Photo of 50th Anniversary of Civil Rights March on Washington for Jobs and FreedomHumanists view death as a condition of life. In that all life forms participate in the endless recycling of matter, from non-living into the living and then, on death and decomposition, back into simpler compounds for re-use. The long history of life on Earth would not have occurred if there had not been this continual birth, death, decay and recycling of matter.

We are the animal that knows it will die. A prospect we find profoundly unsettling. Yet this awareness of our mortality arises from our more highly developed, self-reflective consciousness. As a consequence we are aware of death, we even fear death, and wish to stave it off as long as possible. While other living things also try to avoid death – by fleeing, hiding, hibernating, forming a dormant stage – few have the conscious capacity to fear death, except for some higher animals who show some awareness of death and signs of grieving. This is not surprising, for just as we share structural, functional and behavioural features with other animals, so we would expect our more specialised attributes, such as reflecting thinking, to be present in a rudimentary form, especially in our closest relatives.

Two common questions that arise about death are, ‘Does some part of us survive or continue after death? and, ‘Will we be reunited with loved ones who passed away before us?’ The belief in a life-after-death is very ancient and so deeply rooted that many do not even question it. As part of our shared cultural inheritance, it is often convenient even for Humanists to fudge this issue, especially with children, by expressing the comforting thought that a dead pet, grandparent or friend has gone ‘to heaven’.

Humanists understand the wish for some part of us to continue in an after-life as a deep-seated yearning. However, the evidence for an afterlife is non-existent, so non-belief in such a possibility is a core difference between a Humanist and a religious point of view. The Humanist view is supported by modern neuro-science findings that what we think of as the non-material mind/soul, is not separate from the physical body, but rather a manifestation of brain functioning. So when our brain dies our mind/soul can no longer be manifest – as when the power system fails there are no lights.

While religious people can expect to meet their loved ones in ‘heaven’, what consolation can Humanists have? Our Humanist answer is reflected in the rising popularity of celebration-of-life ceremonies instead of religious funerals. What the majority of grieving people in Australia now tend to focus on are the memories of shared times with the dead person. Though no longer with us, they are part of our history and sometimes of our society’s history. The glowing and fulsome tributes to Gough Whitlam from people in all walks of life and across the political spectrum are a recent example of the dead ‘living’ in our collective memory.

Because Humanists are passionate about human rights and personal autonomy we have long supported voluntary euthanasia or the right to die. A practice that along with suicide was socially acceptable in Roman times, before the rise of Christianity.

Decades ago in order to enhance lobbying for legislative changes on voluntary euthanasia, a group of HSV members and others help formed the Voluntary Euthanasia Society of Victoria, now known as Dying With Dignity Victoria (DWDV).

Nowadays, the UN Human Rights Declaration includes the provisions that an individual should not be subject to inhumane treatment. To deny a person the right to die, and for others to assist them, when they are suffering intolerable pain, would be to flout their basic human rights. An important distinction here is that death is a state and a dead body has only minimal rights, whereas dying is a human experience and a dying person should be able to claim full human rights to experience death in a manner with minimal pain and indignity.

To make your wishes clear on this important end-of-life matter it is possible to draw up a ‘living will’ or advanced directive. In it can be stated preferred options for treatment under circumstances such as stroke, traumatic accident or loss of faculties, when the person is no longer able to make those requests. (Such forms can be down-loaded from the DWDV website.)

Australian Humanists have recognised a number of community activists who have worked for the right to die, by honouring them as Australian Humanists of the Year (AHOYs). They include in 1985 Anne Levy for pioneering lobbying in the SA parliament, Margaret and Tup Baxendell in 1994 activists in Queensland, and in 1998 Dr Philip Nitschke the voluntary euthanasia campaigner.

Similarly Australian Humanists honoured Lionel Murphy with the inaugural AHOY award in 1983, for the many farsighted legal measures, including the civil celebrant program, he introduced when Attorney General in the Whitlam Labor government. Murphy considered that non-religious people should be able to get married in pleasant surroundings, not just the then existing choice of a church or a dismal registry office. He steered through legislation granting civil celebrants the right to perform marriages.

With the expectation of only one life Humanists hope not only to live a fulfilling and good life, but to die a good death as well.

Photo of Rosslyn Ives

Copyright © 2014 Rosslyn Ives