of physiological, sensory, and motor systems, and to turn into a mere assembly of non-organized organic molecules, which disperse into their surroundings. As the emotional, rational, and intellectual being that I am, to die means to lose my emotional, cognitive, and intellectual abilities; and, to be more precise, to see these abilities disappear with the disintegration of the organic body that carries them. As the social and cultural individual that I am, to die means to lose all direct connection to my family, my society, my language, and the culture of which I was once a part. In the natural world in which I live, and in which everything changes, death for a human being is to no longer be, in an absolute sense, what he has been up until now. To lose entirely and forever his living “I” by way of losing its various expressions—physiological, emotional, mental, intellectual, social, and cultural. To die means to cease to be the kaleidoscopic, polymorphic “I” that we have been.
People die on different levels and in different ways; but the basic death, the death upon which all other deaths are founded, is clearly organic death; the death which by its essential nature seals all other deaths. When my material soul ceases to rule over the functions of my vital organs, the mechanism which enables my body to exist, and when these organs are once again nothing but decomposing organic molecules, all other aspects of my “I” have already ceased to exist. Whether organic death is a natural change or whether it is a descent into the general entropy that drags all of us along with it, the organic death of my body brings with it the total death of the polymorphic “I” which is the natural expression of my human uniqueness.
The precise meaning of organic death is not the complete termination of being, but an event that takes place in a continuum, a functional change built into the physiological nature of our existence. The internal organs stop functioning, but the organic matter continues to exist, albeit altered in form and place. Other deaths, in contrast, are absolute and final. The emotional, mental, intellectual, social, and cultural aspects of the “I” completely cease to be. Here, we are no longer speaking of changes, however extreme, but of negation in the most exact sense of the term.
This distinction between organic death, in which the organs of the body stop functioning, and the death of the so-called higher human faculties, certainly gives rise to fundamental moral dilemmas which are relevant to all of us. A human being—myself, for example—in a terminal coma or the advanced stages of Alzheimer’s disease is both living and dead at the same time: In the organic sense he is alive, but in relation to his higher faculties he is dead. What is he, then? Alive or dead? Alive and dead? This question is not merely theoretical; it has profound practical implications. How should this dead-living person be cared for, how should one relate to him, and by virtue of what legal, moral, or existential rights?
Furthermore, when a human being—myself, for example—is aware of the fact that he is losing his higher faculties, that he is about to die in the sense of his mental abilities, that his existence is going to be reduced to the organic and nothing more; and when he no longer has the means to commit suicide, when a human being in this situation explicitly requests that he be assisted in dying, how should one respond to this request? How should one act? The distinction between organic death and human death, in its ethical, medical, and legal implications, raises moral problems whose practical value is of supreme importance to each one of us. I will return to this later.
When I think of my death I am grasping, by means of thought, the organic disintegration of my body as well as the absolute disappearance of my intellectual and emotional faculties. At the very moment I write this sentence I know that I will cease to be the organic body that I am; and I know that I will cease to be the human spirit and the social and cultural being that I am. In contrast to all other multi-cellular animals, which seem to die organic deaths only, humans die twice: an organic death and an emotional and mental death. This is precisely what is unique about human death, and human beings are aware of this.
Indeed, because we do not know what happens in the minds of animals at different stages of evolutionary development, we assume that only human beings are aware of their mortality, and that this awareness of our own death is one of the unique characteristics of humanity. We find ourselves facing death before it overcomes us. Our awareness of the fact of our own death, the awareness we have deep within us that there is no point in fighting it, is what makes us human beings and at the same time casts its terror upon us.
Some, as we have already seen, find consolation in the belief that something—their spirit, soul, or any other part of them—will not die. Others, I among them, know that they are going to die a complete and final death, that their body/spirit will disintegrate entirely, that the organic part of them will dissolve and that the emotional and intellectual parts of them will disappear forever. This total negation of the spirit is no less natural to them than the disintegration of the organic body. To them, the qualities which are called higher, the spirit and consciousness, are natural phenomena, by-products born of the process of evolutionary development, by-products which the organic body carries and contains. They are unique to human beings, just as an advanced sense of smell characterizes dogs, and photosynthesis characterizes plants. And these human traits will entirely disappear. We know it from the start, and I myself am convinced of it.
I know what will happen to me. I know that my body will decompose, my spirit will disappear, and that I, who is present here now, will no longer be. I know all this and I try to look at what I know about my inevitable death as dispassionately as possible. But there is also what I feel, and here I fail to be dispassionate. I feel that I am going to die, and against this feeling, no amount of knowledge is enough to keep me calm. I must learn to control my fear of this unknown that awaits me, and of which I know only what I have succeeded in learning from the deaths of other people, and from the terror of other people in the face of their own deaths. I must learn to die before I die, I must use what I know about my death in order to overcome my fear of it, so that I can succeed, if possible, in accepting it as it is.
This is one of the chief goals of ancient wisdom—to learn to die in order to live well; to be aware of the fact of our death so that we are able to live well: the acknowledgment of death as a standard for and a guide to the good life. To learn to die, to become acquainted with death, in other words, to know what death is and to be aware of my own death in the death of another human being—all this so I will not be afraid of it. Whatever cold, objective knowledge we can have of death must give us the ability to overcome the hot, subjective fear that we feel toward it. We must be liberated from the fear of death in order to devote ourselves freely to life.
