Though it rarely comes up in polite conversation, most of us know that we will be dead sometime in the next 50 years or so. A few may linger on perhaps, but many of us will be gone even before then. Our lives are “but a breath”, as the psalmist says—and sadly, some of us don’t even have that long.
Good old death is the single opportunity every one of us will share in regardless of nationality, race, class, or ethnicity. We share this destiny with everything that moves on the face of the earth or beneath the surface of its oceans. But the fact that everything dies is cold comfort to the individual facing his or her own end with trembling and dismay.
To paraphrase another psalmist: while the fear of God is—at least to some—the beginning of wisdom, the fear of death must surely be the beginning of horror, perhaps its throbbing core. How will it come to us? Will there be anything left of us after its chilly, desiccating visit?
Ecclesiastes, the most courageous book in the Bible, offers this very empirical observation:
Man’s fate is like that of the animals; the same fate awaits them both: As one dies, so dies the other. All have the same breath; man has no advantage over the animal. Everything is meaningless. All go to same place; all come from the dust, and to dust all return. (3: 19-20)
The rejoinder to this dismal and submissive view is some version of the sentiment expressed in Dylan Thomas’ famous poem Do not go gentle into that good night (1951). If we are clever enough, can we find a way to delay death, deceive him, or avoid him entirely? Is it a matter of strength of will, or piety, or the right combination of vitamins, herbs, and potions?
Several encouraging, if conventional options have been developed over the centuries, for example, reincarnation, resurrection, and the demarcation of various supernatural realms for the undead. Though more research is needed, these hypotheses are at least palliative and seem to have little negative effect on the natural progression of a human life on this side of the veil.
For those enthused with darker understandings there is psychic possession, vampirism, and certain vodou practices, among others. More recently there have been some amazing medical and technological innovations. These methods collectively entail taking resurrection into our own hands, since our collective faith in the Creator’s ability or willingness to perform this operation may be equivocal. All of these techniques seem to belong together, in my view at least, because they entail a violation of natural law—at least as set forth in Ecclesiastes.
If the fear of death is the beginning of horror, cheating death—by violating the natural laws that govern it—is the chugging, clanking, smoke-belching machinery that moves it along. Cheating death is one of the classic plot lines in horror and science fiction literature. In Supernatural Horror in Literature (1927) H.P. Lovecraft wrote that horror must contain
“…a hint, expressed with a seriousness and portentousness becoming its subject, of that most terrible conception of the human brain—a malign and particular suspension or defeat of those fixed laws of Nature which are our only safeguard against the assaults of chaos and the daemons of unplumbed space.”
Necromancy is the attempt, through various occult procedures, to communicate with the dead, to conjure what remains of the departed in order to obtain knowledge, often of the future. The word is derived from an older Latin term meaning divination or prophecy using an exhumed corpse. The practice is ancient, and speaks to the indelible human perception that something survives of our loved ones and associates after death. Variations of it exist in virtually all human cultures.
There are several examples of necromancy in classic literature. Following specific instructions given him by Circe, the sorceress, Odysseus invokes the spirits of a crew member, a prophet, his mother, and various ancient Greek celebrities, like Achilles and Agamemnon, who provide him useful information or ask him to complete unfinished business for them. (The dead crew member just wants to be properly buried.) In the Old Testament, there is an interesting story in 1 Samuel 28. Saul, facing a difficult battle with the Philistines, and not having the ear of God at such a critical moment, asks the witch of Endor to summon the spirit of the prophet Samuel, in hopes that he will provide some military advice. Samuel is unhelpful though.
Necromancy is the subject of H.P. Lovecraft’s The Case of Charles Dexter Ward (1941), which was discussed in two recent posts, (see also “…doe not call up Any that you can not put downe…”... and Charles Dexter Ward—Additional Diagnosis). In that story is the memorable quote from one Borellus, an actual seventeenth century physician who specialized in chemistry and biology. Lovecraft took some poetic license with Cotton Mather’s somewhat inaccurate paraphrase of Borellus, but the truth—in fiction, as in real life—often needs enhancement and embellishment in order to be effective:
The essential Saltes of Animals may be so prepared and preserved, that an ingenious man may have the whole Ark of Noah in his own Studie, and raise the fine Shape of an Animal out of its Ashes at his Pleasure; and by the lyke Method from the essential Saltes of humane Dust, a Philosopher may, without any criminal Necromancy, call up the shape of any dead Ancestour from the Dust whereinto his Bodie has been incinerated.
