November 13, 2008 - Death, life after


And now a word or two about:
Death. 
The word on a page seems to suck your eyeballs towards it.
Does mine anyway. Conjures up a lot of images pretty quickly.
There's something taboo about it: the word, the action, the reality of the whole thing. 
It's the ultimate threat. 
DO NOT DRINK THIS DRAIN CLEANER, SERIOUS INJURY OR DEATH WILL RESULT.
Skulls, crossbones, THIS could be YOU.
Oh, and to conserve space, we're leaving out the part about it NOT BEING QUICK. 

Death is so ordinary, so common, yet so unique. So inevitable, it's scary to think about.
It is to most people anyway, except maybe to those who think about it a lot, or those who think about it not at all. 
I love this quote from the Dalai Lama (H.H. the 14th): "For example, in my own daily practice, prayer, if I am leisurely, takes about four hours.  Quite long.  For the most part, I think my practice is reviewing: compassion, forgiveness, and, of course, shunyata.  Then, in my case, the tantric practices including visualization of death and rebirth.  In my daily practice, the deity mandala, deity yoga, and the visualization of death, rebirth, and intermediate state is done eight times.  So, eight times death is eight times rebirth. I am supposed to be preparing for my death. When actual death comes, whether I will succeed or not, still, I don't know."
I like that about the Dalai Lama - there is no candy-coating, no positive-spin for you just to be polite, just honest straight-talk. He shares the same unknowns as you do.
Generally taken as a pretty rational human being and he thinks about death for four hours a day, every day.
There are so many religious connotations to death because we've been exposed to so many, yet as in nature, there can be none at all. 
The Black Widow spider eats her mate after he helps her copulate for his last time. She senses he's too old to be of much service anymore, and, she eats him.
Good protein is hard to come by in the bug world, and hey well, there he is, kicking back, feebly smoking a ciggy.
Death happens to every living thing, from a single-celled bacteria to a sperm-whale, from a undeveloped infant to an aging genius, every day. Every moment probably. There is no escape and you probably wouldn't want there to be if you were around long enough, but still you have to deal with it. It's hard to feel comfortable with that much finality, that much loss, that much unknown.
How could you not think about it?
I've been to the psychologist and I really don't know what to say when they coyly ask you,
"Do you think about... death?"
Well there is a loaded question is there ever was one. 
"Death? Nope. Never have." You?
"Hell Yeah, I think about it! It's a pretty big question for a cognizant being, don't cha think!?!"
Geez, I outta get up and leave, and would if I wasn't paying them  $160 / hr. and had already spent $40.
Sometimes I think they ask you that hoping you'll blow them away with something profound. "Wow. That is SO true. Twelve years of college and I hadn't thought of that. Mind if I use it for my eleven o'clock? He's a real case."
But, and it's not like me to start a sentence with a conjunction, let alone two very often, - I digress. Actually what I was thinking about lately is not that whole afterlife thing. I've got plenty of opinions about that and it could take up volumes.
I really don't want to be a fly on the wall at my own funeral. My luck, I'd land on my own forehead, my cousin would swat me and knock the whole casket over and cause a huge scene. What I was thinking about, and for some reason obscure things have been coming to mind lately, (as you may have noticed) maybe it's due to this book I'm reading/listening to about a guy that's trying to read the entire Encyclopedia Britannica. This wasn't in THAT book, but I read it some time ago, and it blew me away (and kind of creeped me out at the same time), it's something more on the order of how long people STAY AWARE before they die.
In reading about the prolific use of the guillotine during the French Revolution, seems there was a buzz about whether the device was really "humane", as it was designed to be at the time, or if it was actually too quick with the blade that it left the victim (er, rather the victim's head) with the ability to remain alive for a duration of time after the "act". 
With previous methods of execution there was little concern about the suffering inflicted.
Except maybe if whether there was enough of it to deter the crowd from doing what the condemned did. 
As the guillotine was invented specifically to be "humane" however, the issue was seriously considered. The blade cuts quickly enough so that there is relatively little impact on the "brain pan", and perhaps less likelihood of immediate unconsciousness than with a more violent decapitation, or a long-drop hanging.
Audiences to guillotinings have told numerous stories of blinking eyelids, speaking, moving eyes, movement of the mouth, even the expression of "unequivocal indignation" on the face of one decapitated Charlotte Corday when her cheek was slapped as the executioner held her head up for the crowd after the blow. 
Anatomists and other scientists in several countries have tried to perform more definitive experiments on severed human heads as recently as 1956. Inevitably the evidence is only anecdotal.
What appears to be a head responding to the sound of its name, or to the pain of a pinprick, may be only random muscle twitching or automatic reflex action, with no awareness involved. It's hard to prove. At worst, it seems that the massive drop in cerebral blood pressure would cause a victim to lose consciousness in several seconds. 
The following report was written by a Dr. Beaurieux, who experimented with the head of a condemned prisoner by the name of Languille in the French Rev days.
"Here, then, is what I was able to note immediately after the decapitation: the eyelids and lips of the guillotined man worked in irregularly rhythmic contractions for about five or six seconds. This phenomenon has been remarked by all those finding themselves in the same conditions as myself for observing what happens after the severing of the neck... I waited for several seconds. The spasmodic movements ceased. It was then that I called in a strong, sharp voice: 'Languille!' I saw the eyelids slowly lift up, without any spasmodic contractions – I insist advisedly on this peculiarity – but with an even movement, quite distinct and normal, such as happens in everyday life, with people awakened or torn from their thoughts.
Next Languille's eyes very definitely fixed themselves on mine and the pupils focused themselves. I was not, then, dealing with the sort of vague dull look without any expression, that can be observed any day in dying people to whom one speaks: I was dealing with undeniably living eyes which were looking at me. After several seconds, the eyelids closed again. It was at that point that I called out again and, once more, without any spasm, slowly, the eyelids lifted and undeniably living eyes fixed themselves on mine with perhaps even more penetration than the first time. Then there was a further closing of the eyelids, but now less complete.
I attempted the effect of a third call; there was no further movement – and the eyes took on the glazed look which they have in the dead."
The current medical consensus is that life does survive, for a period of roughly thirteen seconds, varying slightly depending on the victim's build, health and the immediate circumstances of the decapitation.
The simple act of removing a head from a body is not what kills the brain, rather, it is the lack of oxygen and other important chemicals provided in the bloodstream. To quote Dr. Ron Wright, "The 13 seconds is the amount of high energy phosphates that the cytochromes in the brain have to keep going without new oxygen and glucose". The precise post-execution lifespan will depend on how much oxygen, and other chemicals, were in the brain at the point of decapitation; however, eyes could certainly move and blink.
I'm sure for me, if I was asked what it was like after my head was in the basket, it would probably go something like this...
Reporter: "So, ah, Tim's head, what's it like right now...?"
Tim's head: "Wow. It is so, so, like... what's that word? You know. Umm, it's on the tip of my tongue. Damn, I think it starts with... "

