How Would You Like to Die?

The institution where I now teach had the fortunate opportunity to have Gilbert Meilaender on our campus recently. Meilaender is the Duesenberg Chair of Christian Ethics at Valparaiso University and served on the President’s Council on Bioethics from 2002-2009. He was also a doctoral student under the inimitable Paul Ramsey, whose legacy in medical ethics many readers will surely know. Meilaender is at once both sage and winsome, brilliant and humble. His talks corresponded with a forthcoming book project: Facing the Dying of the Light: Perspectives on Aging and Dying.
Meilaender opened his series of lectures by reflecting on the perennial question, “How would you like to die?” Most today, he suggested, would answer with one word: suddenly! Generally speaking, we want to live as long as we can, at the peak of our powers, and then fall off a cliff, as he put it. Doubtless he is right about contemporary attitudes toward death. If we have to go, let it be quickly and painlessly.
I heard Professor Meilaender against the backdrop of the new documentary of the life of the inventor-scientist Ray Kurzweil, Transcendent Man. Kurzweil believes that by the year 2045, computer speed and capacity will match the speed and capacity of the human brain. He calls that convergence “The Singularity”. When that happens, he argues, a new species will emerge and immortality will be achievable through the merging of man and machine.
One thing is made crystal clear by the documentary: Ray Kurzweil hates death. Although I am not a psychologist, it seems obvious from comments Kurzweil makes that he was traumatized as a young person when his father, a professional musician, died suddenly. Kurzweil laments that he was not able to prevent his father’s death because our technology is not sufficiently developed—yet. So, Kurzweil has kept all of his father’s belongings in storage, including pictures, ledger books, musical scores, etc., in hopes of one day recapturing his father’s consciousness through artificial intelligence technologies. He even believes that some AI machine one day will be able to scour from his own brain memories of his father to add to the rich pastiche of his father’s life as it is recreated. Kurzweil believes he himself will live long enough to make a “copy” of himself so he can move one step closer to the so-called Singularity and a technologically achieved immortality.
Thus, if these two views are representative, we would prefer either to die suddenly or not at all. What struck me while Meilaender was speaking—and he said as much during his lectures—is that it was not always so. Historically, most people have seen death as unavoidable and sudden death as particularly lamentable. Although no one relished extended suffering, the terminal condition gave opportunity to make peace with others, with God, and perhaps with death itself. Death was not welcomed in most cases, but “dying well” did not mean merely dying as painlessly as possible. Rather, it meant dying with one’s accounts in order, as it were.
Perhaps these two scenarios—either sudden death or no death at all—both miss this important aspect of human experience. On the one hand, sudden death robs us of the opportunity to reconcile ourselves where necessary so that we come to the end of our days with some resolution in our lives. On the other hand, if current experience is any teacher, indefinitely extended lifespan would mean we would be tempted to persist unreconciled to those with whom we are at odds. In both cases, we might miss one of the most important aspects of being human. It’s at least worth thinking about, it seems to me.