When I retired as a humanist celebrant I thought I'd stop writing this blog, but my fascination with all things death-related prompted more posts. They're just written from a slightly different perspective, that's all. Oh, and I still do the odd one, by special request.

Monday, April 09, 2018

Wise words about the process of dying

Dr Mannix explains what happens.
When the video appeared on Facebook someone commented "Hardly comforting to hear this. Death is traumatic at every level - and always will be." Sad to hear someone feels this way but I suppose it's quite common. When someone's killed in traumatic circumstances, such as being horribly injured in a war, obviously that's different, but "always will be" just isn't true.

Sure Dr Mannix would approve of this quote:
Perhaps the best cure for the fear of death is to reflect that life has a beginning as well as an end. There was a time when we were not: this gives us no concern—why then should it trouble us that a time will come when we shall cease to be? . . . To die is only to be as we were before we were born; yet no one feels any remorse, or regret, or repugnance, in contemplating this last idea. It is rather a relief and disburthening of the mind: it seems to have been holiday-time with us then: we were not called upon to appear upon the stage of life, to wear robes or tatters, to laugh or cry, be hooted or applauded; we had lain perdus all this while, snug, out of harm’s way; and had slept out our thousands of centuries without wanting to be waked up; at peace and free from care, in a long nonage, in a sleep deeper and calmer than that of infancy, wrapped in the finest and softest dust.  And the worst that we dread is, after a short, fretful, feverish being, after vain hopes, and idle fears, to sink to final repose again, and forget the troubled dream of life!
On the Fear of Death, William Hazlitt, 1778-1830.

Friday, January 19, 2018

Death doesn't misgender. You die as you were born.

In a discussion (if you can call it that) about transgenderism and the proposed changes to the Gender Recognition Act on Twitter, the tweet above was aimed at me. It'll be familiar to those of you who question the claim, since it's been repeated umpteen times by irritable transgender people and their chums. According to them, anyone who dares to question the assertion that you can change your sex, whether from male to female or female to male, is a "transphobe", or we "misgender" people, or worse. These absurd beliefs are nonsensical and deny all the evidence to the contrary.

Statue of Death, Trier 
Cathedral, Germany
When I die my body should be sent to the teacher of anatomy at The University of Cambridge, as it's been bequeathed for medical education. For how to donate your body, see the link on the right. I wrote should be sent, as it may not be accepted if they have a glut of cadavers or if it's not in good enough condition. The medical students who dissect my body will discover that I was a woman, as I have female anatomy, minus a couple of bits. I have no uterus, as it was removed years ago, and only one breast, as I've had a mastectomy. But there will be no doubt that it was a female body.

If a transgender person's body was dissected, either for medical education or a post-mortem examination, his or her sex would also be obvious to a student or pathologist. Not the sex that he or she chose to present as, but his or her natal sex; the sex that he or she was born with. Even when a body has been buried for a very long time, so that there is no soft tissue left, only bone, it is still possible to identify the sex. DNA and characteristics such as the shape of the pelvis will be clear proof of the sex of the corpse. Any surgery that had been intended to make someone appear different from his or her biological sex, the sex they were born with, will make no difference. It will still be obvious. There is a very small number of people who are described as intersex, because their anatomy isn't typical of a male or female, but their existence doesn't validate the claim that a man can be a woman or vice versa. They are very different from transgender people. So no, in life or in death, trans women are not women, no matter how many times you say it's so. It's simply impossible to change your sex.

Gender is different. Gender roles are determined by convention, culture, tradition, the family, and a while bunch of other variables. It's not so much what sex you were born with as where you were born, the society you were raised in, and how independent you are or are allowed to be. In countries like ours, Great Britain, we have more freedom to follow our interests and express ourselves as we please. In other countries, such as the Islamic theocracies, unconventional people risk punishment or even death. So transgender people are fortunate if they live in relatively liberal societies. They can express themselves as they please. But this doesn't mean that claiming to be what you're not is any more ethical, or that it's ethical to claim rights that disadvantage others, such as women's hard-won rights. We are entitled to our safe spaces, to representation in women's organisations, including political ones, to prizes and awards specifically for women, and to compete on equal terms in athletics and sports where male physical strength and size would put us at a disadvantage. And there are very good reasons why there are separate prisons for men or women, and no good reasons to change this.

So, in conclusion, you die as you were born, whichever sex that was. That's a fact.

If the skeleton in the image was a real skeleton, and it could be properly examined, you could tell if it was male or female, though Christians generally assume that the Angel of Death is male, like their God. Jadzia Dax wouldn't have made this sort of fuss.

Thursday, December 28, 2017

You just never know when you'll go...

Lucius Annaeus Seneca, known as Seneca the Younger, who lived in Rome from about 4 BC to AD 65, wrote about the fear of death:
No one is so ignorant as not to know that he must die one day … You will go where all things go … This happened to your father, your mother, your ancestors, everyone who came before you; it will happen to everyone who comes after you. A succession that is never broken and which no power can change has bound all things and draws them all together … did you not imagine that you yourself would not at some time arrive at that point to which you were always travelling? There is no journey without an ending.
My mum died of a cerebral haemorrhage on Christmas Eve 1990, minutes after demonstrating to some children at a Christmas party that she could still kick her own height at the age of seventy-seven. It was six months after my dad died of cancer, ending a year's suffering, and Mum had declared that she didn't want to go like him, so she got her wish, though it was a shock for us. I've known people react with disbelief when a relative died at Christmas, spoiling their holiday, but death doesn't care.