Death is present in each one of us, it croucheth at the door, and all of us at least once we become mature in spirit know that we have been sentenced to death, even if we attempt and sometimes succeed in forgetting this. “It is possible to provide security against other ills, but as far as death is concerned, we men all live in a city without walls.”1 We must learn to live courageously in this unwalled city, looking straight into the inevitable destiny that awaits us: “I have to die. If it is now, well then I die now; if later, then I will take my lunch, since the hour for lunch has arrived—and dying I will tend to later. How? As someone who knows that you have to return what belongs to somebody else.”2 Here we find once again the ancient idea of death with dignity: Socrates covering his face, Epicurus overcoming his suffering, Plotinus turning his face to the wall, and many others who teach us to die just as they teach us to live. We should die a worthy death, just as we should live a worthy life, so that death will be a worthy end for those who live worthy lives.
Disdain not death, but be well satisfied with it, because this, too, is one of the things which nature wills. For as are adolescence and old age, growth and maturity, development of teeth and beard and grey hairs, begetting, conception, and childbearing and the rest of the natural functions which life’s seasons bring, such also is actual dissolution. This, therefore, is like a man of trained reason, not to be rash or violent or disdainful in the face of death, but to wait for it as one of the natural functions; and, as you now wait for your unborn child to come forth from your wife’s womb, so expect the hour in which your soul will drop from this shell.3
The death of every one of us is a change desired by the nature which rules over us, and we must know how to accept this, just as we must accept everything which comes to us at the hands of nature. Death is not the cessation of existence, but an event in a continuum. This is how we should view it; whether we are speaking of our own death, the death that frightens us; or the death of those close to us, the death that pains us.
Here is the remedy Epicurus suggests for overcoming the fear of death burdening us all:
Accustom yourself to the belief that death is of no concern to us, since all good and evil lie in sensation and sensation ends with death. Therefore the true belief that death is nothing to us makes a mortal life happy, not by adding to it an infinite time, but by taking away the desire for immortality. For there is no reason why the man who is thoroughly assured that there is nothing to fear in death should find anything to fear in life. So, too, he is foolish who says that he fears death, not because it will be painful when it comes, but because the anticipation of it is painful; for that which is no burden when it is present gives pain to no purpose when it is anticipated. Death, the most dreaded of evils, is therefore of no concern to us; for while we exist death is not present, and when death is present we no longer exist. It is therefore nothing either to the living or to the dead since it is not present to the living, and the dead no longer are.
But men in general sometimes flee death as the greatest of evils, sometimes [long for it] as a relief from [the evils] of life. [The wise man neither renounces life] nor fears its end; for living does not offend him, nor does he suppose that not to live is in any way an evil. As he does not choose the food that is most in quantity but that which is most pleasant, so he does not seek the enjoyment of the longest life but of the happiest.
He who advises the young man to live well, the old man to die well, is foolish, not only because life is desirable, but also because the art of living well and the art of dying well are one.4
To Epicurus, death is a natural thing; it is nothing but the end of sensation. Death is not our enemy. The fraudulent idea that we have constructed for ourselves about death is what disturbs us. The quality of life is what is important, not its length. Wisdom is living well, and he who lives well dies well, because already during his lifetime he wholeheartedly accepts what is natural and inevitable; that is, death. These are pretty words; words and still more words. But as death approaches, these pretty words tend to vanish, and we are left trapped in the fears our imagination summons up for us.
Images of my death, images of the different ways leading to my death, pictures I conjure for myself of my own death; visions of myself that I well know I will never see. Here are some of them: a Socratic death, royal, glorious, saturated with quiet and tranquility, fully conscious and with a lucid acceptance; death in which I am at peace with myself and the entire world, surrounded by loved ones; a lonely death in the bosom of nature, a sudden death, a fall into a chasm during a hike in the mountains; an immediate death from a heart attack, a brain hemorrhage, or a car accident; a death in my sleep, I fall asleep and never wake up again; a voluntary death, a death by self-sacrifice; a death from disease, in a hospital, attached to machines under medical supervision; and the death I most fear, the death that truly terrorizes me, a degenerative death, like a decaying and rotting plant, as a human being who has entirely lost his humanity, frail and senile, at the nadir of physical and mental deterioration.
At the bottom of my heart I know that I am going to die, that I am going to entirely cease to exist, and I accept this as I accept the fact that I have lived until this day. I know there is a moment of death, the moment of death itself, the moment when the vital organs stop functioning. But before that there is a process that leads to death, the way to death, whether it is the short way of an accident, a heart attack, a stroke, or the long way of old age, disease, and deterioration. The way that leads to my death is what disturbs and frightens me; it preoccupies me much more than death itself. How will my death come? What will befall me beforehand and take me to my death?
Dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, and other calamities which could befall me: I know them, I fear them, because I see others afflicted by them. I either hope or fear the way that will lead to my death when I imagine it according to the different ways that have lead to the deaths of others. I know how I would want to die, and I especially know how I would not want to die, and I am trapped between these two poles, keenly aware that I am the master of neither.
