My Letter

June 4, 2018

To Whom It May Concern:

Why do we die? The answer is simple - all things wear out.

This universal truth derives from the Second Law of Thermodynamics, the eventual tendency of all things, including the Universe, toward a disorderly condition. We die because we wear out, just as certainly as does a washing machine, an automobile, or even the Sun. In human organisms, wear and tear eventually lead to failure of critical parts, such as the kidneys or lungs. Loss of their function leads quickly to failure of the entire system, which we call death. Nothing lives forever.

If death is inevitable, cannot we live longer?

We commonly observe that care and maintenance prolong the useful lives of many things: a well-maintained automobile may run for several hundred thousand miles, while the same car, if neglected, is in the junkyard much earlier. The nonsmoker, on average, outlives his or her chain-smoking counterpart. Care and maintenance, however, take time and energy, both of which are in short supply.

People, like all other living things, must do two things to be successful - survive and reproduce - our purpose, as dictated by natural selection and our biological legacy as human beings.

We are thus programmed to invest considerable time and energy into reproduction relatively early in life, with sufficient additional longevity to care for and nurture our progeny (and possibly the progeny of our progeny), but not much more.

Science offers such rational, adequate explanations for life, its purpose, and its eventual end in death. I find such explanations satisfactory, but unfulfilling.

My spiritual core asks for more.

Where I find comfort is in the realization that death is an essential part of the renewal of life: that we live, love, and care for others so that life can continue, even though we must die for our efforts. I am uncomfortable with religious tenets that make claims of life everlasting, reincarnation, and the like, but I appreciate their kinship to my understanding that death is part of a cycle of endless renewal.

The individual dies, but life is perpetual. Nothing lives forever except life itself.

My wife, Linda, and I held her father's hand as he slipped away in a hospital bed. He died at the end of a long, successful, and happy life. I felt calm, but also honored to be present at such an important moment. In the days, months, and years that have followed, we have mourned the loss of this remarkable person.

But as we speak of him, recalling all the good, meaningful, and funny things he did, I have to appreciate a quote I once heard:

"A person dies twice: once when they take their final breath, and later, the last time their name is spoken."

We have two lives, one in our own bodies and minds, the other in the minds of others. Death ends the first of these lives, but the second is potentially just as powerful and longer lasting. Its quality and longevity is a product of the first life, which is to say we should ensure that our legacy is one we would be proud of - it is all that represents us when we are gone. In this way, life is indeed preparation for the afterlife, not in the literal sense of a heavenly home, but in the manner those who outlive us remember us.

I have had a few close brushes with death over the past 70 years, and I am here to write about them because of a good set of genes, the care of those who raised me, some common sense and intervention from antibiotics, skillful surgeons and automobile air bags. Good luck has also played an important role, perhaps the greatest of all.

The lesson of these experiences is that life is fleeting, and that we have a short time to make the best of the opportunities that are ours to use. Each day we should be thankful that we are still able to participate in everything this life has to offer, and we should work hard to build the legacy that is our second life.

In summary: death is an essential part of our human heritage; death is renewal; death perpetuates life; death is the consequence of our creating and caring for the next generation; death of the body and mind are final; the afterlife is our legacy to those who outlive us; and death is always near at hand, reminding us that this life is brief and precious. We must not fear death but take comfort in knowing that death is part of life and essential for its renewal.

Sincerely yours,

Thomas R. Wentworth

Thomas R. Wentworth, PhD, Plant Ecologist / Educator

This letter is part of the Death Letter Project - North Carolina, a means to celebrate the 150th anniversary of Historic Oakwood Cemetery in Raleigh, NC.


Michael Palko