There are some lessons about life and death from the obituaries in the Canadian publication, MacLean's by Michael Friscolanti. He wrote that he learned:
Find love, if possible, and follow that love wherever it leads. Be yourself, whoever that is. When the bell tolls, money really does mean nothing. The reaper doesn’t accept bribes. Don’t feel sorry for yourself (and if you must, keep it short). 
This is just a summary - click on the link for more.

None of us knows how long we've got, so Carpe Diem folks, and Happy New Year. Oh, and to save any confusion, make a will.

Wednesday, April 05, 2017

How will you die?

Just read a report about another celebrity who's "sadly died". Sadly dying, rather than just dying, is a clichéd way to go. I'd prefer to die without elaboration. Someone on Twitter suggested they just use this.

Monday, November 28, 2016

The death penalty's a strange way to punish people

I've never understood some people's enthusiasm for the death penalty. When you're dead, you're dead, saving the cost of incarceration no doubt, but there the punishment ends. Isn't that revenge, rather than punishment? Life imprisonment for serious crimes lasts long years, rather than minutes. The fear of death may affect the condemned man or woman but, again, it's soon over. If you're of a religious persuasion, I suppose you might imagine the torments of hell or some other afterlife punishment, but an eternity is an eternity, whether it begins now or in fifty years time.


Monday, August 29, 2016

High rise cemetery

This is the Memorial Necrópole Ecumênica in Santos, Brazil, a mausoleum housing thousands of bodies. I suppose that buildings like "the world's tallest cemetery" might appeal to planners in places where burial space is limited or unavailable, but I can't see British local authorities approving them, even if they were only a few storeys high. Can you imagine the fuss from the nimbys?

Bodies placed into crypts above ground decompose in a small space, releasing fluids and gases. If they're not properly sealed they can explode, as has happened. It's been described as a "clean and dry" way to dispose of the dead, but it's anything but. It's certainly not environmentally-friendly and won't appeal to those who want to be returned to Nature, as a corpse buried in the ground is. It's ironic that the crypts in this building facing a pleasant view of the surrounding hills attract a higher price, while no one is encouraged to think about the reality of the process. Yuk. No thanks.

Click here to see a short film about the building.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Death from a scientific point of view

A friend died not long ago. He wasn't a close friend, and I only met him face to face two or three times, but he was the sort of person you don't forget in a hurry, mainly because of his paradoxical character; outwardly a misanthrope but a generous, loving person in disguise. Over the last few years, Simon collected many friends via social media, mainly through Twitter and Facebook, and many of them socialised with him in real life, not just online. His Facebook page is still there and his closest friends are still sharing memories through it. Today I found that one had written a blog post mentioning him and quoting something that made sense to a heathen like me. Simon would have liked it too, as the confirmed atheist that he was. It's by Aaron Freeman, who broadcasts with America's NPR radio station.
You want a physicist to speak at your funeral. You want the physicist to talk to your grieving family about the conservation of energy, so they will understand that your energy has not died. You want the physicist to remind your sobbing mother about the first law of thermodynamics; that no energy gets created in the universe, and none is destroyed. You want your mother to know that all your energy, every vibration, every Btu of heat, every wave of every particle that was her beloved child remains with her in this world. You want the physicist to tell your weeping father that amid energies of the cosmos, you gave as good as you got.

And at one point you’d hope that the physicist would step down from the pulpit and walk to your brokenhearted spouse there in the pew and tell him/her that all the photons that ever bounced off your face, all the particles whose paths were interrupted by your smile, by the touch of your hair, hundreds of trillions of particles, have raced off like children, their ways forever changed by you. And as your widow rocks in the arms of a loving family, may the physicist let him/her know that all the photons that bounced from you were gathered in the particle detectors that are her/his eyes, that those photons created within her/him constellations of electromagnetically charged neurons whose energy will go on forever.

And the physicist will remind the congregation of how much of all our energy is given off as heat. There may be a few fanning themselves with their programs as he says it. And he will tell them that the warmth that flowed through you in life is still here, still part of all that we are, even as we who mourn continue the heat of our own lives.

And you’ll want the physicist to explain to those who loved you that they need not have faith; indeed, they should not have faith. Let them know that they can measure, that scientists have measured precisely the conservation of energy and found it accurate, verifiable and consistent across space and time. You can hope your family will examine the evidence and satisfy themselves that the science is sound and that they’ll be comforted to know your energy’s still around. According to the law of the conservation of energy, not a bit of you is gone; you’re just less orderly.

© 2005, NPR.org
You can hear Freeman read this if you click here.

There have been others who've pointed out that nothing ever disappears completely, and that the stuff we are made of is recycled, including the 17th century French orator, Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet:
All things summon us to death: nature, almost envious of the good she has given us, tells us often and gives us notice that she cannot for long allow us that scrap of matter she has lent. . . she has need of it for other forms, she claims it back for other works.
Bossuet was a bishop and a theologian, so Simon might not have approved of me quoting him, but even bishops have been known to talk sense.