When I’m dead I won’t be writing these columns. But other than that, indication of my demise might not be certain. The problem is that our definitions of death vary according to legal, cultural, religious and philosophical perspectives.
There was some dispute about whether Taquisha McKitty of Brampton was dead. Doctors said she was but her parents disagreed. She went into cardiac arrest following a drug overdose and was declared neurologically dead. A death certificate was issued.
McKitty’s father said: “My daughter is not dead -she shows that every day.” He maintains that his daughter shows signs of life: squeezing the hands of loved ones and even shedding tears.
Whether she was living was finally decided through a court decision. A judge ruled that McKitty was, in fact, dead.
Keeping someone alive with life support is not an issue. Canadians are kept alive with pacemakers, kidney dialysis, mechanical hearts and lungs while awaiting transplants. The issue is whether we should maintain one’s bodily functions when they are dead.
McKitty’s family might disagree with my last sentence. If they believe that bodily functions define life, then the squeezing of hands indicates that Taquisha was alive.
Others could argue that breath itself is life. If so, breathing is an indication of life. Genesis 2:7 says: “The LORD God formed the man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.”
Still others believe that the soul, the essence of life, resides in the heart. The ancient Egyptians thought that the heart was vital. During mummification, they discarded the brain by removing it through the nose but kept the heart. They likely believed that as long as the heart is pumping, a person is alive.
In Western culture, the brain defines life because it’s the seat of the mind. Some philosophers suggest that it’s the mind that defines life. They argue that since the mind resides in the brain, and because the brain is a (biological) machine, the mind could reside in any machine. If complex computer could be built, the mind could continue to live in a solid state environment without a body.
The Japanese would disagree. They see the body and mind as a single unit so that the mind is not independent of the brain. To be alive is to experience bodily sensations and desires as well as cerebral thoughts.
The judge in McKitty’s case ruled that the brain is central in determining death. If the brain is dead, so is the mind. This opinion coincides with doctors’ assessments. Dr. Sonny Dhanani, a pediatric critical care physician in Ottawa, concludes:
“When brain death occurs, there is no blood and oxygen going to it. The brain ceases all function. There are no functions left to be lost. This means there is the irreversible loss of any ability to have thoughts or feelings or memories (Globe and Mail, July 6, 2018).”
I won’t know when I’m dead and given the definitions of life, maybe no one else will be sure any time soon.