This is Part 2 of Bliss & Struggle blog series. You can visit the series home page for the full table of contents.

Death smiles at us all. All a man can do is smile back.

Maximus (Russell Crowe)Gladiator

We all die; death seems as certain as anything can be. You surely have heard the expression (widely associated with Benjamin Franklin): “We can be certain of nothing, except death and taxes”. Well, puns aside, the death part checks out. And that’s quite ironic, actually: There’s no stronger certainty on which to build the project to a better human life than death itself. Click To Tweet

Death: One experience to unite us all.

In death we trust

The experience of billions and billions of humans is that all life comes to an end. That doesn’t mean that all humans experience death in the same way (neither figuratively nor literally). In fact, as with all things human, we can find a wide and complex array of responses and attitudes towards the end of life across cultures. These differences are visible in three main aspects:

  • Social perception / experience of death: While many cultures do share a sense of mourning and loss accompanying the passing way of a loved one, several others1 incorporate elements of celebration, connected usually to beliefs of resurrection or ascension of the soul of those who have passed away into higher planes of existence.
  • Rituals: Different cultures adopt different rituals that reflect their different perceptions and narratives around death.2
  • Narrative: We humans are storytellers by design. And when it comes to death, we are freaking creative geniuses! The diverse narratives that can be found around the world (and across history) try to answer fundamental questions about ourselves and our meaning, and they are at the very core of myths/beliefs that shape the life of practically all human beings.
Simpsons Heaven Death

GIF By Simpsonsworld

But the fact that some humans mourn death while others celebrate it; the fact that some humans burn their dead, while others bury them, while others mummify them; the fact that some humans believe that life and death are part of a cycle in which we go on reincarnating, while others see life as a prelude to a much more real spiritual realm, or any of the other variations around and in between… None of those differences can hide a series of commonalities that make the experience of death our best possible starting point to identify a human universal drive:

  • A sense of Uncertainty: Even for those imbued with the strongest of convictions, death is the ultimate test of their belief. Why? Because death is universally present yet unnervingly unknown. If you watch Discovery Channel documentaries, you ought to have heard that claim that we know less about the depths of the Ocean than about the surface of the Moon or Mars… Well, we know a shitload less about the experience of death. Because quite inconveniently, no one has ever (reliably) come back from the dead to tell us all about it.
sixth sense dead people
  • A time of Judgment: Death is widely perceived for theists and atheists alike as a time for judgment. Such judgment takes undoubtedly more creative forms for theists, which usually believe in one-off-360-degree-life-reviews by mystical third parties upon death3. For atheists, on the other hand, judgment is usually a much lamer personal on-going self-assessment on the value and meaning (or lack thereof) of one’s life. This connection between death and judgment is even present within religions that believe in actual tangible life after death (a.k.a. reincarnation) like Hinduism or Buddhism. For those religions my deeds in one life will affect whether I am punished or rewarded in the next – or whether I keep on reincarnating or finally manage to escape from the cycle by reaching Nirvana. (Fun fact: 99% of hedge fund managers will reincarnate as tapeworms)
  • A before and an after: Death is widely viewed as a change of state. That change of state could be: 1) from being to not being at all; 2) from being to being something else or 3) from being, to being again. But regardless of whether death is considered the end of the book or the end of a certain chapter, it is universally accepted as the point when something ceases to be the way it had been. And that which ceases to be happens to be life.

And this is where we can leave the gloomy realm of death, because the fact that we all die means that we all get to live. YAY?! We can translate the universal certainty of death as the universal certainty that we have an undetermined but limited time of life and then we die. In other words:

Life also unites us all.

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