Photo by Mathew MacQuarrie / Unsplash


Death, the cessation of life remains one of the most phenomenal and mind-boggling notions to date. Its very mentation transcends all human understanding and one cannot help but wonder what death truly is. Even more absurd is the death or mortality paradox.

The Death Paradox

Death, as a construct, presents itself as both ineluctable and impracticable. On one hand, the human mind cannot comprehend the very state of nonexistence while on the other hand, it is common knowledge that all things must come to an end as implied by the French philosopher, Edgar Morin in the saying, “the certainty of death and the uncertainty of the hour of death is a source of grief throughout our lives”

Delving into the science of death, death could be said to have occurred when there is an irreversible loss of consciousness and all bodily functions have ceased to operate. But this has been a very controversial topic of discussion since there are hundreds of bodily processes ensuing within a human body at any given point in time and each one of these processes ceases to operate at its own pace. Thus, an ordinary person would only recognize a putrefied body as dead, whereas individuals in the security service such as policemen and the military recognize ‘rigor mortis’. Due to these discrepancies, medics and scholars have come to a consensus that brain death is most adequate for discerning the state of existence from nonexistence. It is well known that the brain has the integral function of determining our identity, thus we are who we are because of our brains.

Also, at every point in our lives, there is always electrical activity present in our brains even during sleep or complete loss of consciousness (in syncope). However, the halt of the aforementioned electrical signals signifies an irreversible and utter loss of consciousness.

Causes, manner and mechanisms of death

To understand death, one must first understand the causes, manner, and mechanisms of death. It is worthwhile to note the differences between the underlying cause of death and the immediate cause of death since they are mostly confused. Only a medical practitioner can determine the immediate cause of death (e.g.; hemorrhagic shock, cardiac arrest due to myocardial infarction) while any ordinary person can easily identify the underlying cause of death (e.g.; gunshot wound, breast cancer). The manner of death could be either one of these; natural, accidental, suicidal or homicidal. Natural deaths are caused exclusively by disease, accidental deaths are caused by unintentional trauma which contributes to the cause of death, suicidal deaths are a result of one's unnatural deliberate actions and finally, homicidal deaths are the consequences of intentional death by the hands of another person to harm. The mechanism of death is the physiological derangement set in motion by the causes of death that lead to the inevitable cessation of cellular activity.

Once death transpires, a warm-blooded body goes through five main postmortem events. Postmortem pallor is also known as ‘pallor mortis’ occurs first, just a few minutes after death. It manifests as paleness mostly at body extremities and is a result of the cessation of capillary circulation. ‘Algor mortis’ or Postmortem cooling follows almost immediately and can be recognized as the gradual decrease in the temperature of the body until ambient temperature status is attained. The third stage of death is Postmortem rigidity or ‘rigor mortis’ is the stiffening of the muscle mass as a result of the depletion of energy in the form of Adenosine triphosphate (ATP). Postmortem lividity also known as ‘livor mortis’ occurs next. After the cessation of circulation, all blood drains to the dependent vessels of the body due to the action of gravity resulting in an external manifestation of a blue-black discolouration of the skin.

The final stage of death is putrefaction. Putrefaction is caused by the emigration of normal flora from the gut to the blood, where they multiply, consume the blood and release a variety of pungent gases as metabolic by-products. It is characterized by notable bloating and a pungent odour becomes evident.

Wrapping off on the science of death, some creatures can be termed biologically immortal. Biologically immortal in the sense that these creatures cannot die from senescence (aging) but can only be killed through external factors such as injury, climate or disease. These creatures include the ‘turritopsis dohrnii’, a species of jellyfish, the hydra and certain bacterial and yeast species.

Regular life cycle

The life cycle of the turritopsis dohrnii, a biologically immortal species of jellyfish

Human death cannot be prevented and is inevitable today. However, life extension is a growing field in science and technology which involves slowing the ageing process in hopes of increasing the average lifespan. Such life extension processes include cryonics and reperfusion. Cryonics is a pseudoscientific belief that involves the preservation and storage of human remains at extreme sub-zero temperatures (-196 degrees Celcius) in hopes that future medicine and technology could aid in the revival of life. Reperfusion however is a concept that involves treating the dead. It aims to reverse the process of cell death after it occurs.

Cryonics. A way to cheat death?

Various religions and schools of thought have different ideas of what transpires after death. Some believe death is a process while others believe it is an event. Theists, individuals who believe in a supreme deity commonly believe in the certainty of the afterlife. Abrahamic religions which include Islam, Christianity and Judaism believe that where their followers end up is solely based on the deeds they committed while alive. The Sadducees, even though they believe in God do not believe in the existence of an after-life. Most Indian religions such as Buddhism, Hinduism and Sikhism believe in reincarnation, a philosophical belief that after death, human beings begin life anew as an entirely different living entity.  Most Traditional African religions however have different notions about the afterlife. While some believe that death is only a phase of life and dead people continue to live on as conscious spirits on earth, others believe in the state of limbo, which is a different realm for spirits where they are neither punished nor rewarded.

Death is a subject most of us try to exclude from our discussions but talking about it can help reposition the way we live our lives. We all want a good death, we all want to die well, but what does that really mean?

Perhaps the best thing to do is to consider what would be the best possible death experience for you. For example, who would you like to be with you? What might be your last wishes? Let's all try to do the very best with our lives, even though ironically, everything would come to an end.


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