Taxes aside, death is supposed to be the one certainty we have—the inevitable. But the way we reckon with it, how we grieve and even how we slip away, these are all things that can and do change.
Science has been restless, and remarkably successful, in keeping people “with us” for longer than before. Sometimes, tthe machinery of medicine creates a new penumbra, in which people are neither alive or dead. Cathy Rentzenbrink, whose brother’s unconscious body deteriorated over eight years, explains why she thinks a quick end is kinder than a long spell in this twilight zone.
Happily, in most circumstances, longer lives have been unambiguously to the good: nobody, for example, would want to return to a world where infectious diseases routinely cut healthy lives short. Society, however, always mediates how effective the evolving science can be. Chillingly, in the United States, the last couple of years have seen progress on life expectancy slip into reverse.
In March, new official data in the UK showed infant deaths, which had been falling for as long as anyone could remember, picking up for a second year. Britain’s leading epidemiologist, Michael Marmot, delves into the population-wide numbers, and reports that a century of progress looks like petering out, with the detail suggesting that this could be connected to inequality.
Before his own death in March, Stephen Hawking had stood out not only for his scientific brilliance, but also for his willingness to connect his research to questions about the meaning of life. In a piece from the Prospect archive, he explains why he believes this was the key to the runaway success of A Brief History of Time.
Hawking once remarked on how interconnectedness was evolving our sense of our self: “We are all now connected by the internet, like neurons in a giant brain.” Joanna Bourke wrestles with the way that this rewired, digital self is changing our concept of dying. Hearteningly, after a century in which we got ever-less willing to face up to it, she concludes that the web is giving the dying a voice, and even allowing the dead back into the conversation. Philip Ball takes the Hawking line in a radically different way: in a piece that has to be read to be believed, he explains how he is growing a second brain. It’s the type of research to make you wonder if the inevitable is really so inevitable at all.