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How Do You View Death?
Does thinking about your own mortality make you appreciate life? Or does the thought fill you with dread?
By Nicole Daniels
Note to Teachers: We don’t often take on the subject of death, but with the world experiencing a devastating pandemic, we thought this article might help students think about their own understanding of mortality.
This past year has been filled with death: More than 300,000 people in the United States and 1.6 million worldwide have died from the coronavirus.
Has the pandemic changed your understanding of death and dying? Have you had to grieve the death of a loved one? Has it made you consider your own mortality more? Has it made you appreciate the impermanence of life? Or have the staggering numbers made you feel numb?
In “ What Is Death? ,” Dr. BJ Miller writes about how the coronavirus pandemic has transformed our understanding of mortality and offers several frameworks for thinking about death:
This year has awakened us to the fact that we die. We’ve always known it to be true in a technical sense, but a pandemic demands that we internalize this understanding. It’s one thing to acknowledge the deaths of others, and another to accept our own. It’s not just emotionally taxing; it is difficult even to conceive. To do this means to imagine it, reckon with it and, most important, personalize it. Your life. Your death. Covid-19’s daily death and hospitalization tallies read like ticker tape or the weather report. This week, the death toll passed 300,000 in the United States. Worldwide, it’s more than 1.6 million. The cumulative effect is shock fatigue or numbness, but instead of turning away, we need to fold death into our lives. We really have only two choices: to share life with death or to be robbed by death. Fight, flight or freeze. This is how we animals are wired to respond to anything that threatens our existence. We haven’t evolved — morally or socially — to deal with a health care system with technological powers that verge on godly. Dying is no longer so intuitive as it once was, nor is death necessarily the great equalizer. Modern medicine can subvert nature’s course in many ways, at least for a while. But you have to have access to health care for health care to work. And eventually, whether because of this virus or something else, whether you’re young or old, rich or poor, death still comes. What is death? I’ve thought a lot about the question, though it took me many years of practicing medicine even to realize that I needed to ask it. Like almost anyone, I figured death was a simple fact, a singular event. A noun. Obnoxious, but clearer in its borders than just about anything else. The End. In fact, no matter how many times I’ve sidled up to it, or how many words I’ve tried on, I still can’t say what it is. If we strip away the poetry and appliqué our culture uses to try to make sense of death — all the sanctity and style we impose on the wild, holy trip of a life that begins, rises and falls apart — we are left with a husk of a body. No pulse, no brain waves, no inspiration, no explanation. Death is defined by what it lacks.
The essay continues:
Beyond fear and isolation, maybe this is what the pandemic holds for us: the understanding that living in the face of death can set off a cascade of realization and appreciation. Death is the force that shows you what you love and urges you to revel in that love while the clock ticks. Reveling in love is one sure way to see through and beyond yourself to the wider world, where immortality lives. A pretty brilliant system, really, showing you who you are (limited) and all that you’re a part of (vast). As a connecting force, love makes a person much more resistant to obliteration. You might have to loosen your need to know what lies ahead. Rather than spend so much energy keeping pain at bay, you might want to suspend your judgment and let your body do what a body does. If the past, present and future come together, as we sense they must, then death is a process of becoming. So, once more, what is death? If you’re reading this, you still have time to respond. Since there’s no known right answer, you can’t get it wrong. You can even make your life the answer to the question.
Students, read the entire article, then tell us:
How often do you think about the fact that you will die one day — that we all will? Does contemplating your own mortality make life more vibrant for you? Or does it fill you with dread?
How do you view death? Do any of the perspectives shared by Dr. Miller resonate with you? Do you see death as a medical condition? An anatomical process? A religious or spiritual experience? Or something else?
Dr. Miller asks: “What is death to you ? When do you know you’re done? What are you living for in the meantime?” How would you answer these questions and why?
Have you had any experience with death — the death of a loved one, a community member or someone you looked up to? How did that experience shape your understanding of death? How did it affect the way you live your own life, if at all?
Is death something that is easy for you to talk about with your family and community? Why or why not? Do you and your family have rituals — religious, secular or spiritual — that help you reckon with death and dying?
How well do you think our society deals with death? Are we able to look at the meaning of death — and its relation to life — with care and nuance? Or do we hide from and minimize it? How do you think we could confront the inevitability of death better?
