Man’s thoughts and understanding of death are shrouded in mystical abstractions. They sometimes smack of histrionics of the infirm, hobbling between extremities as if in gesticulation. They are tinged with the thinking of local belief systems and often flavoured with inexplicable religious thoughts of different schools of philosophy. To some others, death is a transcendental vestibule to the sublime ethereal. The subject matter is non-descript in perspective. Liken it to a prism if you choose.
Death evokes a dreariness that renders it reducible to a mere syllable of thought. Ponder over this, “… death is a tragedy that comes in the form of darkness and clouds…. It is a necessary norm….” This rendition was part of a Reverend Father’s sermon at the funeral service for a deceased acquaintance. Real, death is inescapable. In all man’s rendezvous on earth, it is the ultimate, a finality. To some, death is at once an apocalypse. The clutch is definite whether delivered of steel or velvet gloves.
Does it generate any feeling of wistfulness? Only gloom? Maybe not. The late Chief Obafemi Awolowo stunned well-wishers at his 78th birthday anniversary when he said, “What I am celebrating is actually the imminence of my transition to eternal life. The fact that I am happy to celebrate it means that the great beyond must be a happy place. I have a strong conviction in life-after-death.” Sixty-three days later, the sage passed away in his sleep. He had before this time placed order for a serialized publication on the subject of life-after-life. Some of the books arrived shortly after his death.
The story is still told with refreshing ease back home, of that late grandfather. He instructed his children to begin preparations for his death six months before he died. On the morning of the day he died, he sent all the women in the neighbourhood to fetch firewood for his funeral. Before their return in the afternoon, he passed away in his sleep. He had prayed for all his children and assured them continued guidance even after his death. Is there life after death? African traditional philosophy upholds precisely that.
The passing away of a man arouses a festive mood among relatives in meaningful elaborate burial rituals. They are purposive celebrations enacted to propitiate his departed forbears to accept him into their exclusive realm whence blessings are showered on the living. The dead are supposed nearer God. They are an isthmus between God and the living. This cultural element is essentially symbolic for the man whose life bore no stings of moral depravity.
Christianity, too, shares a belief skin to that. Believers in Jesus Christ, the Jewish Messiah who dedicate their lives to his principles, will live forever in heaven if Judgment day certifies them qualified. Those not so authorized will remain in everlasting hellfire. They nullify the views of atheist and allied schools of philosophy, whose perception of death portrays the unfathomable image of the unforgiving iconoclast. Believers in life-after-death are nothing iconoclastic about death. It is a metaphysical stage in the existence of the human soul. What counts, they contend, is whether your presence on earth reflected remarkable glimmerings of piety. The rest of the matter is left to conjecture.
The above views notwithstanding, a man spends every day of his life planning; the desire to accomplish what his mental imagination conceives is endless. His mind is sometimes perturbed about what could put an end to it. The apt consolation is that man’s existence on earth is, after all, ephemeral.
Death stalks and haunts us, always lurking in our shadows until that momentous strike, a fixed time perhaps. Some say there is a time to die, a belief that is itself an allurement to a fatalistic view of life. The insistence is that when your time is up, its up. Take Napoleon. The Great French general and emperor once wrote, “Our hour is marked, and no one can claim an hour beyond what fate has predestined”. Unlike Alexander the Great, the Pan-Hellenistic warrior from Macedonia and the only soldier-ruler comparable to him in history, Napoleon reigned when the gun had been invented. He acquired a reputation for racing across burning bridges; through hails of bullets ahead of his troops in battle, he was never struck by any. Napoleon’s invasions are among the largest in the history of mankind; he marched on the Russian heartland with an army of over 600,000 men, arriving in Moscow in the summer of 1812. He was defeated by the Russian winter and compelled to retreat. He returned to Paris alive with only 26,000 men. He died of cancer in faraway St. Helena. But his life span of 53 years consumed a full trajectory; an astonishing rise to fame as general at 27, as Emperor three years later, then Leipzig and Waterloo, and a quiet death in exile. His was a life of daring military adventurism in Europe, Asia and Africa. His claims to fatalism are justified and could continue to win many more followers to his school of thought.
Julius Caesar defied or ignored warnings from his wife and a soothsayer of an impending assassination attempt on his life on the ides of March. Shortly afterwards, Brutus and fellow conspirators killed him at the Capitol. Fatalists would also justify that, though. The divergent views elicited thus far generate outright confusion on the subject matter of life and death. How does it affect non-humans?
A man walks around cloaked in an aura of narcissism. His gait exudes enraging arrogance and an arrogant disdain for all else, regardless of their origin in creation. Man, all other animals and plants supposedly emanate from the same source, the Almighty God. But man’s attitude towards animals is sometimes brutish. In 1983, the Pentagon (The Defence Department of the United States Government) bought about forty dogs for experimental research at the Wounds Laboratory for military surgeons. They would be shot ostensibly to enable man to perfect one of his despicable desires—the art of making war. Lance Morrow of Time Magazine castigates this as “humanity’s most dramatic bestiality”. The surgeons would examine the bullet wounds as part of their professional duties as if the dogs were humans.
If perfected, that could save human lives in times of war. Animal preservationists raised a massive outcry about the cruel act of man’s inhumanity to animals. The Pentagon promised to rethink its decision. So, after all, there are people committed to preserving animal life. But some animals are destined to end up in the jaws of man. Maybe a case for speciesism is tolerable. “The dogs would die anyway”. Lance Morrow concluded. It is a daily occurrence; baboons, monkeys, and rabbits all go for the guinea pig experiments. The argument is that animal life is forfeit to that of man, where the investigation promotes ultimate advantage for humanity. Human beings cannot serve the same experimental goals. Only in Hitler’s Germany suffused with Nazi hatred for Jews was that possible. But the animal dies just as man dies, the way the Jews killed during the holocaust. And plants too? Yes, even plants, the Hare Krishna followers maintain.
Mohammed Khan, an adherent of that faith, argued strenuously to convince his knowledgeable audience in a crowded hall during a preaching crusade not to kill plants indiscriminately. “They each possess a life no less valuable than yours. Flowers are the souls of dead people, and any cut dealt any plant bring unbearable pain to it”. As he spoke, the contorting lines on Khan’s face made him a personification of plant anguish, a hero of the plant kingdom. His speech bore a rhapsodic touch of Buddhism.
The sublime reverence attached to man’s life, animal or plant, is ridiculous and raises a moral configuration. At the garden of Eden, the beginning of creation, God’s covenant with man subjected every other thing around him to his control. He commanded man to subdue the earth and all therein for his benefit. That belief issues forth from the Bible, the Christian Holy book. But Khan isn’t a follower of that faith and does not feel bound by those injunctions. He has a measure of support in Albert Einstein’s statement espousing the philosophy of Spinoza: “I believe in Spinoza’s God who reveals himself in the harmony of all being, not in a God who concerns himself with the fate and actions of men.”
The debates over the issue of death and, of course, life because whatever dies must first possess life are endless. Because the justifications are many and lack a cohesive front, man is swayed by sentiments to align with one or reject all.
Perhaps Emmanuel Kant did offer us a solution about that beyond our comprehension; that man can go only as far as his research and explanation take him. From that point on, we must attribute all else to God. What is unknown to man is known only to God.