For my age (I was born in 1930) I am in fairly good health. For the time being, everything is (still) going as it should. But what will happen tomorrow, next month, next year? I am no longer what I was, and there are things I can no longer do. My time is limited, it passes faster and faster, and my life slips through my fingers. No, I do not want to be the old man I see across the street, the man dragged along, held by the arm, led like a child; the old man who drools, who is losing his memory. I want to be me, me at this moment, when it appears that I still have full control over what I am and what I can be.
My death forces itself upon me, therefore it is preferable to accept it and submit to it. But must I accept every way that leads me to it? The ancients spoke frequently of death, but rarely speak of the difficult ways that sometimes lead to it, and references to them are usually intended to overcome them. On the verge of death, Epicurus wrote the following letter to Idomeneus:
We have written this letter to you on a happy day to us, which is also the last day of our life. For strangury has attacked me, and also a dysentery, so violent that nothing can be added to the violence of my sufferings. But the cheerfulness of my mind, which arises from the recollection of all my philosophical contemplations, counterbalances all these afflictions.5
Epicurus mentions his terrible pain, but only so he can transcend it through the pleasure of remembrance. But it is precisely these sufferings, these bad ways to die, these inappropriate ways, that I fear and that all of us fear, and I am not convinced that the good memories I have amassed in my lifetime will be enough to overcome them. Life is good in happy memories, so long as pain and revulsion do not subjugate you.
To anticipate my death means to look straight on at my possible deaths and to observe, through the imagination, the different ways toward death that present themselves to me, ways which are nothing but those deaths which have befallen other people. My potential deaths, which are, in fact, the actual deaths of other people, are possible scenarios of my own death; the death that I will experience myself and which I seek to know beforehand. Death, my own death, is not in my control, it will force itself upon me without my choice or consent. That is, unless I plan to commit suicide, which in a time of necessity is, I think, an honorable way out, and the last measure of control I can have over myself. Outside of the possibility of suicide, then, I am not the agent of my death; I am only an actor in it. I am subjected to my death and, more than that, I am subjected to the way that leads to it, and this is why I fear it.
Would it not be wise for me to accept wholeheartedly both my death and the way that leads to it, giving thanks to fate in advance for being so kind as to destroy me in a befitting manner? Here again, I remain a plaything in the hands of fate: a failing heart, a breached artery, a grain of dust in the bladder, a stroke, metastasizing cells. In the end, the final word belongs to my body, and it does not disclose beforehand what it has in store for me.
In order to experience my future death, which, when the time comes, will be forced upon me, I can only rely on the deaths of other people and on my own imagination. Sometimes, when I meet with people of my age, I ask myself which of us will die first. It is as if we were all traveling on the same road, along a ditch carved into its side, and from time to time one of us stops, falls into the ditch, and no longer goes on with us. People die all around me, some I know very well, and others I hardly know at all. Entire lives collapse around me, and with them parts of my own life. Close friends, old acquaintances, and also people who have disappeared from my life—in their deaths, they all leave the path of my life and cease to be. And I myself do not know what point on the road I have reached. I do not know when I too will roll into the ditch and the others will go on without me. And most importantly, I do not know how I will stumble into the ditch.
When I hear of the death of someone I knew very well, someone I cherished, someone I loved—how does this affect me? Beyond the pain or the sorrow that his death causes me, the death of another human being is also an alarm signal for me, in regard to my life and in regard to my death. The death of a fellow man constitutes a crack, a breakage, in my life, and a reminder of my death; the way he died is a reminder of the ways in which I might die.
How do I react to the scenarios of other people’s deaths? One way to sort them out is to examine them from the point of view of time—fast deaths as opposed to slow deaths. I wish for myself, and it seems to me that I am not alone, a fast death. A fast death does not mean an early death. The event of death, its occurrence, these are the things we hope will be quick. It is possible to die old but quickly, without suffering and with dignity, and, to our great sorrow, it is possible to die young but slowly, in an agonizing and humiliating manner. Here, the issue of time refers only to the process that leads directly to death, to the moment of change from life to non-life, and not to the length of a life that has reached this moment.
Since we must die, let the thing happen quickly, without suffering, without fear, without horror: an immediate death from an external cause, a car accident or a fall in the mountains; or from an internal cause, a heart attack or a stroke, or better still, to die in one’s sleep. My mother died on her feet: She had a heart attack, lost consciousness, collapsed, and died. My father was deeply pained that she did not prepare him for this sudden death, that she had not been sick for any length of time, time that was needed in order to adjust to the idea of her death.
Most ways leading to death, however, are long. People die many different slow deaths: from old age, from disease, from degeneration, from exhaustion. They die of old age. I am old, I am older and older, I am coming closer and closer to my death. When I read this sentence I recoil. Yes, I was born a long time ago, but I am not old. I do not feel old. I feel good in my body. I am myself—and nothing else. I know very well that my rebellion is useless: It is true that I am old, that I am getting older and older, and this old age is undoubtedly leading to my death. In the last few years, whenever we buy anything of importance—household appliances, furniture, or any other object of this kind—I have the feeling that I am doing this for the last time in my life: that this is my last refrigerator, my last mattress, my last chest of drawers. It is not that I always feel that death is hovering around me, but I know that, statistically speaking, it is already lurking just around the corner.
