The trigger of death, in all cases, is a lack of oxygen.
Autumn is an incredible time. It is a moment of transition for trees, leaves, grass, weather and of course, us. As the greens turn to oranges, the sun seems to cool, our hobbies begin to change, and the crisp air of fall settles on us like a comfortable hoodie.
But the beauty of autumn has and will always be in the colors of change. There are few things more aesthetically pleasing than the rainbow of fall; the yellow, orange, red, green, twisted and combined, burnt and broken, exploding in the tops of trees and laying under our feet on the street.
It is the leaf’s final tribute – a nod of the head to winter, a wink in the face of mankind – to give us this beauty upon their departure. We – as a people – generally fear the cold. It means less time outside. It means the death of our crops, the shortening of days, the approaching darkness, the tilt of advantage given to the wilderness. It brings seasonal depression and the powerful, uncontrollable possibility of a snowstorm. But right before all this comes, as the leaves incredibly unique 8-month life span comes to an end, they bring us art in nature. They, like so many other things, have a final moment of beauty before they break from the tree, sway back and forth through the sky, and land gently on the sidewalk.
Edgar Alan Poe, Van Gogh, Galileo, Shakespeare, Socrates, Emily Dickinson, Johann Sebastian Bach, Jesus and even Billy Mays grew in fame after their death. They were known to some in life, and famed to all in death. Presumably, they know nothing of their impact on our world.
When the leaves disappear and the trees are bare, we will take our eyes to another wonder of nature: the stars. These, too, offer us something in their final moments. A supernova, we call it. But what it really is reminds me of that burning leaf; an explosion, an offering, an incredible moment of finality.
But, unlike leaves, stars have an incomprehensibly long life. Their energy is exponentially greater than that of the leaf. So, in their death, they do not simply turn orange and flutter to the ground. No, in their death, they explode – they revolt. They fight death with a fierce power that we can observe from the other side of the galaxy. With millions and billions of years of life, of energy, consisting of all the same components that we are made of, the star does battle with death. It streaks across the sky at 25,000 miles per second, it becomes bigger than it has ever been, and it is obliterated into trillions and trillions of pieces, injecting its life and it’s being into the very blackness we call home. It becomes something else, it leaves, but it does it in such a fantastic, catastrophic bang that our ceiling is scarred forever. In some cases, the supernova collapse happens in 15 seconds. In others, it takes time, and its effect is so deep that what you know as a black hole is literally left in space. Perhaps this is the portal to the place we all long for, the place we all hope to exist.
In 1907, Dr. Duncan “Om” MacDougall conducted six experiments where he measured the weight of dying bodies. He concluded that an average weight loss of 21 grams occurred in the moment of death, a number some have linked to the weight of the “soul.”
Death, like any moment in the cycle of life, is an incredible trauma. That is not to imply that is comes in a rage or as an unbelievably painful experience, but it is a simple cross between worlds; ours and the unknown. In the moment of death, a thing we cannot know or explain takes place. People hallucinate. People see ‘God’. People gift their loved ones with a dying word. People apologize. People forgive. People look through glassy eyes at their past and smile, knowing that they have done everything in their life with a strong spirit and a good heart. People look through glassy eyes at their past and clench their jaw, stern faced, wondering what could have been. Death is the second of two certainties in life: to be here you need birth, to take the exit you need death. Those are and will always be the two things we truly know.
It is estimated that 110 billion people have died since the beginning of time.
I often wonder what it was like for the first person or animal who understood death. What happened when the caveman saw his brother’s body go lifeless, not knowing or expecting a day when they would no longer be able to interact or hunt or fight together? Did he immediately wonder about his own peril? Did he ask questions, crouch down at his brother’s side and cry? Perhaps he saw it as an unavoidable cycle of life, understanding it from the animals he hunted and the seasons he saw change. Perhaps he stripped his brother of his clothing, kept them for himself and fed his body to an animal or his family or even his own mouth.
Since that moment, humans have been trying to understand the experience of death. We have written text after text on it. We have game planned for the flash, prepared for our exit. We have shed tears of confusion at the loss of those around us; we have shaken with fear at the absoluteness of our own conclusion. We have lived to die, instead of living in spite of death. But like the great names of literature and spirituality, the stars of our solar system and those beyond, and even the leaves of the trees outside your window at this very moment, we can give during our exit. We can see each day as a change of color, our bodies going green to yellow to red to orange. Instead of expanding until we pop, feeling ourselves exhaust with each day, we can feel ourselves collecting energy in preparation, gaining momentum for our supernova. We can experience this world as a place to project that beauty, a place where we can search for our sky to scar or our sidewalk to fall on.