By Dr Selwyn R. Cudjoe
January 10, 2022
Death has stalked our land this past year with particular fury. More than 3,000 have died from Covid-19; 448 people died from homicides in 2021 and, blissfully, there were only 76 road fatalities—the lowest number since 1957. Yet, we only talk about death in mournful terms rather than what it might mean to those who are still alive.
Recently, African American philosopher George Yancy offered his opinion on death and dying, recalling that in 2014, a few days before his father died, he asked him: “So, what are your thoughts now about dying?”
It was not a difficult question to ask his father since they had always talked about the existence of God, the meaning of life, and the fact of death.
His father answered, “It’s too complex.”
Yancy spoke to several scholars about the meaning of death. Two responses stood out. Jacob Kehinde Olupona, a scholar of Yoruba religion, explained that “humans are enjoined to do well in life so that when death eventually comes, one can be remembered by one’s good deeds”. The atheist philosopher Todd May suggested that we “live our lives along two paths simultaneously—both looking forward and living fully in the present”. (New York Times, January 2)
Yancy concludes that each religious world view “touches something or is touched by something beyond the grave, something that is beyond our descriptive limits”, thus he refused “to accept that there is nothing after death”.
I sent Prof Yancy’s article to Adam (not his real name) to elicit his response. Adam was “a student priest” at Mt St Benedict Seminary for five years. He left the seminary and joined the National Joint Action Committee (NJAC) at the height of the Black Power Revolt. Between 1971 and 1973, he associated with the Orisha and Spiritual Baptist faiths. In 1974, he joined a non-denominational church, of which he became pastor in 1979.
Adam responded to Yancy’s article: “I have no doubt that consciousness continues after the death of the physical body. Quite apart from biblical teachings to which I subscribe, there is too much anecdotal information, much of which has found its way into print and video media, of near-death experiences (NDEs).
“That consciousness is only accessible via the physical body is, to me, a rather restricted view of reality, given the vastness of the universe, the very plausible theory of a multi-verse and the fact that 95 per cent of what constitutes the universe is unknown dark matter/energy.
“The myriad cases of NDEs cannot be dismissed offhand. To me, denying the reality of NDEs is tantamount to denying someone’s everyday experience at worst, or someone having an unusual experience in the physical realm, at best.”
My mother, a devout Christian, possessed a different view of life after death. Some months before she died, she called my sister, took her to her wardrobe, and told her what outfit she wanted to be buried in. She didn’t believe that life existed after death. She firmly believed “when yo’ dead, yo’ dun. No one ever come back to tell us about the other side”.
There is an indigenous faith tradition that gives us another way to evaluate the power (or lack of power) of death. Brought to Trinidad and Guyana from South India, the Madrassis (a distinctive group among the Hindus) believed that one should be sorrowful when a baby is born and happy when a person dies. They believe when a person is born, she is entering a world of sorrow (hence their mourning). When she dies, she enters into a world of bliss, hence their singing, dancing, and expressions of joy.
A Christian friend describes death beautifully: “It’s setting sail, it’s breaking camp, it’s being free from this life so we can go home.”
Recently, I had a fleeting acquaintance with death. One Christmas Eve I was driving from Boston to New York. I was in the passing lane, driving around 75 miles an hour, when a car suddenly pulled up in front of me. I had little room to avoid a major smash-up. In that one incredible second I saw death. All rational thought deserted me and I was guided simply by instinct. For that one moment I was merely a sentient being existing out of time and feeling that I was amidst a vast expanse of nothingness.
John Donne, the metaphysical poet, looked death in its face and declared: “Death, be not proud, though some have called thee/ Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;/ For those whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow/ Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.”
I offered the views of the atheist and the deeply religious adherents on their thoughts of death. I even offered my mother’s view which was located somewhere between the religious and the agnostic. As for me, I prefer to be agnostic, given the vastness of the universe and the fact that one can never know it fully and with certainty.
WEB Du Bois, informed by what some scholars call “the black natural law tradition”, wrote in 1933: “We must have religion in the sense of striving for the infinite, the ultimate, and the best. But we must straitly [sic] curb the effort of any exclusive guild to be the single and final arbiter of individual interpretation of desired and desirable truth.”
Whatever views we hold of death, its present intensity should teach us how to live, knowing that it will come to all of us eventually. “Death is loss,” as Yancy says, “but it also illuminates and transforms life and serves as a guide for the living.”
We ought to pay more attention to what death can teach us about life rather than surrender helplessly to its awful pangs.