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They Write About Death

By Valentine Obienyem
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Death has come under many writers' scrutiny because it seems to be on the rampage among actors. Recently, it invaded the tribe of writers with the death of Prof. Chinua Achebe, easily one of the finest writers the world has known. Not an ornate or florid writer, but his prose is localised that it quickly carved a niche for itself.

The ways people approach death and write about it, as well as the mode of operation of death itself are quite perplexing. Reading most write-ups on the subject, you are left to believe that all the metaphysical problems of form and substance, of time and eternity, of matter and soul, of continuity and discontinuity in nature, which appear in the analysis of life, are even more intense when we seek to understand death. What do we really know about death? Is it the "finishing" of man or an interruption? Is it a plunge into nothingness as J.P Sartre said? Does it signify absolute break, a discontinuity between the world of living bodies and the domain of inanimate things? Is it the continuity of nature preserved across the line which divides inorganic and organic matter? Is the difference between the living and the non-living one of kind or of degree?

If we are to be truthful to ourselves, we believe many "tales" about death, but we really rarely know what death is. When Socrates was about to be killed, he was said to have told those consoling him that “The hour of departure has arrived, and we go our way – I to die, and you to live. Which is better God only knows.” A most certain fact about man is that he is going to die; Martin Heidegger called him a "being unto death." By death we usually imply permanent loss of consciousness. Speaking about the unpredictability of death, Homer wrote: "Miserable mortals who, like leaves at one moment flame with life, eating the produce of the land, at another moment weakly perish". But is the perishing final? The certainty of death cannot be doubted, but what death is, is the problem. This is where diverse understanding and interpretations of death come in.

It is common to hear all sorts of stories that sound like fairy tales about how a dead person came out again to torment his enemies. We hear tales of dead people who go to other distant lands, where they are not known, to start life anew - get a job, rent a house, take a wife, and even beget children, only to disappear again once in contact with a person who knew them while they were "alive". Incredible as these may sound, some people insist that dead people sometimes appear to the living for messages and for other reasons. All these tales reinforce many people's belief that death is a mere taking off of the mortal coil that quite transcends the physical.

Death exercises a profound effect upon the living. The historians describe the various forms which the ceremonials of death take in every society. Whether the rituals are secular or sacred, they are among the most significant in any culture, for they reveal the value placed upon life and the conception of life's meaning and man's destiny. I read of a certain culture where a dead body is repeatedly taking away through many outlets, including holes made at different places in the room so that on coming back the body would be confused on the actual entrance. Take the case of Igbo people, it is believed that if the dead were not properly buried, their spirit would continue to torment the living and wander about aimlessly, without being received into the spirit world. To them, proper burial, as prescribed by custom, apart from guaranteeing proper reception, also enhances easy reincarnation of a particular soul. Reincarnation presupposes life after death; the Pythagoreans call it "transmigration of soul."

Supposing we agree with the Igbos and the Pythagoreans that reincarnation is a reality, we shall find, again, diverse interpretations of the process of reincarnation. While the Igbos and others believe that man reincarnates as man, others represented by the Hindu and many other oriental groups, believe in the notion that the soul transmigrates from lower to higher forms of life according to its virtues and vices. A typical Pythagorean believes that those who love music a lot will become songbirds in their next avatar. I have read the story of a teacher, a Pythagorean, who was teaching reincarnation to his students. As the class was on, he heard the yelp of a beaten dog and ran to its rescue. Amused, his students wanted to know which he considered more important: the dog or the class, whereupon he answered, "I recognised in the cry of the dog the voice of a dead friend". While some believe that the soul continues to reincarnate ad infinitum, others believe that it is nature's way of giving man the opportunity to atone for his sins, after which reincarnation ceases; so many discordant views on the subject itself.

The notion of life after death is so strong that times were when kings were buried with their servants and wives to serve them in the hereafter. In some cultures, if the wife and servants became resentful, sculptors and carvers made statuettes resembling these aides; by a magic formula, usually inscribed upon them, the carved or painted objects could be quite as effective as the real ones. When the ancient Arabs tied dead people's donkeys and horses to their graves, foodless until they died, it was to save them the social disgrace of going on foot in the hereafter.

In Christian and Moslem teachings, the soul does not reincarnate, but goes to heaven or hell depending on its state of grace; here the reality of life after death is highlighted. Thus Pindah said: "All human bodies yield to death's device. The soul survives to all eternity. For that alone is derived from the gods, thence comes, and thither returns". Those saints we hear of, though dead, are still alive and enjoying the blessedness of heaven; what St. Augustine called "the beatific vision", while the sinful ones are alive also and suffering the pain of hell. Like Pindah, great religions believe in the immortality of the soul. However, when alone, when not under the "influence" of his religion, most adherents of these religions doubt this belief, being empirically unverifiable, as those with leanings towards the sciences would say. Our lives are mostly subsumed in the anonymity of collectivities that we are afraid or ashamed of going against the tide. Only a few have had the courage to state their convictions or doubts clearly. Writing in his Penses, Blaise Paschal says: "We ought to work for our salvation according to the doctrine of chance. "If the chances of there being an after-life are equal to the chances of there being none, if the equiprobability reflects our equal ignorance of either alternative then,” Paschal argues, “we ought to wager in favour of immortality and act accordingly.”

Confucius, an agnostic was at it too. He had a cold impersonal view of heaven. Like Paschal, he thought religion a good wager. If the ancestors to whom we sacrifice hear us, we have made a good bargain; if they are quite dead, and unconscious of our offerings, the sacrifice gives us an opportunity to gather our relations and neighbours and participate in the enjoyment of the sacrificial victuals and drinks. This was why, when one of the followers of Confucius asked him about the spirit of the dead, he answered: "You do not know about the living, yet you want to know about the dead." Like Paschal, Confucius was truthful to himself. Most often, people pretend to know much about death and the dead when they inwardly know that they really know nothing. Because death involves the very being of man, it is often the object of soliloquy in moments of greatest introspection or self-appraisal. We are abreast of what have been written about death and what people believe about it. These, however, do not guarantee our knowledge about death; it is a very obscure subject.

Meanwhile, those who pretend to be experts in death matters have every reason to rage on; this includes those who often claim to have died and come back to life. May they be reminded, finally, that our knowledge is moulded and limited by our means and ways of perceiving things, and by things that have great influence on us. It is locked up in the prison of our minds, and it must not pretend to be the objective on ultimate truth about anything, especially metaphysical notions such as death.

Obienyem wrote this piece from Awka

Disclaimer: "The views/contents expressed in this article are the sole responsibility of Valentine Obienyem and do not necessarily reflect those of The Nigerian Voice. The Nigerian Voice will not be responsible or liable for any inaccurate or incorrect statements contained in this article."