That my particular death thing may have a biochemical element doesn’t mean that there isn’t more generally some sort of death thing. People die of course and I can’t help but see death as the central defining fact of what was called, when I was going to college, human experience, as contrasted with animal experience.
I am fairly certain my cat is not haunted by its own morality or is in any way remotely aware of the fact that it will cease to be and is therefore unaware even that it exists. I know my cat “is” but I don’t think she does.
She might, if attacked, “fear for her life,” but I think really that she is instinctively afraid of damage that might come to her but not of the possibility of her non-being. I think cats may grieve but not because something is dead but because something is gone or missing. That this missing thing, if dead, can never return just doesn’t figure into her calculations.
So death, the fact and the awareness of the fact, is something particularly human, perhaps even the central defining characteristic of what being human is. If I may say that. One’s death is always in the future, so death is bound up intimately with the capacity of the human brain to look into the future. Or, let us say, since no one can look into the future, that because of an awareness of the future, human beings have long wished to look into it, to predict, by means of such things as astrology or palm reading or auguring from the guts of animals, what might be.
This awareness—that there is a future—is what has allowed human beings, not to predict it, or look into it, but to prepare, on the basis of memory, for it. It is as if civilization or society, as a collective construction, is built to live past any particular human being and to represent in that way a transcendence of death of the individual.
We are perhaps not that different from the Egyptians. We too build our pyramids in which to bury ourselves.
My cat remains blissfully unaware that it exists.