Episode 88 – “The Last Rites of Jeff Myrtebank”

Jeff Myrtebank succumbs to the flu as a young man in rural Kentucky, or thereabouts, in the 1920s. His family physician, Dr. Bolton, declares him dead, and his family administers last rites at their country church. During the service, Jeff climbs out of the coffin, and declares himself alive.  There doesn’t appear to be anything “last” about the last rites of Jeff Myrtebank.

This scenario raises several metaphysical questions. What is death, and what is the death of a person? Can a person survive death, and if so, in what way? Could one survive death by reversing the process, by becoming alive after being dead, or by existing as a person while being dead? All of these questions are, at root, about the relationship of persons to their organic bodies.

Jeff appears to be the same person who was declared dead. He appears to remember past events and he recognizes family, friends and acquaintances  from his home town. Others are less sure, and doubts are raised as people notice differences between the old Jeff and the new. The new Jeff seems more self-assured, and he is a better fist-fighter than he used to be. There is some speculation that Jeff is not the same person before and after the his ascendancy, but that explanation doesn’t get much traction. Jeff is changed, and who wouldn’t be? But he’s still Jeff Myrtebank.

The most straightforward explanation of the phenomenon of Jeff Myrtebank’s ascendance from the coffin, and one that is carefully considered in the episode,  is that he didn’t die in the first place.  In response to challenges from the townsfolk, Dr. Bolton lays out the evidence he adduced to conclude that Jeff was dead. First, Jeff had no pulse. Second, Dr. Bolton administered what he called “the pin test.” He stabbed Jeff with a pin. There was no response. Then he held up a mirror to his lips: “If there’s any life left in a man at all, his breath will fog up a mirror.” Jeff didn’t fog a mirror. In contemporary terms, Dr. Bolton used cardiopulmonary criteria to declare Jeff Myrtebank’s death.

Dr. Bolton’s determination of death followed the state of science of the time. Death, as a state of the human body, is an empirical question, though what constitutes an answer to it, is a function of the scientific theories of the time. However, the question of what constitutes the death of a human being is less clear than it was for Dr. Bolton. One definition is that it is the irreversible ending of all brain function, where the functions of the brain include both higher functions such as perception and cognition, and lower functions such as respiration and circulation. Some challenge this interpretation on the basis of cases where higher level brain functions have ceased but basic life support functions remain.  In these debates, the central distinction may be between a living organism, and an organism that supports personhood.

Philosophical questions often arise by reflecting on scientific practice and theory, and, as we’ve emphasized, philosophical reflection can take place by asking about how our concepts and definitions would apply in possible, or imagined, cases. In this episode we have the application of the medical definition of death from the 1920s, and we can appreciate its shortcomings. Just as Jeff Myrtebank is classified as dead when he isn’t, and he is justifiably bothered by that fact when he realizes that he was about to be buried alive, so too have we had to consider our possible Jeff Myrtebanks,  including individuals with conditions such as Locked-in syndrome,  individuals who appear to have lost all sensory and cognitive function when what they have really lost is their ability to communicate with others. Such patients demonstrate that the problem of other minds is not “just” a philosophical exercise.

We don’t know what causes Jeff Myrtebank to emerge from the coffin days after he’s been declared dead. The episode offers several competing hypotheses, the implausibility of each heightened by its setting in rural America in the 1920s.  We have moved from a cardiopulmonary definition of death to a brain-based definition. Yet exactly how we should characterize death remains open to debate, in large measure because that characterization, as the episode shows, and as Green and Wikler (1980) argue,  hinges on our philosophical understanding of personhood. To make sense of death we have to make sense of the relationship of personhood to the physiological processes of the human body.

Further Reading:

Green, M. and D. Wikler, 1980, “Brain Death and Personal Identity,” Philosophy and Public Affairs, 9: 105–33.

Laureys, S. et. al., The locked-in syndrome : what is it like to be conscious but paralyzed and voiceless? Progress in Brain Research. 2005;150:495-511.

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