Harvard biology graduate student Ava Mainieri sums up our discussion from the first meeting:
With a panel of individuals from a variety of disciplines and with different spiritual and religious backgrounds, our discussions revolved around a variety of questions. After a brief introduction by each participant, we wanted to lay some groundwork so the discussions would run as smoothly as possible. That meant clearing up the terminology, starting with common concepts, criteria, and definitions for “death.” Do these three need to be the same and should they be consistent?
We first investigated the personal meanings of death, exploring responses to the question, “what does death mean to you?”, and “what is emotionally and intellectually going on for you when you think about death?” The majority agreed that something that is now dead was once alive. However, this led us to ponder if life and death are bivalent. Is it a continuum or is it an either/or situation? Are there things neither dead nor alive nor somewhere between the two?
When thinking about a biological concept of death do we need to bring into question time or potential? Endospores, for example, allow bacteria to lie dormant for long periods of time; they do not have the properties of life now, but could in the future. Can we even evoke a concept when there are lots of grey areas? Viruses, for example, can only replicate after infecting a suitable host cell.
There were more definitions to work with when thinking about clinical death, but there was still a struggle to come to consensus. Though death may be one of life’s few certainties, two cases of young women being kept on life support even though they are deemed legally dead show just how difficult it still can be to agree on the end of life. Since the 1970s a person could be considered legally or clinically dead (in the US) if they experienced “irreversible cessation of all functions of the brain.” Doctors use a multitude of tests to see if a person is brain dead: test reflexes, check for stimulus, and perform an EEG. Brain death is also different from both comas and persistent vegetative states in that the latter two show some form of brain activity and are reversible. [Note: brain death may refer to whole brain death, described here, but is more often diagnosed when the brain ceases regulating respiration and response to stimulus specifically.]
Continuing our discussion on the different areas in which death is discussed, we struggled with whether there was a discourse in which there was an ethical concept of death, separate from the religious, clinical, and legal discourses. We felt “philosophical death” might be a better term than “ethical death”, but decided we should explore this further. Societies may assign criterion of death for humans, but do we perceive the person differently once they are dead? Do we have lower obligations to dead things and people? How does ones’ behavior change after observing death? We explored if there are differences between a person and an organism and asked in what ways it might be problematic to think of death this way.
Lastly, we agreed that to be more inclusive, we should think of our last area as “religious death” instead of “theological death” (as it had been labeled on our agenda). Theology best describes systematic religious though in theistic religions.