Death is having its moment. In a recent special section on “The New Art of Dying,” Axios reports on innovations like green burials, green cremations, digital tombstones and living wakes, in which people attend their own funerals to say goodbye to loved ones. There are also live-streamed funerals and open-casket viewings with a drive-through option. The Wall Street Journal reports on LinkedIn becoming the latest social media platform to come up with a method — in this case, a memorialized profile option — for how to deal with the accounts of deceased users. M.I.T. Technology Review reports on the movement in the medical research world to think of death and aging not as natural and inevitable, but as a disease that can be managed and even cured. And in a study published last week in the journal Nature Communications, researchers from the Netherlands were able to use A.I. to predict, with 83 percent accuracy, whether the 7,600 people being studied would die in the next five or 10 years.
As Jon Meacham put it recently in the Washington Post, it’s all part of the way that “baby boomers and their successor generations are insisting on being free to take control of death itself.”
It’s great that we’re talking about death more, but this still isn’t the most important conversation about death we need to be having. Obviously, we should be using cutting-edge science to fight disease, and it’s great everyone can make their own decisions to use new technology to memorialize the dead. Technology offers the promise of control — and by giving us the ability to control parts of our lives, and even extend our lives, it has fueled our tendency to think of death itself as yet another thing we can control. We see death as a failure of technology, rather than what it is — the defining trait of humanity. And that category error prevents us from benefiting from the unique lessons for our lives that only death can teach us. Instead of asking, “Could our technology make us immortal,” we should be asking how to use the knowledge of our mortality to enrich the time we have.
At Thrive Global, our mission is to enhance people’s lives. And though it might seem counterintuitive, part of that means embracing death. We think of death only as an ending, but in mythology, death was always about renewal and transformation. There’s a reason why death has been central to every religious and philosophical tradition throughout history. “Those who practice philosophy in the right way are in training for dying,” Socrates says in Plato’s Phaedo, “and they fear death least of all men.” In ancient Rome, the phrase “Memento Mori”— “Remember Death” — was carved on statues and trees. Or, as Michelangelo, put it: “No thought exists in me which death has not carved with his chisel.”
Death is the most universal experience we all share. Whether you believe death is a transition to something else or that we cease to exist altogether, it’s definitely a stopping point. It might not be the end of our entire story, but it’s the end of a chapter. As The Onion headline put it, “World Death Rate Holding Steady at 100 Percent.” And yet we’ll do almost anything to avoid facing that fact. It’s the ultimate version of the thing that’s parked at the back of our to-do lists, always getting pushed back by other, supposedly more important items. We use social media to obsessively document our lives, as if we’ll live on with the remnants of our digital legacy we’ve put so much time into curating. We escape into work, into busyness, burning ourselves out and hastening the end of life by trying to avoid confronting it.
And that carries a huge opportunity cost. By not embracing death and feeling its presence in a daily way, we deny ourselves the clarity, connection and meaning it can inject into our lives and our relationships. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross called death the key to the door of life. “It is through accepting the finiteness of our individual existences that we are enabled to find the strength and courage to reject those extrinsic roles and expectations and to devote each day of our lives — however long they may be — to growing as fully as we are able,” she wrote. “It is the denial of death that is partially responsible for people living empty, purposeless lives; for when you live as if you’ll live forever, it becomes too easy to postpone the things you know that you must do.”
The best way to nurture that acceptance of death is by talking about it. That’s the mission of the “Death Over Dinner” movement founded by Michael Hebb, author of Let’s Talk About Death (Over Dinner). And it’s also what’s behind the growing trend of death cafes, where people of all ages gather to talk about death — and, by extension, life. There are now over 9,000 of them devoted to just that in 65 countries around the world. “One of the most fundamental things about death cafes is that in all these conversations, what we’re really getting at is looking at our own lives,” Sarah Farr, founder of Death Positive D.C. says. “How do we want to live? What are we going to do with the time that we have?”
Others are introduced to the clarifying power of death unwillingly, through the shock of brushing up against mortality long before they thought they’d have to. Kai-Fu Lee is the author of A.I. Superpowers, and has developed A.I. at places like Apple, Microsoft and Google. But his book isn’t just about A.I. For much of his career, Lee was a self-described workaholic, nearly missing the birth of his daughter because of a presentation at Apple. What rearranged his priorities — and his life — was a diagnosis of stage 4 lymphoma. “I came to see how foolish it was to base my self-worth entirely on my accomplishments at work,” he writes. “Like so many people forced to suddenly face their own mortality, I was filled not just with fear for my future but with a deep, soul-aching regret over the way I had lived my life.”
Yet instead of focusing on how best to live our lives, there is a growing movement, as Peter Holley reports this week in the Washington Post, of people trying to make themselves into virtual bots by uploading their memories and stories into digital avatars, immortalizing themselves in the cloud.
But death isn’t just another inefficiency to be disrupted. It’s a reality to be brought into our everyday lives — long before we’re anxiously awaiting the result of a biopsy. As Joan Halifax, author of Being With Dying wrote, “We’re all terminal.” From the moment we’re born, we’re both living and dying. And the best way to live — the only way to truly live — is to acknowledge that reality right now, every day. That’s why death is the ultimate life hack.
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