To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven. A time to be born, and a time to die… – Ecclesiastes 3 vs 1-2
The death you run away from will come to meet you and you will be returned to the One who knows the unseen as well as the seen… – al-Jumuʿah 62:8
“It is the will of God”
During my late sister’s funeral, I heard so many remarks from guests, friends and family, most of which were genuinely intended to be kind and comforting. Some of the most common ones were statements like “it is the will of God”, “God gives and God takes” and “only God knows why”. It all got me thinking about death and the right time for a person to die. The questions that lingered were: when is the right time for a person to die? What is the marker or threshold at which point a person’s passing can be seen as justified by their loved one? Is there a right time for a loss to occur?
How should those who console loved ones express their condolences? Is it right to imply that it is okay for a person to die – regardless of the stage of life and circumstances of death – when attempting to console the bereaved? Is it justifiable to say to a person that the death of their loved one has been somehow orchestrated by a God, a supreme being, a deity or a spirit (including ‘demons’ or ‘evil spirits’), and to communicate that at a time of mourning? This kind of communication may work in some instances, but can be seen as insensitive in others. People tend to say “it is the will of God” when a person dies. What is the motive for this: to comfort? Show commonality of faith? To illustrate that life and death are out of our control? Is it easier to say that ‘it is the will of God’ so mourners can get past their loss? Is it a way to assure families that their loved one has transitioned to a better afterlife? How do non-believers interpret this communication?
I know that regardless of when a person dies, and the circumstances surrounding their death, loss brings pain, and in many cases, people probably do not want to be told that their loss is somehow justifiable. This is the case, for me at least, even when the person in question had been ill for an extended period of time. Simply saying it is the intent of a supernatural being for the life to end does not alleviate or eliminate a person’s pain and sense of loss, and perhaps doesn’t console them. If anything, it could elicit a sense of helplessness that elevates their grief and pain and sense of loss.
“You can die at any time”
I am practical about life and death. I know that a person can die at any moment. Life expectancy in Nigeria is approximately 54 years overall (54 years for men and 55 years for women), and we have a fairly high under five mortality rate at 120 deaths per 1,000 live births, as of 2018. In fact, Nigeria has one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the world, much worse than Syria (17 deaths per 1,000 live births) and Iraq (27 deaths per 1,000 live births), countries that have been in conflict for many years. In a country where road infrastructure is poor and passenger plane accidents was historically high with a total of 46 passenger plane incidents between 1960 and 2009, with 27 of these occurring between 2000 and 2009. Road accidents also occur on a regular basis accounting for an estimated 2% rate of all deaths, at approximately 37,000 people, in 2017 alone, according to WHO. I know that our conflicts, including the current Boko Haram insurgency, communal crisis, land disagreements, oil and gas pipeline explosions, petrol and gas tank explosions, natural disasters (flooding for example) and the likes, collectively result in high numbers of deaths each year. According to one estimate, over 30,000 people have died over a 10-year period from 2009-2019 due to the conflict with Boko Haram.
I am aware of all this and know that the chances of dying in Nigeria are fairly high. To some extent, this suggests that there are things that are beyond our control as individuals and are more reflective of systemic failures. When a person dies from a road accident due to bad roads, that is partly or wholly a result of systemic failure. When a person dies as a result of lack of equipment in a public hospital or poorly trained healthcare workers, that is a result of systemic failure. I know that people can get really sick due to lifestyle choices they make on their own. While lifestyle illnesses affect people in Nigeria, as elsewhere in the world, the difference between us and the developed world is a constant attempt, or at least debate/discussion about strategies, to improve the system of response, so that people are able to receive the kind of care they need.
Systemic failures have high human costs. In the Niger Delta region for example, there have been suggestions that there is a higher rate of cancers and other health outcomes due to oil spills and gas flaring. According to one analysis, Nigeria ranks sixth in the world in terms of quantity of gas being flared. These activities have severe implications for human and aquatic life and biodiversity in the region, and have contributed to low agricultural productivity. An extension of this are conflicts associated with oil activities and related land disputes, which often result in high numbers of fatalities and displacement. All of these are due to systemic failures. Nigeria has in the past four decades set several deadlines for ending gas flaring and has failed to enforce them due in part to the enormous powers of multinational oil companies and the weak governance systems to enforce these deadlines.
