The end of life. The permanent cessation of all body functions. The point where the soul leaves the body. What is death? To some people, it’s the moment the heart stops beating. To others, it’s when the brain enters a “vegetative” state. However, a heart can be forced to keep beating, and how dead is a person, really, if he or she can continue to grow, develop, and even give birth after experiencing “brain death”? Life support machines and other medicinal breakthroughs have allowed humans to extend their lifespan, which begs the question… what exactly does a human need to actually be considered alive?
We have numerous definitions of death, and with every culture believing that theirs is authentic, rational humans can get very confused. Some cultures don’t even believe in the concept of death, instead believing that death is just a transformation. However, these cultures are definitely a minority and most people think that there is a definite line dividing life and death. In other words, at each moment, a person is quite definitely living or definitely dead. In reality, though, this line is more blurred than you could imagine. Let’s try to work out what death actually is…
Is the person even dead?
A hundred years ago, if a person walking in the street collapsed in front of you due to a heart attack, you would probably rush to check him. After an inspection, you may have realized that he had died and then disposed of him. Times have changed, however, and people have a better idea of first-aid practices and revival techniques. Today, people would have tried CPR or defibrillators or whatever an informed person could get their hands on. What I’m trying to say is that the same person who would have been pronounced dead after a minute’s inspection in 1916, would probably survive the same heart attack in 2016. People we thought were dead 100 years ago, we now know were very likely not. Medical journals continue to fill with conditions that mimic death, but which are not actually death at all.
Imagine that a person is pronounced dead in a modern hospital. That person was doomed to die, according to the doctors at that hospital. However, what if a new hospital right across the street had the kind of technology that could restart a heart? The person would still have been alive, according to the doctors at the new hospital, even though he was pronounced dead by the older hospital. For example, an MRI that twenty years ago was considered ‘a photograph of death’, is just the image of a sick brain now.
Heart or Brain?
If a person’s heart stops, an artificial heart-lung machine can be used to keep him alive until a better alternative presents itself. The same can’t be said about the human brain. There’s too much information in a human brain that can’t be replicated with today’s technology. When the human heart stops beating, blood flow to the brain ceases and it begins shutting down. Modern medicine says that, at most, 10 minutes of cardiac arrest can now be survived without brain injury. A person is considered brain dead when he or she no longer has any neurological activity in the brain or brain stem, meaning that no electrical impulses are being sent between brain cells.
Legal definition of death
Since the beginning of recorded history, we have looked for a simple set of criteria that tell us when a person is dead. This is because we don’t like to bury or cremate people if they’re still alive, among many other reasons. Laws regarding these criteria are quite similar all across the world. Egyptians believed that people didn’t actually die… they simply moved to another world. This meant that their bodies needed to be preserved for use in the afterlife, so they mummified their dead, which for some reason involved the removal of the brain! The most interesting (and seemingly ridiculous) method to determine if a person is dead was developed by the Romans and was called ‘conclamation’. Basically, it involved yelling a person’s name in his ear three times! Needless to say, mankind needed better methods.
Some time back, death was legally considered as the point at which the breathing and beating of the heart has completely stopped. As medical procedures grew more sophisticated, the law had to be modified to include ‘irreversible cessation of all functions of the brain’. The old definition, however, is still in use to define ‘clinical death’. There’s also something called a DNR (Do Not Resuscitate) order that can be filed by a patient, in which he orders the doctors not to revive him after clinical death. Technically, that person dies even if he’s not brain dead and if resuscitation is still possible. None of our existing methods can help us find out when we stop being alive. One thing is for sure…. death can only be defined as that point after which there’s no coming back.
Death should be viewed not as a singular event, but as a drawn-out process that begins with the heartbeat stopping, and ends at a point where there is no recoverable information in the brain. Some people might say that death is nothing but the absence of life, but that isn’t particularly informative and instead warrants a new debate on what life really is…