Why is death a surprise?

December 14, 2008 | By | 4 Replies More

I learned yesterday that a fairly recent acquaintance had died. He was 15 years younger than me, and found dead in his bed. He had joined our contradance group this year, so was in better than average health. This sort of event generally leads to sober thoughts.

But, why?

Lloyds of London doesn’t insure lives, although it has insured quite a few quirky things over the centuries. Why? Because they only insure things that one has a reasonable expectation of keeping: A ship, a home, a voice, and so on. One’s life is terminal: It Will End.

One is more likely to die of any of a thousand ridiculous causes than to win a lottery jackpot. For us middle agers, strokes and coronary events rise to nearly the same order of fatal risk as driving to work. My aunt died of a cancer at 61 that she didn’t know she even had a month earlier. My father died at 77 because of a momentary attention lapse coupled with a mud puddle on the bicycle path. My maternal grandfather was killed impartially by the Allies in 1945, and my paternal grandfather by obesity in his 60’s. Both grandmothers faded away, dying in their 80’s of general wearing out. I’ve known contemporaries who died of cancer, heart disease,  Huntington’s Disease, from buying stimulants from an unreliable source, and of undiagnosed or mistreated depression (suicide). I have twice been present as someone took their final breath.

A surprising death is generally harder on the survivors, but easier on the participant. So the law attempts to prevent us from selecting our own manner of termination, and penalizes all accomplices to such attempts. As Erich recently discussed.

Pascal Boyer argues persuasively in his book “Religion Explained” that apperception about death is a leading cause of religion. Douglas Adams pointed out that we — as an instinctive toolmaking species — don’t intuitively understand things becoming, without being made by some agent. Similarly, we living beings have trouble understanding at a deep level why apparently intact associates suddenly become inanimate.

Back to my local world: Another member of my dance community has departed. Sad as the departure may make us feel, we are richer for having had his presence. In keeping his memory, his spirit stays with us. Even with those of us who don’t believe in sentient disembodied spirits.


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Category: Friendships/relationships, Meaning of Life, Religion

About the Author ()

A convoluted mind behind a curly face. A regular traveler, a science buff, and first generation American. Graying of hair, yet still verdant of mind. Lives in South St. Louis City. See his personal website for (too much) more.

Comments (4)

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  1. Fred says:

    I just had a stroke.

    It came out of the blue, and I didn't realise it was a stroke, until the doctor pronouced.I thought it the onset of 'flu.

    No-one realises how bad it is, how utterly banal, and yet life-changing,

    I don't want this.

  2. Erich Vieth says:


    I'm sorry to hear that your friend has died.

    Deaths that occur suddenly not only intensify the sadness, but they also seem to confuse us. I pondered this confusion about ten years ago when a friend of mine (I’ll call her “Karen”) died of an aneurysm in her sleep (she was survived by a husband and two children).

    Back then, it occurred to me that we are constantly in the throes of an illusion of perceptual “fullness” that is exposed only occasionally, suddenly and unexpectedly, for instance, when an impending migraine creates a temporary “hole” in one’s visual field. We almost always seem to be looking at a full picture.

    Given that none of us has a God’s-eye view, perceptual and memory gaps are everywhere, though not normally apparent; at any given moment, it’s very difficult to think of what might be “missing” from our perception—the answer, of course, is boatloads of stuff. Even with the death of a close friend, one’s loss is quickly obscured by the “fullness” of one’s perceptions.

    I’ve never experienced this contradiction more poignantly than in the weeks following Karen’s all-too-sudden death. I wrote the following to the Karen’s husband:

    . . . I look around, and the world does not have any sensory gaps: there are things in every direction: overwhelming and continuous sounds and smells. But Karen is not here, and it is all so very puzzling. It is the ostensible fullness of the world, this unbroken stream of thing-after-thing out there, which flies in the face of Karen’s undeniable absence; it grates on me.

    It just seems that there should be some visual, auditory or tactile "gap," some obvious and incessant break in sensory "fullness," in that Karen no longer physically walks and talks on this planet: my world should appear like a big puzzle missing a big critical piece. The rest of this world, however, has fluidly crowded in, in a blink.

    My memories do remind me, annoyingly, of Karen’s absence. The most powerful reminder, however, is in the pit of my stomach. It is ineffable–as you say, "beyond description." Such a loss must sometimes tempt you to lose all faith in the power of language . . . .

  3. Karl says:


    Sorry to hear of the death of your friend. Has his family come to terms with the matter yet? Surprises like this are rather un-nerving.

  4. Vicki Baker says:

    Dan: sorry to hear about your friend.

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