So, I understand that life is precarious, and death is not necessarily an outcome we can control, in a shared world, and due to both personal choices and systemic failures. Hazards and risks are constantly lurking in the corner and we can come into harm’s way without any anticipation or preparation. But our mortality does not justify a sense of hopelessness and helplessness that is conveyed by the suggestion that the death of a loved one is orchestrated by a supernatural being. This in itself raises questions about how the being(s) make the choice of whom to take away, and why they have chosen a specific individual and not one of the other billions of people in the world.
Moral questions about death and dying
The above leads me to raise three questions about death. 1. When is it justifiable for a person to die? 2. When is it morally acceptable to celebrate a person’s death? 3. For the person who experiences loss, is there a right time for the demise of their loved one? These are important questions that are relevant to death and mourning. In some sense, and while I don’t focus on them, these questions align with ethical discussions regarding physician assisted deaths, euthanasia and the death penalty.
When is it justifiable for a person to die? When is it morally permissible to presume that a person’s death is justifiable? Is it due to factors like prolonged illness and associated suffering? Some people point to deity sanctioned or deity orchestrated deaths as being justifiable – is this true? Within the broad analysis of the ethics of assisted deaths, there is reference to the notion of ‘good death’. According to a seminal paper, the principles of a good death entails among others that the person is afforded dignity and privacy, has control over pain relief and symptom control, has control over who is present and is able to say goodbye. These principles outlined entail choice, agency and control for the person who eventually dies rather than their loved ones.
What about deaths that occur without another party’s assistance? What principles define a good death in these circumstances? Does a good death imply that a person died honourably, peacefully and without suffering? Most people would say that a death is justifiable if it relieves a person of their pain, if it saves their family members pain or if they have religious beliefs that potentially qualify them for a better afterlife. Obituary announcements sometimes contain the inscription ‘gratitude to God for a life well spent’. Does the notion of ‘life well spent’ imply that the person enjoyed a life that is considered meaningful in their society? If so, what kind of life will be considered meaningful? Regardless of the criteria, can there ever be such a thing as justifiable death?
Related to the above question, I wondered also about when is it morally permissible to celebrate a person’s death and whether it is appropriate to do so? Some cultures and religions celebrate death, especially when the deceased is older. Thus, age is one of the primary factors that underlie the celebration of a person’s life after they die. The other factor is what I will characterise as legacy. However, legacy is a more complex idea as there is a wide array of ways in which legacy can be conceived. In some communities, a person’s legacy is determined by material attainments, education, social standing and their leadership, among other factors. Related to the notion of life well spent is what might be considered ‘the good life’. There are differences in how the good life is understood. In some societies, virtues such as love, helping other people, being trustworthy, being involved in the community, being a person of integrity and being a person of faith, define a good life. However, having material and other determinants of wealth, social standing and political status, family life, as I mentioned earlier are also used to define a good life. Can it be said that if a person’s life meets the threshold for a good life as exists in their societies, then it will be justifiable when they die and therefore appropriate to celebrate? What about the appropriateness of this for those who have experienced loss and do not see the need to celebrate? Whose view should determine whether a death is celebrated? Is a normative criterion sufficient?
For the person who experiences loss, is there a right time for the demise of their loved one? Simply put, is there a good time for a person to die? Do age, social standing, ill health, material wealth, and any other markers used by society to define achievement in any way minimise the feeling of loss and pain? These are no easy questions to answer, and the kind of response received will depend on who they are directed at. But, when mourning practices and cultures do not recognise or take these difficulties into account do they end up aggravating a person’s pain?
Death is a difficult thing for most people to accept. In cultures where there is collective mourning, sanctioned period of observance and specific practices associated with mourning, this can make loss more difficult. What if the person wants to forget, to stop and put it all behind them because of the pain? What if the sanctioned period is not enough or too much? Who should determine how a person receives their loss? Cultural norms? A supreme being? Spirits? Or the person who experiences loss?