To be old. First and foremost, there is the matter of age. I am older than most people I meet. Of course, had I taken refuge in a nursing home, the picture would be different, but I do not plan to end my life in a house of people waiting for death, sophisticated as it may be. My age has led me to retire, which to many is a kind of minor death, the first step toward the grave: a first passivity in a world of the active. Retirement is often thought of as a reduction in activity, blunting the intensity of vigorous life, a kind of slow demise; a shift from social recognition to becoming a forgotten man, which can sometimes become a complete erasure: “What, so-and-so is still alive? I was sure he died ages ago. I haven’t heard anything about him for so long.”
I must say that despite the fact that I willingly accepted my job as a lecturer, I was happy to reach retirement age and become a pensioner. I felt not that this exclusion from the active life was a push toward the grave, but rather that I was being given an opportunity to enjoy leisure, and I am certainly trying to make good use of it. And despite this, I am growing older.
When I imagine my old age, my true old age, which will change me into an elderly man, I see myself more and more attentive to my body, as my body, for its part, groans and complains more and more. I see myself dedicating a great deal of time to paying attention to my body, a kind of seclusion inside myself. And all of this deeply repels me. I have always liked hiking, and now I ask myself increasingly often how much longer I will be able to do so. When will my powers abandon me, and leave me unable to withstand the exertion?
With the advance of age—I know this to be true—we stop being a man or a woman and become an old person; just a person, genderless. The loss of sexual potency lurks around the corner, with the humiliation of impotence. A man keeps track of himself: Where am I in this process? Do I still have my virility? What will tomorrow bring? The differences between the sexes slide toward gender neutrality: From a “he” or a “she,” a person becomes an “it.” The emotions do not disappear, only the means to act upon them. Old people become increasingly similar to one another, just as newborns and infants are similar to one another. Between these two poles, between childhood and old age, we rise and fall, strengthen and weaken, build up and fall apart. With old age, curiosity is lost and with it the passion to know, to learn, to connect, and to share with other people. And this first death of the spirit leads to mere survival, clinging to one’s routine, a sort of pre-death on the way to real death. This is old age, this is my old age as I imagine it on my bad days, and it is truly unpleasant and even frightening.
Disease also leads to death. We will all die of some failure or arrest of the vital organs of our bodies. There is a pathological cause to every death, even death from old age. The difference between dying of old age and dying of a disease is that there is no medical treatment for dying of old age. It comes about as if on its own, without clear pathological symptoms, and it is possible to determine the cause of death only after it happens. An incurable disease, in contrast, reveals itself in all its power; it strongly announces its presence; and we declare war against it, attempt to overcome it, and steel ourselves to defeat it. The span of time that is earned by such efforts differs greatly according to the age of the patient, his mental state, and the life force that surges inside him. But when it comes to a very old person, what is the point of the struggle which he is supposed to wage, which he is even supposed to want to wage, especially if the struggle against the disease is expected to be no less painful, no less dangerous, and even no less poisonous than the disease itself? We submit ourselves to the care of doctors, who are filled with good intentions and want to win the battle against the disease at any cost, not uncommonly at the expense of the patient’s quality of life.
Today, we die too old, of incurable diseases which we drag out while our physical, and especially our mental, capacities deteriorate, because of our insistence on extending the life of the patient as long as possible—even though this life, toward the end of its course, often resembles the survival of a vegetable and nothing more. The stubborn insistence with which certain doctors treat their patients is not infrequently a genuine violation of their dignity as human beings. Too much medical effort is focused on extending life while almost completely ignoring the quality of life. We die of disease, after extended suffering, after vain efforts at a cure, and all this in order to avoid the unavoidable. My father died of cancer, which was already clearly terminal when it was discovered. I saw my father at the moment of death itself. They laid him in a corner; he was unconscious, connected to monitoring devices which beeped and clicked while they waited for him to die. I saw him breathe his final breaths; after that he stopped breathing, and the machine stopped. My father died, or more precisely, he became dead, at the moment when the noise of the machine was silenced.
When the quality of life is lost and there remains only a quantity of life that we are trying to extend at any cost, suicide becomes a real choice, a true choice. If the good life is composed of the pleasurable moments that have already been lived, and hope for the good moments that are still to come, it is possible to understand, in certain conditions, how suicide can be considered a reasonable and even a preferable outcome. When hope for the good moments in life has been exhausted, when life is no more than the perpetuation of suffering, deterioration, insanity, depression, boredom, as well as humiliation and self-disgust, the last moment of a good life, of a life of quality, is the moment when a person raises his hand against himself and puts an end to a life that, to the one groaning under its weight, can no longer justify itself.
To want to live as it is proper to live means also to accept death and even to hasten it, so as to avoid being forced to live in an improper manner. There are moments in life when the natural inclination is no longer to preserve one’s existence at any cost, but the opposite—to shorten a life that is now no longer worth living. To the extent that death becomes less frightening, suicide becomes a more reasonable choice, especially when we become convinced that the quality of life we are permitted to hope for—if only for a limited time—is no longer within our reach. A life whose only purpose is to continue living, to survive as long as possible whatever the conditions of survival may be, such a life is not a goal in itself. At this stage, suicide is not only a temptation, but a choice we are permitted to consider and a possibility that can be realized, as long as our judgment is clear enough to envision it and still capable of enacting it.
