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The Undiscovered Country

A recent excerpt from film critic Roger Ebert's new memoir, in regards to his views on death, got me to thinking about the subject. Not for the first time. Let's be real: Death is something that we think about from time to time. It is, in many ways, the basis for nearly all religions in the world - past and present. My own view on death may sound bleak, and it does scare me sometimes, but it is what is is.

For me, death is the end of the continuing personality. The body still exists, but the mind has ceased to be. There will be no more going forward. Now, the personality can still remain with us in the form of what is left behind. For those who endeavor in things such as artistic creation, or writing, blogging, and even social networks such as Facebook or Twitter, our personalities will still exist for as long as those creations are archived and, sometimes, viewed. But the continuing personality is gone.

The human remains (as they are oft referred to) continue on for quite some time. And so, in a way, do we. At a very basic level, bodies that are entombed or buried are still 'us.' There's no getting around the fact that we live through our bodies, and place a great deal of importance on them. Those often don't go anywhere once we die. For example, several of our historical figures are still with us, albeit entombed. They are no longer functioning but, physically, they remain. And even in the case of cremation, those are still our remains, simply in a different form. Our atoms continue and are re-used. Indeed, it's very likely that you and I have the atoms of Mozart and Shakespeare (and the Elizabethan peasant down the street) within us.

As for our consciousness, well, that's probably gone once we die. It's a function of our highly (relatively speaking) evolved brains. We're still not able to completely explain it, but it's likely tied to the physical. Once our brain shuts down, our consciousness and personality ceases to be. This is the part of my point-of-view that scares me the most, as, well, I like me. I like my friends and family. The idea that all of us one day will no longer be here -- or anywhere -- is rather depressing. But then I stop and realize that this is the way of life. Things are created, they live, and then they die.

There was a scene from the 1980s television series St. Elsewhere that has always stuck with me. The beloved Dr. Auschlander has passed away of old age. The staff who worked with him have gathered together in his memory, and Dr. Westphall leads the service. He remarks, "There was a time when Daniel Auschlander didn't exist. And now that time has come again." Hearing those words as a kid, said so matter-of-factly, made me sit up and take notice. It just sounded right. During times of fear and doubt regarding death, that scene often flashes through my thoughts, and calms me. I wasn't aware of life before I was conceived, and therefore likely won't be aware of it afterwards. And, in the meantime, I've had the glorious experience that is life on this Earth.

These views I have of death are not steadfast beliefs. They do not comprise any sort of faith. They are the conclusions I have come to through years of living, observation, collecting knowledge, going to church, and listening to folks who have all sorts of different beliefs and opinions. I have no proof that when we die, we are truly dead, but it's what makes the most sense to me, out of all the other options. It makes life more precious, in a way, and helps solidify the belief that what matters most here is our time here on Earth -- our only time. Let's make it count. Let's make it the best it can be for all of us.


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