About Student Opinion
• Find all our Student Opinion questions in this column . • Have an idea for a Student Opinion question? Tell us about it . • Learn more about how to use our free daily writing prompts for remote learning .
Students 13 and older in the United States and the United Kingdom, and 16 and older elsewhere, are invited to comment. All comments are moderated by the Learning Network staff, but please keep in mind that once your comment is accepted, it will be made public.
Nicole Daniels joined The Learning Network as a staff editor in 2019 after working in museum education, curriculum writing and bilingual education. More about Nicole Daniels
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Does the understanding that our final breath could come tomorrow affect the way we choose to live? And how do we make sense of a life cut short by a random accident, or a collective existence in which the loss of 5 million lives to a pandemic often seems eclipsed by other headlines? For answers, the Gazette turned to Susanna Siegel, Harvard’s Edgar Pierce Professor of Philosophy. Interview has been edited for length and clarity.
GAZETTE: How do we get through the day with death all around us?
SIEGEL: This question arises because we can be made to feel uneasy, distracted, or derailed by death in any form: mass death, or the prospect of our own; deaths of people unknown to us that we only hear or read about; or deaths of people who tear the fabric of our lives when they go. Both in politics and in everyday life, one of the worst things we could do is get used to death, treat it as unremarkable or as anything other than a loss. This fact has profound consequences for every facet of life: politics and governance, interpersonal relationships, and all forms of human consciousness.
When things go well, death stays in the background, and from there, covertly, it shapes our awareness of everything else. Even when we get through the day with ease, the prospect of death is still in some way all around us.
GAZETTE: Can philosophy help illuminate how death impacts consciousness?
SIEGEL: The philosophers Soren Kierkegaard and Martin Heidegger each discuss death, in their own ways, as a horizon that implicitly shapes our consciousness. It’s what gives future times the pressure they exert on us. A horizon is the kind of thing that is normally in the background — something that limits, partly defines, and sets the stage for what you focus on. These two philosophers help us see the ways that death occupies the background of consciousness — and that the background is where it belongs.
"Both in politics and in everyday life, one of the worst things we could do is get used to death, treat it as unremarkable or as anything other than a loss," says Susanna Siegel, Harvard’s Edgar Pierce Professor of Philosophy.
Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard Staff Photographer
These philosophical insights are vivid in Rainer Marie Rilke’s short and stunning poem “Der Tod” (“Death”). As Burton Pike translates it from German, the poem begins: “There stands death, a bluish concoction/in a cup without a saucer.” This opening gets me every time. Death is standing. It’s standing in the way liquid stands still in a container. Sometimes cooking instructions tell you to boil a mixture and then let it stand, while you complete another part of the recipe. That’s the way death is in the poem: standing, waiting for you to get farther along with whatever you are doing. It will be there while you’re working, it will be there when you’re done, and in some way, it is a background part of those other tasks.
A few lines later, it’s suggested in the poem that someone long ago, “at a distant breakfast,” saw a dusty, cracked cup — that cup with the bluish concoction standing in it — and this person read the word “hope” written in faded letters on the side of mug. Hope is a future-directed feeling, and in the poem, the word is written on a surface that contains death underneath. As it stands, death shapes the horizon of life.
GAZETTE: What are the ethical consequences of these philosophical views?
SIEGEL: We’re familiar with the ways that making the prospect of death salient can unnerve, paralyze, or derail a person. An extreme example is shown by people with Cotard syndrome , who report feeling that they have already died. It is considered a “monothematic” delusion, because this odd reaction is circumscribed by the sufferers’ other beliefs. They freely acknowledge how strange it is to be both dead and yet still there to report on it. They are typically deeply depressed, burdened with a feeling that all possibilities of action have simply been shut down, closed off, made unavailable. Robbed of a feeling of futurity, seemingly without affordances for action, it feels natural to people in this state to describe it as the state of being already dead.
Cotard syndrome is an extreme case that illustrates how bringing death into the foreground of consciousness can feel utterly disempowering. This observation has political consequences, which are evident in a culture that treats any kind of lethal violence as something we have to expect and plan for. A glaring example would be gun violence, with its lockdown drills for children, its steady stream of the same types of events, over and over — as if these deaths could only be met with a shrug and a sigh, because they are simply part of the cost of other people exercising their freedom.