Clearly, I am speaking here only in my own name, and my recommendation applies to myself alone. I respect my own life, my person, my dignity, and I do not wish to extend my life in a state of degeneration, be it physical or mental. Today, it seems obvious to me that under certain circumstances of decay, my life will no longer be life to me, but only survival. And the idea of merely surviving, for any length of time, in whatever condition, has never attracted me. If it comes to nothing more than the preservation of my body in a minimal state of survival, the cost outweighs the benefits; it is better to exist in the form of buried organic molecules. We often encounter doctors and nurses who insist on making every effort to keep people alive who have already lost any semblance of humanity. This insistence, in my opinion, is a direct affront to human dignity, and it is enough for me to see it in action to justify the eventuality of suicide.
But, someone will say, if we go down this road we will arrive at killing the deformed, the mentally ill, and even the socially maladjusted. Therefore I say again: I am not speaking here of euthanasia, but of the suicide which I plan for myself; that is to say, a situation in which a person decides of his own free will to stop living, whether he takes his life with his own hands or is assisted by another once he is no longer able to do so under his own power. I will deal with the issue of euthanasia in a moment.
I am of the opinion, then, that there are instances when the good life that every one of us deserves demands the willingness to put an end to life. The difficulty here is to seize the right moment, the moment when a person already knows that he has nothing to hope for, but is still capable of taking the necessary action in order to bring his suicide to a “good end.” We need luck in order to live well, and to the same degree, we need luck in order to die well.
Death can also come as the result of a condition of degeneration, fatigue, deterioration, or the loss of mental and physical capabilities; it can be accompanied by dementia, aphasia, and everything which is now summed up by the term “Alzheimer’s disease.” This path to death frightens me most of all. These days, there are more and more insurance policies which offer care for such tragedies, and they all mention the same six stages of physical degeneration: inability to get up or lie down under one’s own power, inability to dress or undress oneself, inability to bathe oneself, to eat and drink, to control one’s excretory functions, to move at all. These physical handicaps are often accompanied by other handicaps, which seem even more severe to me, although insurance policies usually do not mention them: the stages of mental infirmity, memory loss, inertia, aphasia, bursts of rage, demented behavior, absolute detachment from one’s surroundings, all this ending in a vegetative existence.
My neighbor, whom I have known for thirty years, is now living/dying of Alzheimer’s. After passing through the stage of violence and bursts of rage, and the stage of inertia and aphasia, he is now in the terminal stage of total helplessness and complete dependency on others. Physically, he can live for many years in this condition. He is like a baby who is fed, clothed, undressed, diapered, and bathed. But unlike a baby, no future awaits him. My neighbor was a professor of medicine and a prominent researcher in his field. I am convinced that if he had known what was going to happen to him, he would not have made peace with this evil decree of fate, and would certainly have found a way to extinguish the flame of his life himself.
The real tragedy begins when we arrive at a situation in which suicide itself is no longer a solution, when a human being who has lost his humanity is no longer even capable of being aware of his condition. This path to death frightens me most of all, and I would like to take steps against it while there is still time. If I were truly loyal to myself I would now, while my physical and mental health is still good, seriously plan a way to commit suicide. But I still say to myself: one more day, one more month, one more year, nothing is urgent yet. But I may run out of time.
And here euthanasia enters the picture, which can be seen as indirect suicide, be it the suicide of a person who is still in control of his mental capacities, or the suicide of a person who has already lost both his mental and physical capabilities, a person whose life has been reduced to a dire vegetative existence, and is therefore unable to openly request assistance in killing himself.
I emphasize again that I am speaking here only on behalf of myself and about myself, and I am not a propagandist for euthanasia in general. Euthanasia, as expressed by the original Greek, is “a good death” or, more precisely, “dying well.” I want to die a fitting death. I do not want to die in degeneration, debasement, shame. I do not want to continue living under conditions that would be an insult to what my life had been until then. I want to have the right to control my death so that my life does not sink into the horror that I dread. Therefore, being of sound mind and body, I have signed a document in which not only do I request that no extraordinary medical measures be taken in my treatment, but I also demand the performance of an indirect suicide when I no longer possess the physical ability to commit suicide myself while still in possession of my mental faculties, as well as a more delicate demand for an indirect suicide when I no longer have the physical and mental abilities to ask for it.
My wish is to be the master of my own death when the conditions of my life no longer seem appropriate to me. Euthanasia can be a correct and reasonable solution to someone who accepts it as such. I absolutely do not want to say that every human being suffering from a degenerative disease should be euthanized, but I do say that in the event that a person who is fully conscious and of clear mind explicitly declares this to be his wish, we should fulfill his demand when he loses control of his capabilities.
There still remains the most difficult problem presented by these methods of assisted suicide: Who will perform them? Doctors are prohibited from doing so by the power of the Hippocratic Oath. The purpose of all the efforts of doctors and medical personnel is to cure, not to kill. Moreover, there is a fundamental difference between action and inaction, between passively abstaining from extraordinary measures and the active deed of giving a lethal injection or pill. I am referring here not to the judicial aspect, but rather to the existential one. Euthanasia is causing death, and causing the death of any human being—whether it is a patient or a relative in a state of helplessness—is an act with profound implications. We are speaking here of a tragic situation in the most exact sense of the word, which involves on the one hand a human being who asks to die so that he is not abandoned to a life he deems unworthy of him; and on the other, a human being who is being asked to kill, that is, to act in a way that he deems improper and even criminal.
