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A Lesson in Mortality

Mises Daily: Wednesday, January 19, 2005 by

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A death in the family is always hard, but three in three weeks is especially difficult for children, even though it only involved pets.

First it was the green tree frog discovered at the local car repair shop and taken home to be cared for. "Sticky" lived two months, long enough for the kids to become very attached. One day we found him dead in his cage.

Then it was the two chickens brought home soon after being hatched at a friend's chicken coop. They lived only two days, and died so innocent, so young and vulnerable.

Below I reprint the grave-side homilies that I offered when they were buried. But first: a reflection on mortality, a fact of life even more inevitable than taxes that modernity still can't seem to come to terms with.

Death impresses upon us the limits of technology and ideology. It comes in time no matter what we do. Prosperity has lengthened life spans and science and entrepreneurship has made available amazing technologies that have forestalled and delayed it.

Yet, it must come.

As Mises puts it: "Man lives in the shadow of death. Whatever he may have achieved in the course of his pilgrimage, he must one day pass away and abandon all that he has built. Each instant can become his last. There is only one thing that is certain about the individual's future – death."

Modernity has a problem intellectually processing the reality of death because we are so unwilling to defer to the implacable constraints imposed on us within the material world. Whole ideologies have been concocted on the supposition that such constraints do not have to exist. That is the essence of socialism. It is the foundation of US imperialism too, with its cocky supposition that there is nothing force cannot accomplish, that there are no limits to the uses of power.

To recognize the inevitability of death means confessing that there are limits to our power to manufacture a reality for ourselves. It is akin to admitting that certain fundamental facts of the world, like the ubiquity of scarcity, cannot be changed. Instead of attempting to change it, we must imagine social systems that come to terms with it. This is the core claim of economic science, and it is also the very reason so many refuse to acknowledge its legitimacy or intellectual binding power.

To discover the fountain of youth is a perpetual obsession, one that finds its fulfillment in the vitamin cults that promise immortality. We create government programs to pay for people to be kept alive forever on the assumption that death is always and everywhere unwarranted and ought to be stopped. There is no such thing as "natural death" anymore; the very notion strikes us as a cop out.

Thus do we insist on always knowing the "cause" of death, as if it only comes about through an exogenous intervention, like hurricanes, traffic accidents, shootings, and bombs. But even when a person dies of his own accord, we always want to know so that we have something to blame. Heart failure? Well, he or she might have done a bit more exercise. Let this be a lesson. Cancer? It's probably due to smoking, or perhaps second-hand smoke. Or maybe it was the carcinogens introduced by food manufacturers or factories. We don't want to admit that it was just time for a person to die.

The denial of death's inevitability is especially strange since life itself serves up constant reminders of our physical limits. Sleep serves as a kind of metaphor for death. We can stay awake working and having fun up to 18 hours, even 24 or 36, but eventually we must bow to our natures and collapse and sleep. We must fall unconscious so that we can be revived to continue on with our life.

Pills can delay the need for sleep but cannot obliterate it. There are no substitutes for sleep, no foods we can eat, no exercise we can undertake, no special words we can say. We can shake our fist in anger at body's demand for sleep but we still must give in. Sleep wins out over our individual wills every day of our lives, just as death wins out over our will to live forever.

Our struggle against mortality can take productive forms of course, as when we seek to leave great legacies in the material world: wealth, art, children, literature, charity, changed lives. We do all this in part because we seek ways to make our brief lives take on meaning beyond themselves. To be high-minded means to care not only about our own times but also about those that follow. If we cannot live forever, we at least want our impact on this world to live longer than nature permits us to live.

All these impulses appear to be unique to the human person, a reflection of our unique rationality and (for theists) the presence of a soul. Animals are another matter entirely. They avoid death by instinct (yes, I realize the term explains nothing) but they do not seek immortality or strive to leave legacies or work to extend the life span of their species, or otherwise improve the lot of their fellows through innovation. They are what we would be if we lacked rationality and souls.

When a pet dies, all children ask the question: will my pet go to heaven? I suppose the answer must be: not in the way we will find heaven. And yet the children want hope that their pet will live again, and that they will see them living again. And because no Scripture seems to say that there cannot be, it is reasonable to say that animals can live eternally if God so desires it. There are many problems with this idea, of course, since orthodoxy says there is no flesh in Heaven but if animals have no souls, how precisely would they go there?

In the moments following the death of a pet, such theological ramblings have no place. What the moment calls for is "closure," to use an overused buzz word.

And so we gather in silence and dig the hole in the ground, place the corpse in and say some words.

We gather to bury and pay tribute to Sticky, a tree frog who has been a good friend to us all. Quiet and unassuming, he lived a good life, stirred our imaginations, and delighted us with his antics. We will miss you, Sticky. We are grateful for the life you lived. If there were ever a tree frog that deserved to enter the gates of Heaven, it was surely Sticky.

Each child takes some dirt on the shovel and tosses it in the grave, and it is patted down. We stand in silence for a few moments, and walk away in the quiet evening.

A similar scene repeated itself with the tiny chicks.

We gather to bury these two tiny chicks. Though they were so young, and lived such short lives, we still gave them names: One-Minute Egg, and Two-Minute Egg. We will always remember them. Let us remember that we too will die one day, and, when considering the whole length of eternity, our lives are not much longer than theirs. May our souls be as innocent as theirs when we breathe our last breath.

By this time, the children were rather bored with funeral drama. They quickly scampered off to live full lives in the sunshine of day, deciding right then to think about death only when they must, but otherwise to live and love every breath. And so it should be.