"They Write About Death". . . Culled From The Vanguard

DEATH has come under many
writers scrutiny because it
seems to be on the rampage
among actors. Recently, it
invaded the tribe of writers
with the death of Prof.
Chinua Achebe, easily one of
the finest writers the world
has known. Not an ornate or
florid writer, but his prose is
localised that it quickly
carved a niche for itself.

The ways people approach
death and write about it as
well as the mode of
operation of death itself are
quite perplexing. Reading
most write-ups on the
subject, you are left to
believe that all the
metaphysical problems of
form and substance, of time
and eternity, of matter and
soul, of continuity and
discontinuity in nature,
which appear in the analysis
of life, are even more intense
when we seek to understand
death. What do we really
know about death? Is it the
“finishing” of man or an
interruption?
Is it a plunge into
nothingness as JP Sartre
said? Does it signify absolute
break, a discontinuity
between the world of living
bodies and the domain of
inanimate things? Is it the
continuity of nature
preserved across the line
which divides inorganic and
organic matter? Is the
difference between the living
and the non-living one?
If we are to be truthful to
ourselves, we believe many
“tales” about death, but we
really rarely know what
death is. When Socrates was
about to be killed, he was
said to have told those
consoling him that: “The
hour of departure has
arrived, and we go our way –
I to die, and you to live.
Which is better God only
knows”. A most certain fact
about man is that he is going
to die; Martin Heidegger
called him a “being unto
death”.
By death we usually imply
permanent loss of
consciousness. Speaking
about the unpredictability of
death, Homer wrote:
“Miserable mortals who, like
leaves at one moment flame
with life, eating the produce
of the land, at another
moment weakly perish”. But
is the perishing final? The
certainty of death cannot be
doubted, but what death is,
is the problem. This is where
diverse understanding and
interpretations of death
come in.
It is common to hear all sorts
of stories that sound like
fairy tales about how a dead
person came out again to
torment his enemies. We
hear tales of dead people
who go to other distant
lands, where they are not
known, to start life anew –
get a job, rent a house, take
a wife, and even beget
children, only to disappear
again once in contact with a
person who knew them
while they were “alive”.
Incredible as these may
sound, some people insist
that dead people sometimes
appear to the living for
messages and for other
reasons. All these tales
reinforce many people’s
belief that death is a mere
taking off of the mortal coil
that quite transcends the
physical.
Death exercises a profound
effect upon the living. The
historians describe the
various forms which the
ceremonials of death take in
every society. Whether the
rituals are secular or sacred,
they are among the most
significant in any culture, for
they reveal the value placed
upon life and the conception
of life’s meaning and man’s
destiny.
I read of a certain culture
where a dead body is
repeatedly taking away
through many outlets,
including holes made at
different places in the room
so that on coming back the
body would be confused on
the actual entrance. Take the
case of Igbo people.
It is believed that if the dead
were not properly buried,
their spirit would continue to
torment the living and
wander about aimlessly
without being received into
the spirit world. To them,
proper burial, as prescribed
by custom, apart from
guaranteeing proper
reception, also enhances
easy reincarnation of a
particular soul.
Reincarnation presupposes
life after death; the
Pythagoreans call it
“transmigration of soul”.
Supposing we agree with
the Igbos and the
Pythagoreans that
reincarnation is a reality, we
shall find, again, diverse
interpretations of the
process of reincarnation.
While the Igbos and others
believe that man
reincarnates as man, others
represented by the Hindu
and many other oriental
groups, believe in the notion
that the soul transmigrates
from lower to higher forms
of life according to its virtues
and vices.
A typical Pythagorean
believes that those who love
music a lot will become
songbirds in their next
avatar. I have read the story
of a teacher, a Pythagorean,
who was teaching
reincarnation to his
students. As the class was
on, he heard the yelp of a
beaten dog and ran to its
rescue. Amused, his
students wanted to know
which he considered more
important: the dog or the
class, whereupon he
answered: “I recognised in
the cry of the dog the voice
of a dead friend”. While
some believe that the soul
continues to reincarnate ad
infinitum, others believe that
it is nature’s way of giving
man the opportunity to
atone for his sins, after
which reincarnation ceases;
so many discordant views on
the subject itself.
The notion of life after death
is so strong that times were
when kings were buried
with their servants and
wives to serve them in the
hereafter. In some cultures,
if the wife and servants
became resentful, sculptors
and carvers made statuettes
resembling these aides; by a
magic formula, usually
inscribed upon them, the
carved or painted objects
could be quite as effective as
the real ones. When the
ancient Arabs tied dead
people’s donkeys and horses
to their graves, foodless until
they died, it was to save
them the social disgrace of
going on foot in the
hereafter.
In Christian and Moslem
teachings, the soul does not
reincarnate, but goes to
heaven or hell depending on
its state of grace; here the
reality of life after death is
highlighted. Thus Pindah
said: “All human bodies yield
to death’s device. The soul
survives to all eternity. For
that alone is derived from
the gods, thence comes, and
thither returns”. Those
saints we hear of, though
dead, are still alive and
enjoying the blessedness of
heaven; what St. Augustine
called “the beatific vision”,
while the sinful ones are
alive also and suffering the
pain of hell.
Like Pindah, great religions
believe in the immortality of
the soul. However, when
alone, when not under the
“influence” of his religion,
most adherents of these
religions doubt this belief,
being empirically
unverifiable, as those with
leanings towards the
sciences would say. Our lives
are mostly subsumed in the
anonymity of collectivities
that we are afraid or
ashamed of going against
the tide. Only a few have had
the courage to state their
convictions or doubts
clearly. Writing in his Penses,
Blaise Paschal says: “We
ought to work for our
salvation according to the
doctrine of chance. If the
chances of there being an
after-life are equal to the
chances of there being none,
if the equiprobability reflects
our equal ignorance of either
alternative then we ought to
wager in favour of
immortality and act
accordingly.”

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