How can this conflict be resolved? There are no easy answers. What I do know is that I do not want to live in such a condition under any circumstances, and I thank in advance whoever agrees to take the initiative and perform this redemptive act on me. The way to come closer to an answer to this dilemma is to ask myself if I would be willing to act, if I would be willing to assist the suicide of another person who requests it of me while still the master of his mental faculties. And I discover that I would do so only for those who are closest to me and, in fact, only for one person and one person only: the woman with whom I have lovingly shared my whole life with mutual admiration and respect. When I think about it, I would be willing to assist her death not only for her sake but also for mine. I would not want to see her in wretchedness, and I know that she would certainly not want me to see her in wretchedness. I prefer to kill her: There is no choice but to say this without evasions. And for my part, if no one from the medical team is willing to do it, I expect this last favor from my wife, for her sake and for mine. The issue of human law remains, but that is another matter entirely.
The ways leading to death which I have spoken of up to now are all paths onto which I am dragged by necessity, by compulsion, and against my will. Death awaits me, whether by disease, by old age, or by an accident, and I have no choice but to make peace with it or, at most, to hasten it. But there is an additional path to death that I must examine, a path worthy of investigation and even praise: the willing acceptance of death. Here, we are speaking no longer of a passive acceptance of death when it forces itself upon us, but of provoking it. In certain situations, under certain conditions, we are prepared to deliberately endanger our lives, and even walk with open eyes into the presence of certain death, while our bodies are not at the end of their capabilities, physically or mentally.
I am not referring here to the “normal” risks I accept while riding in a car or climbing a mountain, but to decisions I can make in critical, extreme situations in which I knowingly endanger my life. It is possible to view these situations as a kind of suicide, but there is an essential difference here: It is not my physical or mental condition that induces me to this action, but the special circumstances in which I find myself, which, so I think, demand that I respond in this way.
What are these specific situations in which I imagine I would risk my life and even sacrifice it if necessary? In Jerusalem, the city in which I live, critical situations are, unfortunately, well within the realm of rational possibility: Would I be willing to throw myself upon a suicide bomber and blow up with him in order to prevent the explosion from hurting those surrounding me at that moment? The event as I present it contains its own answer. Indeed, in the “classic” case of the suicide-bomber who intends to blow himself up on a crowded bus, it is reasonable to assume that my chances of escaping unharmed are slim anyway. So my potential sacrifice only hastens what I believe is unavoidable, but may possibly save others. The question would be more relevant if there were a reasonable chance of escaping the situation safe and sound, but I nevertheless decide to endanger my life. For whom and for what would I do this, and under what conditions?
I am prepared to die so that others can live, but not equally so for everyone. I am in absolute readiness to die in order to defend my immediate family, and a more reserved readiness when we are speaking of the defense of my relatives and friends, the defense of my people, the defense of my country. Under certain circumstances I am even prepared to accept the idea of endangering my life in order to defend any human being as such, if I am the only person who can rush to save him.
These “paths of heroism” toward my death, these ways in which I sacrifice myself for love of my fellow man are, at the moment, in the realm of hallucinatory dreams and no more, stories I tell (to myself), verbal commitments which in the end commit me to nothing at all. Or as the English quite rightly put it, the proof of the pudding is in the eating. That is to say, only at the moment of truth will we see what I am worth. I have already experienced heavy artillery fire which rained down on me at the front lines; I did not request to be there, and I think my conduct there was honorable. But here we are speaking of something else: a willful act, if not a calculated one, an act opposed to the natural inclination to persevere in one’s being. Am I truly capable of acting as I now say (to myself) that I must act? And here I return to the first question: For whom and for what would I risk my life? For whom and for what would I be ready to sacrifice it?
Three ways of reaching an answer to this question occur to me, and they are intertwined with each other: love, shame, and age. I am ready to take risks that could involve endangering my life in order to save the lives of those I love; I am ready to take serious risks to avoid being ashamed of myself; and in light of my age, I am ready to take great risks in order to save the lives of children and young people.
Let us start with age. As I become older, I feel more willing, in an interior way, to risk my life in order to save others—and this circle of others only widens. The reason for this is simple: How much is an old man’s life worth? How much is my life worth? Statistically speaking, I am closer and closer to my inevitable death. Who is more worthy of life—someone who has already lived many years or someone who has just begun his life? They say that the old cling to life more than the young: This is not always true. And even if they cling to the days left to them more strongly than the young, it seems to me that natural justice dictates that the old die before the young, and I accept this with all its implications for myself. How far would I go, what are the risks I would, in the end, be ready to take in order to save children and young people from the danger of death? At the moment, this is only a theoretical question, and I can do nothing but leave it open.