It isn’t just depressing to bring death into the foreground of consciousness by creating an atmosphere of violence — it’s also dangerous. Any political arrangement that lets masses of people die thematizes death, by making lethal violence perceptible, frequent, salient, talked-about, and tolerated. Raising death to salience in this way can create and then leverage feelings of existential precarity, which in turn emotionally equip people on a mass, nationwide scale to tolerate violence as a tool to gain political power. It’s now a regular occurrence to ram into protestors with vehicles, intimidate voters and poll workers, and prepare to attack government buildings and the people inside. This atmosphere disparages life, and then promises violence as defense against such cheapening, and a means of control.
GAZETTE: When we read about an accidental death in the newspaper, it can be truly unnerving, even though the victim is a stranger. And we’ve been hearing about a steady stream of deaths from COVID-19 for almost two years, to the point where the death count is just part of the daily news. Why is the process of thinking about these losses important?
SIEGEL: It might not seem directly related to politics, but when you react to a life cut short by thinking, “If this terrible thing could happen to them, then it could happen to me,” that reaction is a basic form of civic regard. It’s fragile, and highly sensitive to how deaths are reported and rendered in public. The passing moment of concern may seem insignificant, but it gets supplanted by something much worse when deaths are rendered in ways likely to prompt such questions as “What did they do to get in trouble?” or such suspicions as “They probably had it coming,” or such callous resignations as “They were going to die anyway.” We have seen some of those reactions during the pandemic. They are refusals to recognize the terribleness of death.
Deaths can seem even more haunting when they’re not recognized as a real loss, which is why it’s so important how deaths are depicted by governments and in mass communication. The genre of the obituary is there to present deaths as a loss to the public. The movement for Black lives brought into focus for everyone what many people knew and felt all along, which was that when deaths are not rendered as losses to the public, then they are depicted in a way that erodes civic regard.
When anyone dies from COVID, our political representatives should acknowledge it in a way that does justice to the gravity of that death. Recognizing COVID deaths as a public emergency belongs to the kind of governance that aims to keep the blue concoction where it belongs.
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In order to get ahead of the virus, putting vaccines into arms as quickly and efficiently as possible should be the focus, says experts.
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Essays About Death: Top 5 Examples and 9 Essay Prompts
Death includes mixed emotions and endless possibilities. If you are writing essays about death, see our examples and prompts in this article.
Over 50 million people die yearly from different causes worldwide. It’s a fact we must face when the time comes. Although the subject has plenty of dire connotations, many are still fascinated by death, enough so that literary pieces about it never cease. Every author has a reason why they want to talk about death. Most use it to put their grievances on paper to help them heal from losing a loved one. Some find writing and reading about death moving, transformative, or cathartic.
To help you write a compelling essay about death, we prepared five examples to spark your imagination:
1. Essay on Death Penalty by Aliva Manjari
2. coping with death essay by writer cameron, 3. long essay on death by prasanna, 4. because i could not stop for death argumentative essay by writer annie, 5. an unforgettable experience in my life by anonymous on gradesfixer.com, 9 easy writing prompts on essays about death.
“The death penalty is no doubt unconstitutional if imposed arbitrarily, capriciously, unreasonably, discriminatorily, freakishly or wantonly, but if it is administered rationally, objectively and judiciously, it will enhance people’s confidence in criminal justice system.”
Manjari’s essay considers the death penalty as against the modern process of treating lawbreakers, where offenders have the chance to reform or defend themselves. Although the author is against the death penalty, she explains it’s not the right time to abolish it. Doing so will jeopardize social security. The essay also incorporates other relevant information, such as the countries that still have the death penalty and how they are gradually revising and looking for alternatives.
You might also be interested in our list of the best war books .
“How a person copes with grief is affected by the person’s cultural and religious background, coping skills, mental history, support systems, and the person’s social and financial status.”
Cameron defines coping and grief through sharing his personal experience. He remembers how their family and close friends went through various stages of coping when his Aunt Ann died during heart surgery. Later in his story, he mentions Ann’s last note, which she wrote before her surgery, in case something terrible happens. This note brought their family together again through shared tears and laughter. You can also check out these articles about cancer .
“Luckily or tragically, we are completely sentenced to death. But there is an interesting thing; we don’t have the knowledge of how the inevitable will strike to have a conversation.”
