Most philosophical treatments of death treat death as a a state, if not of the individual, then of the world in which that individual no longer experiences or has mental states. Describing the world as a world in which Abraham Lincoln is dead does not attribute any properties or states to something that exists. It is the claim that something that did exist no longer exists.In light of the fact that it is true of each of us, that at some point in time, it will be true that we are dead, there is much to ponder about that fact, and what it reveals about the meaning of life. In our discussion of “One for the Angels” we introduced Lucretius’s argument that death is not something to be feared, precisely because death isn’t a state of the person who will be dead. In response, some have noted that while it may not be rational to fear being dead, it may be rational to fear dying, which is a state of the individual who will, after dying, be dead.
Dying, then,is of philosophical interest, though less attention is paid to this final stage of life, and to the process of dying. Unlike being dead, dying may be a process over which we have some influence. If we engage in risky behaviors, death may come sooner, and the kind of death we fall prey to may also depend on the kinds of activities we perform. Mountain climbers, for example, are aware, and generally accept, that their choices may increase the likelihood that they will suffer traumatic injuries and trauma-induced death. Thus we can have preferences about how we die, as well as about when we die, and like our preferences for other things, like success in our careers and the enjoyment of a bottle of wine, our preferences don’t guarantee the hoped for outcomes.
Dying is also something that often can be experienced, sometimes up to the moment of death. Under many of the circumstances in which people die, it is difficult or impossible to communicate what it is that is being experienced. The dying person may have lost, or may not be in a position to communicate in speech or some other form, due to illness, trauma, time, or circumstances. The finality of death entails that there will be no later time at which one can recall the experience to oneself or others. The experience of death dies with the dead. Martin Heidegger put it this way:
Death does indeed reveal itself as a loss, but a loss such as is experienced by those who remain. In suffering this loss, however, we have no way of access to the loss-of-Being as such which the dying man ‘suffers’. The dying of Others is not something which we experience in a genuine sense; at most we are always just ‘there alongside’. (Being and Time 47: 282)
The loss of one’s own experience is the loss that the dying person is suffering. Perhaps the closest one can come to preserving the insights from the experience of dying is to study what are often referred to as “near-death experiences.” If there are such experiences, we may gain some insight into features of the experience of dying from those who have almost died.
This loss is powerfully and painfully depicted in “Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.” The occurrence is the death, by hanging, of a civilian sympathizer in Confederate South during the U.S. Civil War. Under other circumstances we might not sympathize with Peyton Farquhar, the convicted Confederate sympathizer. Here we witness an execution, the sudden and radical ending of a human life, a life of experiencing the wonders of the physical world and a world of relationships to other human beings, a world of love and attachment. All of that will come in an instant, at the command of a Union soldier.
Heidegger is certainly right that we can’t experience the loss-of-Being of another. However, “Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” may come pretty close. What is an instant is stretched out in time. What is in the head of Peyton Farquhar is revealed to us, the Others. What is revealed is familiar to us, what we value and love. It is the the experience of the beauty of nature, the exhilaration of sensory experience, of motion, of the feel of water against our skin, of the sounds of birds, and the yearling to go home.
Heidegger, Martin, 1962, Being and Time, translated by J. Macquarrie and E. Robinson. Oxford: Basil Blackwell