Postmortem

How would knowing that consciousness lingers while the body goes cold change how we reckon with death—or bear witness?

Maybe there’s music. Faint violins or a favorite tune, something she selected just for this occasion. Or maybe you picked it out yourself after the doctors told you the news, choosing one of those kitschy old radio songs that you knew she really loved, the one with the melody you’d catch her humming in the kitchen. If I had a hammer. Leaving on a jet plane. Now you grip her hand while the music plays from a corner of the antiseptic room, surprised by how quickly her body goes cold. But you hold on tight, determined not to cry. Not until at least an hour has passed since the machines flat-lined, the paddles were put away, and the nurses and doctors left the room. The rhythm of death is different these days, and you know she might still be there, listening.

I keep thinking about an article I read the other night, a study which suggests we will be aware of our own deaths. That consciousness might linger after the last beat of the heart, our minds still working even though blood is no longer washing the brain. “The evidence thus far suggests that in the first few minutes after death, consciousness is not annihilated,” says Dr. Sam Parnia, who has dedicated his career to this phenomenon. “Whether it fades away afterwards, we do not know, but right after death, consciousness is not lost.”

This unsettling thought decimates one of the most compelling arguments for making peace with our mortality: the Epicurean assurance that we needn’t fear death because we will not be around to witness it. But now science tells us otherwise. Activity appears to persist in the cells of the brain after the last sign of life is recorded. New ceremonies would develop. Soundtracks and incantations, an extended score for the dying.According to Parnia’s research, 40% of patients who had been declared dead after cardiac arrest reported hearing things they could not have known unless they were somehow conscious in the minutes before they were revived. The dead could hear the voices of the people in the room, the last efforts of doctors and nurses, the wailing of lovers and children.

If there’s any truth to this study, it seems like it should be the most discussed story of the year, perhaps the century. How would knowing that consciousness lingers while the body goes cold change how we reckon with death—or bear witness? How might it change the way we behave in a hospital room? We would need to hide our terror and grief long past the terrible moment we once thought was singular and fixed. New ceremonies would develop. Soundtracks and incantations, an extended score for the dying. I can’t help but remember the weather in the room when my parents died; the animal noises I made after the nurse turned off the machines and closed the door.

And how would we prepare for our own death, knowing it would be elastic and uncertain, that those last five or twenty minutes or longer could be utterly terrifying or possibly transcendent? It would require a strange kind of training, a preparation like no other. The fact of death would no longer be so easy to neglect amidst the daily clutter of appointments and obligations, no longer a thought that could be tucked away like an overdue bill beneath a pile of catalogues and magazines.

Candy and I recently sat in an old monastery, a February wind rattling the stained glass while a physicist and Buddhist monk named B. Alan Wallace described his meditation practice as a preparation for dying. “Am I a short story that can come to an end at any moment?” he asked with a smile. “If so, I can live with that—but is it true?” Although the body rots and our minds will disappear, he said, some kind of awareness might remain. If we do not identify with our body or thoughts but only our awareness, what then? “To go unconscious at death is like reading a great book and not getting to the last page. I don’t want to do that. I want to know how it ends. Perhaps it is possible to let the mind die and still be aware. So keep the light on.”

That night we silently returned to our spartan room and laid down on our cots, listening to the sleet ricochet against the windows. I fell asleep thinking of a candle that remains lit long after the lights of the mind slowly flick off one by one, like the windows of a skyscraper going dark as midnight draws near.

Photograph

An interstate tunnel somewhere beneath America. Photo by James A. Reeves.

Filed Under

Loss

Further Reading

Epicurus: “Death is nothing to us; for that which is dissolved, is without sensation, and that which lacks sensation is nothing to us.” Sam Parnia; Consciousness after clinical death; B. Alan Wallace

May 2018

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