Lovecraft’s novel implicitly warns us that in necromantic practice, an incomplete set of such essential Saltes can be problematic. Considerable experimentation and caution are recommended. Yet it may be that the entire residue of the corpus is unnecessary for useful results. Instead of the entyre Bodie, it may be sufficient to merely reconstitute the Head.
Is there a modern, more reliable means of conjuring the dear and the not-so-dear departed, both for edification and profit? Some readers may be familiar with the recent feature story in The New York Times* that described one young woman’s plans to preserve her connectome—a microscopically detailed three dimensional map of her brain—using advances in cryogenic technology.
Diagnosed with an inoperable glioblastoma in her brain stem, she was given only a couple of years to live. She and her boyfriend spent their remaining time together studying controversial research in neuroscience and recent developments in cryonics. A Reddit campaign and a contest—“The Brain Preservation Technology Prize”—helped generate funds and interest in her project.
Two options were available to her: 1) traditional cryonics, which involves storing brains or bodies at -300˚ Fahrenheit once they have been injected with antifreeze, or 2) chemopreservation, in which a chemical fixative is introduced into the brain by way of a still intact circulatory system, solidifying the structures and allowing them to be stained with a dye that facilitates later examination under an electron microscope. In the second method, the brain can then be encased in hard plastic and kept at room temperature, a great convenience.
The young woman and her boyfriend opted for the traditional approach. The article’s description of how cryogenics was implemented with a human subject is disquieting. While in hospice, the young woman stopped eating and drinking to hasten her death, but exceeded the 12 day limit and was reclassified as an outpatient—her condition was considered “stable”. She was transferred to a nearby apartment, where she died two days later.
Although a team of cryonics experts were on standby, the woman needed to be officially declared dead before they were allowed to begin their procedures. The nurse who could do this was an hour late in arriving, it being shift change at that hour. (Timing is everything.) Once the young woman was deemed officially dead, the cryonics team applied CPR to revive her circulatory system, anticoagulants were pumped through her arteries into her brain, her body was immersed in an ice bath, and she was transported to the cryonics laboratory.
Her boyfriend watched from an observation window as the woman’s head was detached from her body and the cryoprotectant was pumped into it through the cerebral arteries. Her head would be kept in a container of liquid nitrogen, not far from about 140 others, including that of baseball great, Ted Williams.
Theoretically, a well preserved brain, using the chemopreservation method, can be digitally sliced into microscopically thin sheets using an electron microscope. When these images are stacked, a three dimensional map of the interconnections among brain cells can be developed. Insofar as a person’s mind or soul resides only in these interconnections between brain cells—not all would agree—it should be possible to reconstruct memory and other elements of the deceased’s personality from the patterns that are revealed. This mapping is called the connectome.
Instead of relying on Borellus’ inexact essential Saltes, the young woman and her boyfriend fervently hope, along with “transhumanists” like Ray Kurzweil, (see http://www.kurzweilai.net/), that future technological advances will allow the young woman’s connectome to be uploaded into a computer, and so experience a kind of resurrection or conjuration. She would literally become a “ghost in the machine.”
It is typical of our hubris to believe that our minds and souls resemble, or are indistinguishable from our most highly developed technologies. Over the past century or two our minds have been compared to steam engines, telephone switchboards, and now computers. These technological metaphors are intended to help us comprehend what is ultimately subtle and inexplicable, as if the work our hands is somehow comparable to what God or Nature has wrought. This is the sin of idolatry. Yet because we are alone among all mortal creatures in knowing of our inescapable end, and terribly alone in grappling with that great horror, this seems forgivable.
*“Hoping to Transcend Death, via Cryonics”, The New York Times, 9/13/15.