What would happen if each of us knew the day of our own death?


Each of us is destined to die. We all know this, as the old saying goes: “the only thing certain in life is death”. Life and death, the beginning and the end are the two most normal events in life that exist, yet when we think about our existences, we tend to forget about them and pass them off as extraordinary events. In fact, in their normality, they have something extraordinary about them, both as is natural they only occur once in a lifetime. Both do not depend on our will, but if birth is however more “programmable” because it is naturally linked to two individuals, the father and the mother, death (natural) on the contrary is more unpredictable, it acquires almost its own time outside our will. The fact that we do not know when our time will come, creates in our daily lives almost an illusion that it will never arrive, diverting attention from our inexorable end that advances. But what would happen if we knew the exact date and time of our death? Let’s try to think about it. 

“The Brad New Testament”: a comedy that communicates death via text message

The 2015 Belgian film directed by director Jacob Van Dormael is a comedy set in a surrealist context that tells the story of a God who is so cynical that it borders on funny. He enjoys tormenting and teasing people by writing absurd rules, such as why the row next to ours always runs faster than the one in which we are, or why when we immerse ourselves in the bathtub punctually rings the phone. Everything is controlled by a computer located in his apartment in Brussels. God who is represented in a very crude way, in the guise of a drunkard, lives with his wife and his teenage daughter, while Jesus as we all know, has come down and escaped into our world. The daughter who has a very rebellious character decides to sabotage her father’s amusements, revealing to men the date of everyone’s death, one of the strongest tools God uses to keep people under control. From this point on, the film unveils its main theme: if we were aware of the fact that we are mortal, that we could quantify our time here on Earth by knowing the precise date of our death, would we still do the same stupid things or would we do them differently? This is the provocative question that director Jacob Van Dormael throws at the viewer.

Not dying or death with notice? Saramago and “Death at Intervals”

Nobel laureate Jose Saramago wrote a very peculiar little novel, in which the Death is the protagonist of the entire story, and she decides to do a little bit of what she wants. The story is set in our days in an unspecified country, opens with communication of Death herself, who, tired of being always the bad one that everyone denigrates and avoids, decides not to kill anyone more. The news as absurd as it may be turns out to be true, people from that day stop dying. If initially the news is taken with great enthusiasm, the human being has defeated his end, he is free even from the clutches of time, soon we realize that in truth it is not so positive as a thing. Death has disappeared but aging continues to advance, in the case of incurable diseases one is always in that limbo between life and death with no possibility to go in either direction and also from the social and economic point of view problems are not slow in coming. Insurance companies fall into crisis, pensions begin to weigh heavily on the pockets of the state, the funeral industry fails, and the entire apparatus of the state is transformed to assist the elderly. Before long, people begin to regret death. One day with another communiqué, Death shows up again and communicates that he will be back in service, but differently: she apologizes for the fact that in all these thousands of years she has always been unpredictable, without warning, which in her view was a bit cruel, because she didn’t give people time to say goodbye to their loved ones, draw up a will, or close any unfinished business. So Lady Death decides to send each person a notice a week in advance of the arrival of their hour. The noble intentions of Death, however, do not bring the desired effect. People let themselves go in crazy spending by indebting their successors, in drug parties, or clandestine orgies waiting for the expiration of the week. Saramago, just like Jacob Van Dormael, questions the reader with the same question: if we knew exactly how much time we have left to live, would we always do the same things or would we do them differently? Is there a way to best honor our last days in this world? 

If we found ourselves in a world like those in our two examples above, how would it be “right” to behave? Parmenides gives us an advice

If suddenly for some absurd reason we found ourselves living in a hypothetical world in which each of us knows the date of our end, well certainly we will have an immediate rupture of the illusion that “death does not touch us”, the feeling that most of us experience, “it can happen to others but not to me”, would disappear. I don’t mean to sound insensitive or tactless, but unless one has experienced a severely traumatic event in that area, one hardly reflects on one’s hourglass running in everyday life. Seeing the date in black and white would certainly break the illusion, but it might not change that much if it were a long time from now, certainly, things would change if the “x” date were soonly. Both in “Death at Intervals” and in the film “The Brad New Testament”, the characters in the stories as soon as they learn of their impending death, begin to do the craziest things to recover the time they have “thrown away”, trying in some way to give some value and meaning to their lives to combat the fear of the indeterminacy of death and the consequent loss into nothingness. Parmenides, the Greek philosopher of the fifth century, of which we have few traces, in some of his fragments speaks about nothingness and being, fragments that we can apply to our case. Parmenides poses two paths to follow: being and nothingness. Being is all that can be known and traveled, nothingness is what can not be known in any way. Applying the principle of non-contradiction, from which, only, that of the alternative could have appeared as the fundamental way of being and non-being. Because of this principle, the two different categories cannot enter in relation, from nothingness cannot create being, and from being cannot create nothingness. In death is detectable the fear of nothingness, life is being, and between life and death, there is a palindromic relationship. Being is not only material but it is also thinking, thinking of a third party. Parmenides explicitly writes: “the same thing is thinking and being”. Sticking in an epistemological way the different meaning of being and nothing according to Parmenides, and making it our own, trying to answer the question: what to do if we knew the exact day of our death? Well, I would try to answer like this: I would surely say goodbye to the people close to me, but in fact, I would not try to do who knows what, I would not start doing crazy things because they are not part of my being. I think there is no better way to honor one’s existence and give it a silent value by giving continuity to one’s being within the short time that is left to us, which then thinking about it, perhaps it would be a maxim to be applied always during the existence of each of us. 

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