What we mean when we say “dead”

Popular Science - - CONTENTS - JOHN TROYER, DI­REC­TOR OF THE CEN­TRE FOR DEATH AND SO­CI­ETY AT THE UNIVER­SITY OF BATH

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.

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