(This was my final paper for English Comp 2)
English Comp II
Death in the Modern Age
Throughout the history of literature, there have been many types of introspective works. But very few have so eloquently touched upon death as Emily Dickinson did in her poem, “I Heard a Fly Buzz– When I died”, a short work about a person’s final thoughts at the moment of death. Death, a specific defining moment, has been a sensitive subject for most. However, death has been going through a bit of a transition in the last few years in both its ethical, legal and even scientific understandings. It might be overwhelming for someone come to grips with after the many centuries of its definition being when the heart stops beating. But recently (within the last fifty years) that age old definition has changed (Determination).
In 1978, lawmakers and scientist both came to a realization that the age-old definition of death needed to be brought into the modern age. With the implication of the Uniform Brain Death Act (UBDA) , medical professionals no longer had to declare death as soon as their patients stopped breathing (Determination). Stating their definition of legal death as the “irreversible cessation of all functioning of the brain, including the brain stem”, lawmakers were able to further mankind’s understanding of each individual’s end. However, due to unfortunate wording choices, the original document was hard for most states to adopt into their own legal systems. In 1980, a solution was brought forth in the form of the Uniform Determination of Death Act (UDDA); while still not perfect, it allowed state lawmakers to implement into their books, and is still in effect today (Determination).
In National Geographic’s 2008 documentary “The Moment of Death,” filmmaker Mark Mannucci interviews the world’s top critical care physicians and neuroscientists to discover what happens at our inevitable moment of death. One such expert, Lance Becker from the university of Pennsylvania’s emergency medicine department, had this to say, “Death is a process…There’s this point where someone’s mostly dead. And then there’s the point where they’re dead dead”(Mannucci). In the film, the scenario of someone in a coma or suffering respiratory failure was used a model in their examples. In both cases, cell death due to lack of oxygen was the main culprit (Mannucci).
However, death is not a simple scientific matter according to Hornby K, “Death is generally understood to be based on the irreversible cessation of either brain function or circulatory and respiratory functions and the determination of death is a clinical matter that should be made according to widely accepted guidelines established by expert medical groups….there is a lack of consensus on how long circulation and respiration must cease for a person to be determined dead” (Hornby). In Hornby’s paper on Auto Resuscitation after cardiac arrest, he says this in his conclusion, “The limitations of the existing data in this field strongly support the need for additional potential methods of evaluating the “time to death” question after withdrawal of life support” (Hornby).
Outside the medical professions, there is another side of death that is being debated, what actually constitutes death, what happens if someone were to come back and is death really that evil? Theodore Sider has this to say, “What can metaphysics contribute to the question of the evil of death? It cannot, on its own, settle the question, since there is no simple rule telling us how to adjust value in light of new information about underlying nature”(Sider). Metaphysics can be described as a way “…to investigate Ultimate Reality”(Sider), but more importantly, “Will a clear view of what death is help us decide whether it is bad? Not necessarily. The discovery that death = X might instead affect our appraisal of X, leaving our appraisal of death untouched” (Sider). In Theodore Sider’s conclusion leaves one with more questions than answers, the real questions are about the structure of our values, and they remain to be answered: do such facts explain why it is so bad to die?” Is it bad to die? This author cannot say either yes or no; however, new studies into to Near Death Experiences (NDEs) might provide insight as to what happens when we die… or almost die.
Near-death experiences (NDEs) are common enough that they have entered our everyday language. Phrases like “my whole life flashed before my eyes” and “go to the light” come from decades of research into these strange, seemingly supernatural experiences that some people have when they’re at the brink of death” (Grabianowski). According to Grabianowski, science has yet to fully explain why NDEs happen, but they have determined that NDEs are both physiological and psychological in nature. However, researchers Cheryl Fracasso and Harris Friedman from Neuroquantology have this to say in their research paper of the subject: “Stefansson, Traustason, and Eysteinsson (2006) suggested that visual sensations in NDEs are associated with different tissue pressures in the eyes and brain as a result of reduced arterial blood pressure during times
of trauma or stress…However, this model fails to account for OBEs [Out of Body Experiences] that were reported during the NDE, especially those that included accounts of veridical perception (i.e., when it was reported that NDErs accurately described resuscitation efforts) that have been allegedly corroborated by medical staff (Holden, 2009)” (Fracasso). “At this point, it is our belief that the majority of the evidence does suggest that something profound might be occurring that could challenge some of the most basic assumptions we hold about reality; we also acknowledge that more conventional materialistic explanations cannot yet be definitively ruled out, although they have thus far not explained away these intriguing reports from NDEs. It also remains to be seen whether quantum physics or other newer scientific approaches can eventually offer any better grounds for explaining how a disembodied consciousness could possibly exist separately from a functioning brain during NDEs” (Fracasso). Fracasso and Friedman go on to poke further holes into accepted scientific theory, Noyes and Kletti (1977) proposed a depersonalization theory of NDEs as a form of detachment that occurs as a psychological defense against the fear of death. However, this theory has been highly criticized since common features of depersonalization outlined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual ofMental Disorders (DSM-IV-TR; American Psychiatric Association [APA], 2000) include feelings of strangeness, a sense of decreased reality or loss of reality, and detachment from one’s body” (Fracasso).
Perhaps Dickinson said it best, “And then the Windows failed – and then I could not see to see – (Dickinson)” Maybe the only time we will ever truly know what happen at the moment of death, regardless of all the technological advancements we may have at our disposal, is when it is our time to leave this mortal struggle. Whether or not death is ultimately evil or good, that remains to be seen. But until then, we can always look deeper into science, metaphysics, even psychology for answers. And who knows, we might just find some one day.
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