What is the Meaning of Death?

I recently watched an episode of the Mind Field series by Vsauce titled “Should I Die?” In it, the host Michael Stevens talks to people from a cryonics firm and a mortician. He ultimately decides that he wants to die. The reasoning seems to be that our finite existence is what gives meaning to our lives. Death, in other words, has a meaning. But what is that meaning?

A lot of religions give death the job of doling out justice. People are punished if they’re bad and rewarded if they’re good. There are a lot of issues with this view, but it does serve to give death meaning. Without some sort of ultimate justice upon death, goes the logic, why should anyone be good? Of course, if one is being good simply out of fear of divine retribution, are they really good? And what meaning does death give their life then, except to live in bad faith as Sartre might put it?

I would like to focus on this idea that the finite nature of life is what gives it meaning. In the Mind Field episode, they justify this reasoning by saying something along the lines of “if I have infinite time to do anything, why would I bother doing it now instead of putting it off 200 years?” This argument, to me, doesn’t seem to do the work of justifying death as a way to give life meaning. It’s essentially saying that life is more meaningful if the things one wishes to accomplish must be crammed into a smaller period of time.

I think the argument for the opposite is more compelling. Things that are finite have no intrinsic meaning. Except as a historical precursor, what meaning does the Roman Republic have anymore? The people living back then certainly saw it as being very meaningful, but how many rational people nowadays would be willing to kill or die for the glory of the Roman Republic? The Roman Republic’s transience means that its meaning is was only ever a fleeting mirage. The same is true for anything any mortal person alive now holds dear. The only way to maintain the meaning of something is for that something to be permanent.

People often agree with this sentiment on some level. If you ask someone what meaning their life has, they’ll likely name things that will outlast them – their children, the good they’ve done for their community, the things they’ve invented, their legacy. It’s the fact that these things will outlast them that makes them meaningful. Humans attempt to acquire a type of immortality by living on in other people’s minds (or DNA in the case of offspring).

Frankly, I think humans find meaning in death simply because, at least for all of human existence thus far, we have had to instill meaning in death. It’s inevitability requires that we do lest we fall into a pit of nihilistic despair, never to return. I think if humans had been naturally immortal, or at least had no natural clock counting down to their inevitable death (ie they might still die by succumbing to injury), we would see death as something capable of robbing a person’s existence of meaning.

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