Dying – perhaps not unlike waking up early or going to school – is one of those things that almost no one seems to want to do but everyone has to do eventually (at least for now).
Still, it’s quite a difficult topic of conversation.
It was, however, a topic of conversation at this year’s Fortune Brainstorm Health Conference in Dana Point, California. The panel discussion, “Why Don’t We Talk About Death?” touched on everything from the difficulty of facing death to the difficulty of preparing for it (both our own deaths and those of our loved ones), to the difficulty of even talking about dying in the first place.
Ironically, as it turns out, research has shown that reading may actually help us live longer. So with that, we’ve decided to share with you five articles on the subject of death that may bring you a new perspective on life.
For those who aren’t familiar with transhumanism or the Technological Singularity, one of its driving concepts is the idea that we might one day develop the ability to essentially upload our consciences to machines – in other words, that we might invent a technological solution to death.
In this article, which appeared in The New York Times Magazine last year, writer Mark O’Connell traveled with one of 2016’s lesser-known presidential candidates, Zoltan Istvan, who ran on a transhumanist platform.
With equal parts curiosity, skepticism and humor, O’Connell raises, in a non-lofty way, a pretty lofty question: What is life without death?
This story was also featured in O’Connell’s 2017 book “To Be A Machine,” which takes an even deeper look at transhumanism and its followers.
My arguments, [campaign volunteer Roen] Horn insisted, were transparently motivated by a “deathist” ideology, a need to protect myself against the terror of death by trying to convince myself that death was actually not so terrible. As crazy as most of what Horn said sounded to me, he was, I thought, basically right about this.
Until we do find that solution to death – and even once we do, depending on how appealing it is to think about your bodily presence in this world being something other than your physical body – it might be appropriate to consider how we face the reality of death.
In this article, also from the NYT Magazine last year, Jon Mooalem talks to B.J. Miller, a palliative care specialist who developed a new relationship with death after a very-near-fatal experience during his undergraduate years.
From an account of Miller’s own experience to an account of one of his patients, a 27-year-old man who died in 2015 of mesothelioma, Mooalem raises the question: Does death have to be such a big deal?
“Most people aren’t having these transformative deathbed moments,” Miller said. “And if you hold that out as a goal, they’re just going to feel like they’re failing.” The truth was, Zen Hospice had done something almost miraculous: It had allowed [patient Randy] Sloan and those who loved him to live a succession of relatively ordinary, relatively satisfying present moments together, until Sloan’s share of present moments ran out.
You can also watch Miller speak about death in his 2015 TED Talk, “What really matters at the end of life.”
Now we shift from facing our own death to dealing with the deaths of those we love. This article, which ran in The Washington Post in December, recounts the experiences of the family members and close friends of eight Washington, D.C.-area residents, ranging from age 7 months to 97 years, who died in 2016 and 2017.
Written as a compilation of interview excerpts, reporter Britt Peterson splices her subjects’ stories into six sections, ranging from their reactions to the death itself, to the logistics of funeral planning and organizing estates, to their experiences in the time since.
One question it raises: How prepared can we truly be for the death of a loved one?
Michael Votaw (son of deceased Carmen Delgado Votaw): I was waiting with her body for the people from the funeral home, just me and the minister. And she said, “Mike, just know that when they take her away it’s going to be an odd feeling, but when they shut the door and leave, you’re going to have an immense sense of relief that you’re going to feel guilty about.”
In 2013, David Sedaris, the author of several books and a frequent contributor to NPR’s “This American Life,” lost his sister Tiffany, who took her own life in her Massachusetts home.
Sedaris is known for riding a line between hilarious and searing in his writing, which often takes his family as its subject. Despite its heavy starting point, this essay, which appeared in The New Yorker in late 2013, charts a similar course.
One question it raises: How do we grapple with the death of an estranged family member?
Mustn’t Tiffany have hoped that whatever pills she’d taken wouldn’t be strong enough, and that her failed attempt would lead her back into our fold? How could anyone purposefully leave us, us, of all people? This is how I thought of it, for though I’ve often lost faith in myself, I’ve never lost it in my family, in my certainty that we are fundamentally better than everyone else.
And finally, a lighter – if unsettling – look at how we consider the suffering of the non-humans among us.
The late David Foster Wallace, author of several nonfiction and fiction books including “Infinite Jest,” wrote this essay in 2003 after attending the Maine Lobster Festival. In it, he speculated on the moral gray area inherent in dropping a crustacean – a live crustacean at that – into a pot of boiling water, leading it to react in a rather human-like way (basically trying to escape, although the article describes it much more graphically than that) before we devour it.
Again using humor, as well as some deep reflection, Wallace raises an impossible question: What is suffering?
For one thing, it’s not just that lobsters get boiled alive, it’s that you do it yourself—or at least it’s done specifically for you, on-site. As mentioned, the World’s Largest Lobster Cooker, which is highlighted as an attraction in the [Maine Lobster] Festival’s program, is right out there on the MLF’s north grounds for everyone to see. Try to imagine a Nebraska Beef Festival at which part of the festivities is watching trucks pull up and the live cattle get driven down the ramp and slaughtered right there on the World’s Largest Killing Floor or something—there’s no way.