How Do You Know You’re Dead?

Door as a substitute for two doors

Children find it hard to understand death. In The Interpretation of Dreams Freud wrote a footnote about a highly intelligent boy of ten who remarked after the sudden death of his father: “I know father’s dead, but what I can’t understand is why he doesn’t come home to supper.” Even adults find it hard to imagine themselves dead. As a character in Tom Stoppard’s play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead asks: “Do you ever think of yourself as actually dead, lying in a box with a lid on it?…I mean, one thinks of it like being alive in a box.” When the American writer William Saroyan telephoned the Associated Press shortly before his death in 1981, he was only half joking when he observed: “Everybody has got to die, but I have always believed an exception would be made in my case. Now what?”

Once, death was a simple matter: you were alive or you weren’t. There were several tests, if necessary: freezing water poured in the ear (involuntary reflex); a poke in the eye (corneal reflex); something stuck down the throat (gag reflex); knuckles ground in the sternum (pain reflex). In imperial Rome when a man breathed his last, his name was cried aloud; if he didn’t reply, he was dead. Zoroastrians believe that a dog with eye-shaped spots on its forehead will give a sure sign: if it shows no interest when brought into the room where death has probably occurred, you can forget the “probably”; if it does show interest, any of the above-mentioned tests may be apt.

But advances in medical technology, and ethics, have complicated the issue. As someone remarked, you can only really be sure a person is dead if they’re no longer capable of litigation. Lack of detectable respiration and heartbeat are no longer seen as absolutes, and even electroencephalographic measurement of the activity of the brain – which can remain alive for up to ten minutes after the heart has stopped – can’t be relied on entirely. The literature is full of cases of people “dying,” having no response to stimuli, no EEG measure, and yet being resuscitated.

Once a person knows they’re dying, according to the psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, they typically go through five stages: denial; anger; “bargaining” for more time; depression; and lastly acceptance. It’s a way of handling their dying – though bypassed if run over by the hypothetical No. 7 bus or similar. The Hindu alternative is to view life as the illusion and death as the real thing.

When someone dies, sight is the first of the senses to go, followed by taste, smell, touch, and finally hearing. According to Tibetan Buddhist belief, the mind and the body’s energies withdraw and begin to dissolve into each other. The earth energy dissolves into the water energy, and a feeling of weakness accompanies the loss of sight. As the hearing is lost, the dying person feels as if they’re drying out and surrounded by smoke. Finally they’re adrift in a sky of moonlight, then sunlight, then darkness, the point of death, at which time the pilgrimage toward rebirth begins.

You’re unaware of the moment you stepped over the threshold into life. With luck you won’t be aware you’re going in the opposite direction. If your religious conviction is justified, you’ll know you’ve departed this life; if not, you won’t. Either way, as a Kingsley Amis poem notes, there’s something to be said for death: “Wherever you may be / they bring it to you, free.”

Tom Hickman
Death: A User’s Guide (2002)

Art by Marcel DuchampDoor as a substitute for two doors, Paris, 1927

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