And now about shame. An act of heroism is often committed for reasons that are not directly connected to heroism: sometimes we act so that we won’t be ashamed of not having acted properly; so as not to be cowards; so as not to appear to be cowards; so as to avoid a dishonorable image of ourselves; so as to avoid disgrace. This desire to avoid humiliation can go so far as sacrificing our lives. When a commander in battle calls to his soldiers “After me!” he moves forward in order to set a personal example by his conduct, in order to show them that he is risking his life just as they are risking theirs—if not more so—and also in order not to feel ashamed before himself or others. I am deeply convinced that I would not want to live with cowardice, with disgrace. I feel strongly that I would not be cowardly just in order to survive. How far would I be willing to go in taking risks so as not to be ashamed of not taking them? Here too we return to “the proof of the pudding.”
Finally comes love. I believe with complete faith that I would do whatever is necessary, up to and including sacrificing my life, in order to save the lives of those I love most: my wife, my children, and my grandchildren. I know I would be ready to die for them, but would I be willing to suffer torture for them? Here the active, intentional path toward my death—the road I would be willing to take, the honorable road to death—becomes a most difficult path, the most problematic one. It seems easier to die than to suffer. The path of “dying for” is clearer, more lucid, and sometimes preferable to the path of “suffering for.” Am I ready to accept horrendous torture in order to save the lives of my loved ones, if the option of suicide is not available? Theoretically, I imagine I would, but practically speaking, at the moment of truth, I am not certain of this. Is there a point at which even love is no longer effective, a point at which everything is forgotten, a point at which the suffering body submits and will do anything just to be left alone? I do not know, and I dare not press the matter any further. I stop here.
After my death I know that I will be no more, but something of me will nonetheless continue to exist: my decomposing body, objects that will continue to exist after I am gone, emotions, memories, feelings of longing among those who cherished my life. In my imagination, I live certain moments beforehand, certain aspects of what follows my death, aspects over which I would like to have some kind of control. What happens after my death will not concern me when I am dead, but it most certainly concerns me while I am still alive.
Why? What does it matter to me? How can it tip the scales in either direction once I am completely dead? The answer is that I know life will not stop after my death. There will be a world without me, a world that will be fine without me, a world in which a few of my footprints—material, emotional, and intellectual traces of me—will continue to exist for some time. Through my imagination, I experience and even strive to arrange my post-mortem affairs during my life, while being fully aware that I will never be able to supervise their implementation.
Let us examine the events in their proper order: I die and my body needs to be disposed of, assuming, of course, that it is available. At this stage I already interfere: What happens to me, what happens to what remains of me after my death, concerns me. Still, what do I have to say on the matter, I, who will already be dead? Why force on my relatives procedures that may not suit them? I leave my final wishes to their good will. Of course, I have preferences that mirror what I think about life and death, about my life and my death. I have shared these thoughts with my relatives, but, in the end, they will be the ones who will have to decide.
Thus, donating parts of my body in order to save or improve the life of someone else seems like a worthy act, a solution I am completely at peace with. Here is an aspect of giving that is pleasing to me—the thought that I can be of help even after my death. On the other hand, the thought of being a corpse used to train medical students, a corpse that will be sliced up, and pieces of it stored in little jars of formalin—this thought repels me. Perhaps it is related to my own memories of my time as a student, when my friends in medical school would talk about the operations they performed on cadavers. I know that my position is unwise and even irrational, considering my general worldview and considering the benefit my lifeless, inhuman body could bring to the study of medicine. Let us say that my stance on this matter is not completely clear.
The second possibility I think about is cremation. Here we have a simple and quick procedure, which has the symbolic aspect of purification by fire. Afterward, the ashes are taken, placed in an urn, and scattered at sea, in the mountains, in a forest, or in a garden. I like this idea, but unfortunately cremation is not generally practiced in Israel, and I do not wish to impose on my relatives the transfer of my dead body to a place where it could be cremated.
There remains burial. One of the advantages of burial, to which I have become more sensitive in recent years, is that the grave is a site, a place, something concrete which those left behind can connect with. The burial ceremony and the grave itself are intended not for the dead, but for those left behind, and they must have the option of using the grave as they wish. The same is true of certain mourning rituals whose social and emotional role I completely understand. The days of the shiva, which the relatives of the deceased spend in each other’s company accepting condolences from visitors without leaving the house, fill a particularly important role: Over the course of the seven days, the deceased is spoken about many times, people tell the facts of his life and his descent into death, and thus, after it has all been told over and over again to exhaustion, they tire of the subject and stop ruminating over the deceased. It seems to me that I would like, for my own sake, these days of togetherness for my relatives, so that afterwards they will continue without me, tired of all the talking and the telling about me.
As to the direct material aspects of my death—the will, inheritance, division of property and so forth—they are perfectly simple. A man dies, his most intimate belongings are thrown away, his old clothes, his toothbrush, anything that is not useful or re-usable is disposed of. After that, an effort is made to keep a few symbolic objects, items which one feels should not be thrown away: pictures, books, certain pieces of furniture, souvenirs the mourners share among themselves. Right now, I already know that those close to me will not know what to do with some objects I cherish, especially books, and will try to divest themselves of them. This saddens me a bit, but there is nothing to be done about it.