Prasanna states the obvious – all people die, but no one knows when. She also discusses the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Research also shows that when people die, the brain either shows a flashback of life or sees a ray of light.
Even if someone can predict the day of their death, it won’t change how the people who love them will react. Some will cry or be numb, but in the end, everyone will have to accept the inevitable. The essay ends with the philosophical belief that the soul never dies and is reborn in a new identity and body. You can also check out these elegy examples .
“People have busy lives, and don’t think of their own death, however, the speaker admits that she was willing to put aside her distractions and go with death. She seemed to find it pretty charming.”
The author focuses on how Emily Dickinson ’s “ Because I Could Not Stop for Death ” describes death. In the poem, the author portrays death as a gentle, handsome, and neat man who picks up a woman with a carriage to take her to the grave. The essay expounds on how Dickinson uses personification and imagery to illustrate death.
“The death of a loved one is one of the hardest things an individual can bring themselves to talk about; however, I will never forget that day in the chapter of my life, as while one story continued another’s ended.”
The essay delve’s into the author’s recollection of their grandmother’s passing. They recount the things engrained in their mind from that day – their sister’s loud cries, the pounding and sinking of their heart, and the first time they saw their father cry.
Looking for more? Check out these essays about losing a loved one .
Are you still struggling to choose a topic for your essay? Here are prompts you can use for your paper:
1. Life After Death
Your imagination is the limit when you pick this prompt for your essay. Because no one can confirm what happens to people after death, you can create an essay describing what kind of world exists after death. For instance, you can imagine yourself as a ghost that lingers on the Earth for a bit. Then, you can go to whichever place you desire and visit anyone you wish to say proper goodbyes to first before crossing to the afterlife.
2. Death Rituals and Ceremonies
Every country, religion, and culture has ways of honoring the dead. Choose a tribe, religion, or place, and discuss their death rituals and traditions regarding wakes and funerals. Include the reasons behind these activities. Conclude your essay with an opinion on these rituals and ceremonies but don’t forget to be respectful of everyone’s beliefs.
3. Smoking: Just for Fun or a Shortcut to the Grave?
Smoking is still one of the most prevalent bad habits since tobacco’s creation in 1531 . Discuss your thoughts on individuals who believe there’s nothing wrong with this habit and inadvertently pass secondhand smoke to others. Include how to avoid chain-smokers and if we should let people kill themselves through excessive smoking. Add statistics and research to support your claims.
4. The End Is Near
Collate people’s comments when they find out their death is near. Do this through interviews, and let your respondents list down what they’ll do first after hearing the simulated news. Then, add their reactions to your essay.
5. How Do People Grieve?
There is no proper way of grieving. People grieve in their way. Briefly discuss death and grieving at the start of your essay. Then, narrate a personal experience you’ve had with grieving to make your essay more relatable. Or you can compare how different people grieve. To give you an idea, you can mention that your father’s way of grieving is drowning himself in work while your mom openly cries and talk about her memories of the loved one who just passed away.
6. Mental Disorders and Death
Explain how people suffering from mental illnesses view death. Then, measure it against how ordinary people see the end. Include research showing death rates caused by mental illnesses to prove your point. To make organizing information about the topic more manageable, you can also focus on one mental illness and relate it to death.
Check out our guide on how to write essays about depression .
7. Are You Afraid of Death?
Sometimes, seriously ill people say they are no longer afraid of death. For others, losing a loved one is even more terrifying than death itself. Share what you think of death and include factors that affected your perception of it.
8. Death and Incurable Diseases
People with incurable diseases are often ready to face death. For this prompt, write about individuals who faced their terminal illnesses head-on and didn’t let it define how they lived their lives. You can also review literary pieces that show these brave souls’ struggle and triumph. A great series to watch is “ My Last Days .”
You might also be interested in these epitaph examples .
9. If I Can Pick How I Die
No one knows how they’ll leave this world, but if you have the chance to choose how you part with your loved ones, what will it be? Probe into this imagined situation. For example, you can write: “I want to die at an old age, surrounded by family and friends who love me. I hope it’ll be a peaceful death after I’ve done everything I wanted in life.”
To make your essay more intriguing, put unexpected events in it. Check out these plot twist ideas .
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Maria Caballero is a freelance writer who has been writing since high school. She believes that to be a writer doesn't only refer to excellent syntax and semantics but also knowing how to weave words together to communicate to any reader effectively.
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