We are born, we live for a time, then we die. We can plan our lives in accordance with this self-evident truth, or we can suppress any thought of it and live our lives as if death did not exist. By so doing, however, we are just deluding ourselves because birth and death are the two inseparable poles of earthly life. There is no pulling them apart. No one needs to remind us that we will die someday and that our loved ones will also die, either before or after us. In any case, such a reminder, if given, would be most unwelcome to many people. The paradox, though, is that we go through life behaving as if we will never die and can live indefinitely, presuming to be sailing on an ever-flowing tide. In ordinary circumstances the thought of death and dying hardly surfaces in an otherwise plain-sailing life, the ageing process being incremental and therefore hardly noticeable in the humdrum of day-today living. Mental health experts operate on the basis that religious belief or other forms of acknowledgement of the existence of an afterlife are delusions to counter the fear and anxiety over our own mortality, should it eventually set in, and the strong desire to continue to live in one form or another after the earthly existence has faded all too quickly. Thus, it is implied, even if not openly advocated, that anyone who entertains thoughts of an afterlife must be delusional.

Stirring moments of greater awareness, when one is inevitably confronted with the question of the meaning of human existence in general and the nature of one’s own identity in particular, are soon swept aside in the daily round of lesser and greater cares and challenges, the subject of death or the thought of dying a taboo topic to be avoided in polite conversation. About such things, we cannot know (and should not care) – these seem to be the maxims underlying most of our busy lives. Caught up in the business of earning and spending, many shy away from dwelling on thoughts of approaching death, of what happens when we die, and the central question of what life may possibly expect from us or what its purpose might be. They say that we cannot know the answers to such questions and science cannot help us here either, so what is the point of racking our brains over such matters? Let’s enjoy life while we still can!

Unlike the beasts, we are aware of our mortality. We cannot be truly alive without having an ever-present awareness of death. A child comes to realise that death is a certainty. As a youth, buoyed by the joy of being young, or as an adult he will adopt strategies to distance himself from adjusting to such reality in his abiding fear of death. In his declining years, the mind of an ageing person turns more and more to illness and to the management of ailments so that he can no longer ignore or mask every hint of ageing. Then the intimations of death’s ever-present proximity prod beyond a mere abstraction and penetrate our consciousness all the more compellingly at the end of life. We are astounded: Is that all there is? I have not yet really lived at all! Why did I not do what I actually wanted to do and considered to be right? Why was I not strong enough to set the course of my own life? Why could I not make my family and loved ones feel how much they mean to me? Why did I not allow myself to be happier? Such exhausted laments at the end of our days often generate agonising fear in the stark ignorance about what the human being actually is, what happens when we die and how things continue afterwards. Dispirited, we either anticipate release from life’s burdens in eternal rest or dream of personal survival in a better world than the one we are leaving.

Death is something we shut into hospitals, hospices and nursing homes. Sometimes the crippling fear of death becomes a most intense private obsession, even growing into a private hell, which can generate individual acts of irrational behaviour. Such fears, which would be illogical if there was nothing to follow death, are extended forms of natural fears, such

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