Up to now, I have spoken of material things: the disposal of my body, the disposal of my possessions. Here, I arrive at emotions, memories, yearning, the influence my death will have over those I leave behind and who are attached to me, those who will be pained and shocked by my death. I want to die according to the proper order, before my wife, and especially before my children and grandchildren. It is clear to me that there is something in this which is selfish on my part, but such is the nature of things, such is the way I would like things to happen. In a certain sense I feel responsible for the sorrow I will cause them, and I know that for some of them it will be more than sorrow; it will be a lifelong loss. I feel responsible without being able to do anything about it. Of course, I am thinking of my death as I find myself today, and not of my death in an ugly, degenerative state, a death which would be a deliverance, both for me and for my loved ones.
I also think about the memory I would like to leave for those who will live on after me and who loved me, and I foresee my image as it will remain in the minds of those who have mattered to me. I am dead, and my friends remember me. They talk about me amongst themselves, and I would like these memories, these conversations of which I will be the subject, to be pleasant to them as they would have been pleasant to me, if I were able to attend them.
And finally, I am saddened by what I will not be able to see, what I will not be able to take part in: the granddaughters I will not see grow up; perhaps, finally, peace between Israel and Palestine; new scientific theories; new technological discoveries; social progress; works of art I will not know. I know that my death is not the end of the world, that many things will happen afterwards, that the world will continue without me, and that I will not know a thing about it. But there is still in me this curiosity, this interest, and I would even say this love that I feel toward my world, which arouses my interest in it, and stirs within me a longing for it.
I will end this eulogy for my death with a confession: I know that I am mortal, but in my innermost self I do not believe it. I feel that I am immortal, even though I know with certainty that I am going to die: I feel that I am immortal, not in the sense of an unlimited lifetime, but rather in the sense that I do not feel the need within me to stop my life as I live it. Had I not known that others die, that all others have already died or are going to die, I do not think that I would see my own death as a likely possibility. Had I not seen people around me grow old and die, it seems to me that I would not have been drawn into the turmoil of my death. I am trapped between the profound knowledge of my inevitable death, and my feeling that my life, as it appears to me and as I live it, could and even should continue forever. In my life today, in my life in the present, I feel eternal, though I know I will die tomorrow.
I know I am going to die, and I prepare for my death mostly by pondering the ways leading to it—but ultimately I know that this is only a theoretical preparation, expecting the worst while hoping that the worst will not happen. I prepare for my death in order to show to myself that I am a serious and responsible person, so that I will not blame myself for having failed to anticipate the various possibilities—just as people sign an insurance policy against theft or fire while hoping that there will never be the need for it. In my innermost self, I do not truly believe in my death, even though I know with certainty that I am going to die.
And here the question arises: Between the feeling I have that my life has no fundamental reason to end, and the knowledge I have of my future and unavoidable death, why do I busy myself with it? Why occupy myself eulogizing it? I do not know the answer, and perhaps, in truth, there is no clear answer to this question. Perhaps the problem of my death simply interests me, as do the problems of the good life, of my existence, and of the existence of my world. Perhaps it is just one of those problems philosophers like to deal with.
Personally, I still feel in good shape, my body still listens to me, and it seems to me that it has not yet been carried away into the trap of old age. But this trap, I know, is part of the nature of things, and there is no escape from becoming trapped in it. It just requires the passage of time, and the gods will not spare me. More and more, I am attentive to the elderly around me. I watch them walking, exerting themselves, stopping to catch their breath. They expend so much effort on a few steps, and I say to myself that I, too, am on the way there; I am also going to be like that. We are speaking not of sick or handicapped people, but simply of the old, people who have become old. I would very much like not to be revolted by the sight of old people, but all too often I cannot refrain from it.
To die well of old age, to die quickly of great old age, in good physical and mental health, with curiosity of the spirit and readiness of the body, to die in one’s sleep and simply never wake up again—this is what I wish for myself, a death like this is what I am eulogizing here. I, who feel immortal, want to die both quickly and a long time from now: to die quickly, that is to say, not to die too late. If fate is inclined to be kind to me, it is my wish to die quickly, a long time from now, to die in good health, to die a good death after having lived a good life.

Jacques Schlanger is professor emeritus of philosophy at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. This essay was originally published in Hebrew by Carmel Press in 2005.
1. Epicurus, Letters, Principal Doctrines, and Vatican Sayings, trans. Russel M. Geer (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1964), Vatican Sayings, no. 31, p. 68.
2. Epictetus, Discourses and Selected Writings, ed. and trans. Robert Dobbin (London: Penguin Classics, 2008), book 1, ch. 1, para. 32, pp. 7-8.
3. Marcus Aurelius, The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, trans. A.S.L. Farquharson (Oxford: Oxford University, 1989), book 9, para. 3, p. 81.
4. Epicurus, Letters, “Letters to Menoeceus,” Diogenes Laertius, X, 125-126, pp. 54-55.
5. Diogenes Laertius, The Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers, trans. Charles Duke Yonge (London, 1853), book 10, p. 431.

(page 1 of 1 - view all)

From the

The Magician of LjubljanaThe totalitarian dreams of Slavoj Žižek.
Faces of DeathSaw, a film by James Wan; and Saw II, a film by Darren Lynn Bousman
Job’s Path to EnlightenmentA new interpretation of the Bible's most enigmatic book.
Orde Wingate: Friend Under FireThe new historians take aim at the father of the IDF.

All Rights Reserved (c) Shalem Press 2022