Depending on one’s religious belief, a person’s viewpoint on the matter of life and death may very well shape his or her purpose in life. Death will always be as much a part of life as life itself. All of us will pass on like all living organisms. A plant withers away and dies. Insects and all members of the animal kingdom die at one point. So do humans. But as all living things perish, all forms of life come back through reproduction, so the cycle continues; no one has yet discovered how to break the gap.
As of July 2008, the world’s population would have ballooned to 6,677.563,921. Population continues to explode from 1 billion in 1820, to 2 billion in 1930, and 6 billion in 2000. This growth occurred despite two devastating world wars, the Great Depression of the 1930s, the end of vast colonial empires, and rapid advances in science and technology. Fertility, however, has started to decline during the 20th century, which coincided with the rise in living standards in North America, Europe and Japan, improvements in health and medicine, access to family planning, economic development, and urbanization.
Balancing between hopes brought about by advances in medicine on one hand, and fears caused by the development of more lethal weapons of war, on the other hand, birth rates continue to go up, although at a much slower pace starting the 20th century. It is estimated that there are 20 births per 1,000 of the population as compared to 8 deaths per 1,000/population. Life expectancy, on the average, has also risen to 67 years worldwide, with women outliving men.
Estimates prepared by the United Nations put the number of refugees worldwide close to 10 million. Most of these refugees are fleeing civil or tribal wars, famine, or despotic regimes. About 1.5 million refugees from Iraq are displaced throughout the Middle East. If nothing is effectively done to help and resettle these refugees, it is almost likely we are already dedicating our present stock of refugee camps as graveyards for these 10 million people. Nothing could be worse than feeling the jaws of death when you’re still alive like the millions of Jews cramped in Nazi gas chambers during Hitler’s evil regime.
Death, when it does not happen as a natural process, is tragic and meaningless. Most religions which believe in the afterlife place an important meaning to death, as they assign an equal value to life itself. Whether one sees life and death through a continuum or an unbreakable cycle, life and death are always connected from beginning to end. To the mystics, death is a door that opens one aspect of life to another: at birth, the soul enters into the body, and at death, the soul departs.
Dying from hunger or from war, either as a combatant or a civilian, or death on the electric chair or through lethal injection as punishment for crime devalues not only the meaning of life, but also the significance of death. Death that is avoidable renders life useless and devoid of any meaning. When an innocent person is unjustly convicted and sentenced to death, another crime is committed in the process, a crime against humanity. The same can be said of casualties of war, famine or disease: they are also victims of crimes perpetuated against humanity.
Every society has a way of caring for the dead. We all mourn the passing of a member of the family, or of a friend, or a soldier killed in action. We remember them in our prayers. Sometimes, we commemorate their deaths in elaborate ceremonies. In Mexico, for instance, they celebrate the Day of the Dead with rituals that affirm the lives and contributions made by all who have lived before them. But for those who died in the killing fields or in famine-infested regions like Darfur, we can only imagine corpses left rotting to the ground as carrion for vultures or flies, or if lucky, as unidentified bodies dumped into unknown mass graves. Similarly, the desapericidos who were thrown overboard the Atlantic Ocean by the Argentine army will forever stay unknown and the mothers and grandmothers who lost their sons and daughters would only be left with names to remember them.
According to the United Nations, about 200,000 of Rwanda’s 9 million inhabitants are afflicted with HIV/AIDS, the deadly virus which was transmitted as part of the genocide’s legacy of the Hutu militia in 1994. Rape and assault were common during that year’s mass killings. A memorial now stands inside the former Nyamata Church to remember those slaughtered by Hutu extremists in the 1994 Rwandan genocide.
As of July 2008, the total number of Iraqis slaughtered since the United States invaded Iraq is 1,236,604. The number of U.S. military personnel sacrificed in the Iraq war is 4,125. These numbers mean a staggering loss of lives, a loss that could have been avoided, yet would continue so long as the United States keeps its military presence in Iraq. Imagine how much the total ongoing cost of the war and occupation of Iraq at $540 billion could help in alleviating the lives of poor families and children in marginal communities in America, the suffering of famished children in Darfur, and victims of the dreaded HIV/AIDS in Africa.
Life’s total cost sometimes reflects the cost of dying. Assigning life and death equal value, however, is not a zero-sum game. What diminishes another person diminishes us too as members of the human family. Who allows others to live and who should die is a huge dilemma that’s been with us for ages. Our moral choices define us as human beings. What we make of those choices reflect deeply embedded values which separate us from the rest of the animal world. The tragedy of our current dilemma is we’ve not gone beyond our primeval instinct for self-preservation. And, at what cost?