2 comments:

Kelly said...

When I first imagined what it would be like to be aware that my head was just cut off, I imagined myself being very upset and stressed out about how I was going to die and how totally hosed my spine was and worrying if they were going to hold me up by my hair and swing me around - ouch, and bleah I'd get motion sick!

But then I remembered, thoughts are in your head, and emotions are in your body. My last nine seconds wouldn't be "AHHHHHHHH I'M BEHEADED!!!!" It would be nine seconds of some kind of perfect objectivity.. or completely empty obversations about my certain doom.

Also, with the whole below-the-neck part of my nervous system gone, would I even feel the blood trickling onto my neck? I might THINK that was weird, but without my body to make me shudder, is weird weird?

dignature said...

Maybe, as in the case of amputees who get the feeling of a "phantom limb", you would still have the feeling of the "phantom body"... It would be more of a "damn, why won't my head turn... oh, oh. Oh, yeah. Vive Le Revolut...
Originally when this topic came up I had this quote about a scientist that was condemned to the guillotine and he made a pact with his friend that he would make every attempt to blink once a second for as long as he could, and his friend would witness it. The result if memory serves (and it tends to serve up a lot of "faults") was that he blinked seven times. Being that they were at regularly spaced intervals, it verified to the witness that it was definitely a voluntary action.
I've since tried to find this and found only that I should organize my bookmarks. In more web-searching tho, I did find references to it, but not the original thing.
If you've ever read the book "A Perfect Storm" there is a much too thorough going-thru of how long it takes to die via drowning, the physiology involved and what was probably going thru the heads of the victims of the Andrea Gale as they went down.
It's interesting that when you start thinking of comparing seconds to minutes to hours to years of time to think about death, it sort of changes the whole deal.
Maybe the best philosophy IS to live every minute as if it were your last... it's just very hard to do when you have "too many" of them left. Or think you do. Help me out here Dalai Lama...