What we mean when we say “dead”
I study the intersections between death, dying, and the deceased. What does it mean to be dying, to be dead? The answer has changed a lot throughout history.
It’s not hard to figure out how I got here: My dad was a funeral director. I grew up around death. In the early 2000s, he called and asked if I’d help him exhume a grave that was about 30 years old. Unfortunately, the concrete around the casket had cracked, and the whole thing was full of water. It was a big, brown soupy mess. I got into a hazmat suit and climbed down with a bucket and a rope.
I filled up the bucket, scoop by scoop, and my dad hauled it up when it was full. That experience really seared itself into my mind. It made me think about what it means to move a body when time has broken it down and about what it means to be dead in the first place.
Around the time that man passed away in the 1970s, the discourse around our final moments was shifting. Lifesupport machines changed our definition of what it means to be alive, raising all these questions about when death happened and what it really meant. We moved away from defining dying as when the heart stops and toward an understanding of personhood as being in the mind. That was important in deciding that when a brain is dead, a person is gone.
Because the definition of death has changed before, we know it will shift again. As our DNA comes to identify us, will we say that if it still sends instructions to our cells, we’re still alive? I have no idea what death will mean in the future, but I can tell you that it will change.