Leiden Law Blog

Reflections on passing away

Reflections on passing away

You will die.

This may trouble you. Living happily may preclude too much unwelcome consciousness of your inevitable death: “He who lives now, forgetting time so to say, lives forever” to more or less comprehensibly paraphrase Wittgenstein. Though living forever might be a rather boring prospect, contemplating one’s own death is not always a comfortable thought.

                But then what is one actually thinking about when one thinks about death and dying? I cannot literally say: “I am dead”. So I cannot know what it is to be dead. Believers may think they go to heaven, hell or somewhere in between, but then belief is not a good foundation for knowledge.

                Of course we do know what the death of others means to us. The passing away of loved ones is a terrible loss. Not because they are dead (what is death?), but because they are no longer there. Like Joost Zwagerman, a most gifted and highly esteemed novelist and art critic who ended his own life earlier this week. Why? One asks oneself time and again: what moves human beings to opt for death and not for life? How can one choose a totally unknown option?

                There are no answers to such questions. In fact the issue of life versus death itself is a conceptual mess. How is life v. non-life to be decided within life? Suicide and euthanasia may be better conceived in terms of shorter v. longer lives. Somebody who is terminally suffering may want to spare herself the continuation of excruciating pain, knowing that she will die anyway. This may be a dramatic but still rational decision in the end.

                Does the same hold true for suicide as a consequence of depression and other mental issues? How can one predict one’s own life, except for stages of terminal illness? Hard to say one would think, especially when one is still young. But then suicide may oftentimes not be so much a rational decision as a desperate last move.

                So many others die involuntarily, like the lifeless refugee child on the beach pictured the world over. Life and death mean nothing to him anymore, just as his no longer being there means everything to his former next of kin. And he is far from alone in having his life so unjustly, drastically and violently shortened.

                He just wanted to live, like most of us. Without life there is nothing to long for. Why death? For Joost Zwagerman, as for so many others like him, for so many refugees who never reach their destinations, for so many others not wanting to die but to live?

The forestalling of suicide through mental health care may still be much improved. Refugee policies may be revised in order to save human lives in the first place. So many other policies may be reformed with a view to saving human life. All other ends in life presuppose life itself, so life ought to trump everything. Not because death is terrible in itself, but because we want to live life. 

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