The nature of death

Life and death are perhaps more intertwined than we might think.

I could feel a hesitation when I sat to write about death. In our culture, it is largely taboo to discuss. A subject we don’t like to talk about if we can avoid it. But sometimes we can’t escape it, like the other evening when my daughter came up and asked what happens when you die.

Death may seem to be an inevitable part of life, yet if we look more carefully, we find that death isn’t so black and white, at least with some creatures. Bacteria, for instance, are single-celled organisms that split in half in order to reproduce. It’s a riddle, when you consider it. Which half is now the “original”? Those halves in turn will split in half, and the process continues indefinitely (unless a bacteria is eaten, wholloped by antibiotics, or otherwise killed by outside forces). In a way, these creatures are immortal, never aging. And it’s not just bacteria that never age. There is the hydra, which seems to be a creature capable of living without age, and the “immortal jellyfish”, which does age, but then can revert back to its youthful life, repeating the trick over and over again.

More philosophically, we can notice in the woods that some things that “die” become more alive in their death. Trees are a wonderful example. After they die, the party begins. Mushrooms, beetles, larvae, birds, ants and hundreds of other creatures move in, turning the tree, which was once mostly “dead” wood, into a thriving community that may or may not be properly considered to be a living being. If you are eager to discount this possibility, remember that you yourself are composed of 10 times more bacterial cells than human cells, and without those bacteria you would die. In a way, even in life we are much like a dead tree, more community than individual.

That’s one way to think of death. It may not be so much an end of life as a spreading out of life, the party over, with all the individuals moving on to other things. But the reason we humans fear death, of course, is because we feel that we possess a consciousness, and fear that the consciousness will evaporate upon dying. Some religions give us hope, promising that our consciousness continues after the body disintegrates. But other religions confront death in other ways. I remember a story my brother told me about a Buddhist garden he was walking through in Thailand. It had beautiful flowers and stone walkways, and there, along the path, was a small plaque. It had a picture of two people walking, hand in hand. It was only upon closer inspection that he noticed one of the people was a skeleton. For him, it was a reminder that death awaits us all, and can come at any moment. This can drive us into fear, but it can also be an emancipation. It can lead us to release our clinging to the future, and to begin appreciating where we are. This moment takes on a clarity when we remember that death might come in the next minute, the next hour, or the next day. There is little time to waste on being on “cruise control”, having arguments, or wishing that we were somewhere else. This newspaper in your hands has a texture that is easy to miss. The face of someone you see every day is actually changing in every moment. Every cloud is unique. Each breath is more precious than a truckload of money.

This, perhaps, is when death can transform from taboo into one’s favorite subject. It’s not about being morbid. It’s about death’s invaluable reminder that this moment, right now, is worthy of our fullest love and attention.

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Whitman heads the Menomonie-based wilderness school ReWild University. You can learn more at or


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