The Universality of Death
From Apoptosis to Supernova
Hello. This post is about Death.
Friedrich Shiller, 18th Century poet, playwright and philosopher, once said:
“That which is so universal as death must be a benefit”.
This simple, and perhaps seemingly obvious, statement is worth dwelling on a moment as Death is, indeed, universal.
We might feel into this fact by looking inside ourselves and considering ‘cell Death’; something which occurs on a regular basis within all living things, including you & I. There are various types and causes of cell Death, one example being ‘apoptosis’ which is a type of ‘Programmed Cell Death’ whereby cells deliberately die for the benefit of the organism of which they are a part.
One instance of this took place while you were still a developing foetus inside the womb. At around 10 weeks, your hands and feet will have had webbed fingers and toes, before the cells that made up the webbing conjoining your digits performed apoptosis—dying in order to afford the separated fingers and toes you most likely have today. If you look at your hands now, the negative space between your fingers exists thanks to this type of programmed cell Death. This continues inside of you today, as cells that have been around for a while and have performed their purpose die, making way for newer cells which should function more efficiently.
The universality of Death can also be seen by looking outwards, way out into the cosmos, where we might consider ‘Star Death’. What the Death of a star looks like depends on the size of the star, but for our little contemplation we may as well go big, and consider the Death of a ‘massive star’ (meaning a star with a mass at least 8 times that of our Sun).
Put very simply, stars are held together by two oppositional forces; the internal force of the massive amount of pressure caused by the heat of the nuclear fuel burning at its core (pushing outwards), and the intense force of gravity (pushing inwards) trying to force the extraordinary mass of such a large body into it’s smallest volume possible.
However, when the massive star eventually runs out of fuel, it suddenly cools down, causing the outward-pushing pressure to drop; and the inward-pushing pressure of gravity to have it’s way. What this looks like is, in less than a second, the iron core of the star—which is about the size of the Earth (so, 7,917 miles wide) being forced into a core which is about 6 miles wide—in under a second. This extraordinary collapse happens so quickly that shockwaves cause the outer part of the star to explode—creating a Supernova; a massive explosion that marks the Death of a massive star.
The Milky Way Galaxy is home to many things, including you, and I, and ‘the Crab Nebula’—a remnant of a supernova that occurred over 6,500 light years away, first observed by humans 1,000 years ago. It is a huge, beautiful cloud of gas and dust, which speaks to a once massive star having lived.
Thinking of Death in these universal terms leads me to ponder why it is that Death is so often depicted as (and, indeed, believed to be) malevolent. A sinister, Machiavellian life-destroying force that’s just itching to get its skeletal hands on your mortal soul…
I can, of course, understand this, and I suspect that there are two factors largely at play. One being that humans have a somewhat innate (and biologically very useful) aversion to Death—and the other being that, for humans (and likely for other beings, but that’s for a different post) Death so often precedes grief—real grief. (I qualify ‘real’ here as, in my humble opinion, sometimes the word is used incorrectly. One grieves the loss of a loved one, or the loss of a homeland. We grieve the loss of that which we love deep in our bones. For example, being fired from a job might cause great sadness and disappointment, but it is unlikely to provoke grief).
Real grief is often experienced as almost (or entirely) unbearable, and so it makes sense that the psyche would make a monster out of that which we perceive to be the agent of such unimaginable pain.
But, here’s a thought. Death is not responsible for the colossal pain of grief. Love is.
If something or someone that you do not love dies, you’re unlikely to experience real grief in response. It is the addition of love to the equation that causes all the problems, but we don’t see many oil paintings of the personification of Love lurking eagerly in the wings, salivating at the thought of our inevitable heartbreak, do we?
It’s interesting that, culturally, we tend to vilify Death while writing songs and sonnets about love. Life and Death are two sides of the same coin, one cannot be without the other. Love and Grief are the same.
As writer Max Ehrmann tells us:
“You are a child of the universe no less than the trees and the stars; you have a right to be here.”
You are a child of the universe; you have a right to be here.
You are a child of the universe; you will die.
You are a child of the universe; you will love and be loved.
You are a child the universe; you will grieve, and be grieved.