Living with death and dying
Living with death and dying

Start this free course now. Just create an account and sign in. Enrol and complete the course for a free statement of participation or digital badge if available.

Free course

Living with death and dying

1.2.2 How do others find meaning in life?

There are those who share Tolstoy’s view that death is an end rather than a transition, and yet are much more optimistic about life. Hermann Bondi represents the views of many Humanists in the following passage:

As a Humanist I believe in the importance of human linkages, of human interactions, of our lives getting their meaning from our connections with each other. Thus I agree with Donne that anybody’s death diminishes us all. Yet our loss, our grief, our sorrow at matters that have been left unsaid for too long, services that we regret not having performed in time, and the sheer feeling of void must all be seen in proportion, difficult as this may be. If a person dies in ripe old age, after a life that has had more ups than downs, a life that was at least in some sense fulfilling, then one’s grief should surely be limited in duration, if not in depth. The very naturalness of death, the fact that it is unavoidable, should reconcile one gradually to what has happened in such cases. But if a young, fit person dies, then the grief, the horror, yes, the anger at the event cannot easily be bounded. To have to remain for ever ignorant of how the one who died would have lived, to realise that we must all manage without the unique contribution that person could have made to society, all this may border on the unbearable.

(Neuberger and White, 1991, p. 125)

Unlike Tolstoy, for some people it is the very knowledge that life ends in death that gives life meaning and structure. Another of Rosemary Dinnage’s contributors felt this:

Life is a tremendous gift, an amazing gift, an astonishing gift, and that it seems simply crumudgeonly not to make a response. And for me the response is writing down what I experience; otherwise it looks as though I’ve been given all this, all this daily experience, and I don’t do anything about it. So for me it’s a doing something about it – which, as I said, I think is really related to the fact that one knows that it’s finite experience, that it’s coming to an end.

(Dinnage, 1990, p. 181)

If the fact that life ends in death gives life at least some structure, could we contemplate life without death?

Activity 2

What if we didn’t die? How do you think you would feel? And which bit of the life-span would you stick with? Please feel free to let your imagination run riot – you need not take this activity entirely seriously.

You could try these questions on your family and friends.


I (Moyra Sidell) would find it a great relief not to worry about losing those whom I love or about them not losing me. I think I would be much more adventurous and would certainly fly a lot more. Sadly, I find the idea of ‘life without end’ a bit daunting and my imagination seems very inhibited by the birth-life-death cycle. Of course ‘without end’ begs a lot of questions. Would we arrive in a mature state and would we degenerate? In his book Gulliver’s Travels, Jonathan Swift’s depiction of not dying is very bleak. Gulliver encounters the Struldrugs, who are a species who do not die but live out their eternal lives in a ghastly parody of old age, doddery, senile and altogether not to be envied, which doubtless was the object of this exercise, Swift being the satirist that he was. If I was to live forever I would certainly want to be in good shape.

Most of the people quoted in both Dinnage and Neuberger and White were not too happy about the idea of eternal life; only Thomas, who had from a very early age found the idea of death very frightening, could contemplate the idea with equanimity. He said, ‘as long as you don’t age, there are always new books to read, there’s music to listen to, there’s the countryside to enjoy’. But he does go on to say that ‘yes, the ending does structure our thought about things, very deeply’.

Clearly, the fact that we die, whether it is an end or a transition, does affect our relationship with life.

Jonathan Swift’s Struldrugs, as conceived by Arthur Rackham around 1900

Take your learning further

Making the decision to study can be a big step, which is why you'll want a trusted University. The Open University has 50 years’ experience delivering flexible learning and 170,000 students are studying with us right now. Take a look at all Open University courses.

If you are new to University-level study, we offer two introductory routes to our qualifications. You could either choose to start with an Access module, or a module which allows you to count your previous learning towards an Open University qualification. Read our guide on Where to take your learning next for more information.

Not ready for formal University study? Then browse over 1000 free courses on OpenLearn and sign up to our newsletter to hear about new free courses as they are released.

Every year, thousands of students decide to study with The Open University. With over 120 qualifications, we’ve got the right course for you.

Request an Open University prospectus371