Thinking About Death from Inside Life
In 1999, nu-metal sensation Kid Rock’s breakthrough album Devil Without a Cause burst onto the airwaves with the hit single ‘Bawitdaba’. The first verse opens with Rock dedicating the song to “the questions that don’t have any answers”. I loved this song when it came out but have since moved on to other genres of music. However, when I recently relistened to the song on a whim – perhaps because about twenty years have passed since I last heard it – the reference to answerless questions drew me, surprisingly, into a reflection on death. In particular, it led me to revisit a question that crosses my mine from time to time, which is the question of whether I can make sense of what it is like to be dead.
Now, death is of course a topic often related to various forms of grief, anxiety, fear and denial. It can also relate to forms of satisfaction and celebration when thought of in relation to a “life well lived”. However, the question I am struck by is not associated with any kind of value per se. Rather, it is a deeply personal curiosity shaped in part by not knowing whether the question “What is it like to be dead?” makes sense at all. Is it a question without an answer? Is it simply nonsense?
On the one hand, I know perfectly well what the word “death” means. I learned how to use the word sometime at an early age. I also remember the meaning of the word deepening for me when, at the age of nine, my dad announced that my great grandfather had died. I knew that old people die, and I knew that my grandfather was an old person, but I did not, until the moment of this announcement, make the connection between the general thought that old people die, and this old person dying. The word struck me in an altogether different and tragic way when my mum told me that my younger brother’s fiancé had died in a car accident when I was twenty-two. My brother’s fiancé’s death shook our families to the core, of course. While it is always the case that people die all the time in these kinds of accidents, one never thinks that this kind of accident will happen to someone in their life.
Prior to the moments where I learnt of these deaths, I knew what the word death meant, and I could use it in any number of sentences. Yet, in each case, my understanding of the word and how it related to life could be said to have deepened. In relation to both cases, it seems that I can say that “I thought I understood death, but I don’t think I really did until now”. So, even though I have known for most of my life what the word death means, my understanding of it develops as these (often sad) events in my life occur. The trajectory moves from less understanding to more and more understanding.
On the other hand, as Ludwig Wittgenstein notes, my death is not an event in my life: “we do not live to experience death” (TLP 6.4311). As I have just outlined, the deaths of others will make up some of the events in my life. However, the end of my life means the end of all events for me. While I don’t think of myself in any strong sense as an atheist, the idea of a God or of an afterlife has never been part of my picture of the world. One of the consequences of this view, it seems to me, is that I can only understand what death means via events in my life: either through familiarity with use of the word “death”, or through experiencing the grief of the death of loved ones.
Granted, I can imagine myself to some extent, from an external perspective, as a lifeless body. I can imagine friends and family attending my funeral, and they might even say some nice things about me. However, in both cases, I am not really imagining myself outside of the events of my life. Rather, I am imagining myself as observing the lifeless body of someone that looks like me and seems to know my friends and family. But there is no real difference between imagining this kind of scenario in which I am an observer, and any other scenario in which I am an observer in life. My perspective here is therefore not external to life at all.
Wittgenstein once remarked that “[a]n expression only has meaning in the stream of life” (Wittgenstein quoted in Malcolm, 1958, p. 93). The difficulty I find myself in might be described as trying to use the language available to me “in the stream of life” to try to describe an experience outside of that stream. In doing so, I seem to come up against a limit of language. After all, what could I possibly mean by the question “What is it like to be dead?” if being dead is the negation of being anything at all?
What do I do from here? One way forward would be to claim that what I am trying to think and talk about cannot be thought or talked about, and trying to put into words a description of death that makes sense of my own death will always result in nonsense. There is no way to imagine, from inside life, what it is like to be dead. (As my friends Olena and Peter point out, however, this is not the case for everyone. Some people really do claim to be certain of the existence and possibility of experiencing an afterlife. For such people, imagining what it is like to be dead might be perfectly possible).
Two things come to mind at this point: First, even if it is the case that I can never imagine what it is like to be dead, I would not be surprised, in future moments, to find myself again trying again to imagine this. An awareness of the limit of language here does not mean that I will not try to cross the limit, again and again, throughout my life. Trying to make sense of death, including one’s own, is surely as old as humanity. In philosophy, it stems back at least as far as Socrates’ remark in Plato’s (1999) “Phaedo’ that “those who tackle philosophy aright are simply and solely practising dying, practising death, all the time, but nobody sees it” (p. 556). This makes me think that rather than a being nonsensical, in the context that I am exploring it, the question “What is it like to be dead?” has no senseful answer for me, but is, paradoxically, a meaningful question to ask.
Second, failed attempts to think about the nothingness of my own death often present me with a heightened awareness of the fact that I am, while thinking about this, alive. The thought that “I am alive” may appear on first glance, to borrow from G. E. Moore, “so obvious as to not be worth stating” (Moore 1959, p. 32). However, these words, in the context of an outcome of the (failed) attempt to try to make sense of my own death, often strike me in a way that deepens my understanding of what it is to be alive. I become more aware of what I often take for granted – that there is a stream of life at all. If death for me is nothingness, then life, even the most humdrum boring moments of it, is everything!
Rock finishes the second verse of ‘Bawitdaba’ by saying, in response to the questions with no answers, that “[y]ou can look for answers, but that ain’t fun, [n]ow get in the pit and try to love someone!” If we take “the pit” (mosh pit) to be the stream of life, then after running up against the limits of language in my attempts to think about my own death, getting “in the pit” can be taken as returning my focus to the stream of life, which now looks more wonderful than ever. Maybe I shouldn’t wait another twenty years before listening to Kid Rock again.
24th of October 2022
Malcolm, N 1958, Ludwig Wittgenstein: A Memoir, Oxford University Press, Amen House, London, UK.
Moore, GE 1959, ‘A Defence of Common Sense’, in GE Moore, Philosophical Papers, Routledge, New York, USA, pp. 32-59.
Plato 1999, ‘Phaedo’, in W H D Rouse (trans.) Great Dialogues of Plato, Signet Classics, New York, USA.
Rock, K 1999, ‘Bawitdaba’ [lyrics], Devil Without a Cause. Available at: Kid Rock – Bawitdaba Lyrics | Genius Lyrics (Accessed: 09 October 2022).
Wittgenstein, L 2001, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, DF Pears & BF McGuinness (trans.), Routledge Classics, New York, USA.