Death, in our eyes, is always a cosmic tragedy, as it extinguishes forever a life, a personality we have known and lived with and whose presence has become part of our own life. So death actually tears a part of our life from us.
But then is there the right time to die? This question is pertinent given the popular phrase “untimely death” many times invoked when death happens under certain circumstances. The most common of such circumstances is related to the age of the dead. When people are 70 upwards, it’s usual for their death not to be considered untimely. More so, when they die in their 80s, 90s, and 100s, no iota of untimeliness is ascribed to their death; they have died at a “ripe” age. On the contrary, a huge contrast exists when death comes in one’s teens, 20s, 30s and 40s; death is completely described as untimely.
But how untimely can death actually be? Our judgment of death as untimely based on age is indeed founded on common sense and natural process. All living things go through the cycle of birth, maturation, degeneration, and death. Death is the climax of the degeneration process, and it’s only reasonable that any death that occurs outside this timeline can be described as untimely.
But then our natural environment is replete with other things that can cause death outside the degeneration process. Think of diseases and natural disasters. These things can happen anytime irrespective of one’s age. So, should we still apply the age criterion to describe death that occurs as a result of these as timely or untimely? When someone dies at 90 due to degeneration that comes with age, we would readily see the death as timely; but would we also give the same judgement when he dies in a natural disaster like the strike of a thunder? If the answer is No, then are we saying that he was too young to die at 90? It thus becomes clear that our age criterion does not say it all about our judgment of timely and untimely death.
Similarly, diseases may not obey our degeneration-to-death timeline. Someone born with a genetic disposition to cancer may develop cancer at any age and die. In that case, this very death is a product of his DNA; it’s naturally woven into his gene right from conception – can we then also say that the person died untimely since the potential shortness of his life was biologically “destined”?
Another criterion often employed to judge death as untimely is rooted in what we call achievements. We expect death not to happen until one, for instance, has enjoyed what we call fruit of one’s labour, raised a family and perhaps gained materially from the children etc. But then these “achievements” are cultural and subject to values upheld at any point in time. For instance, one who was able to own a bicycle in the 1930s would be considered as reaping the fruit of his labour, but today one may need to own a good car to qualify for such description. So, it’s neither here nor there when we describe death as untimely based on these social attainments.
In the same vein, it’s our cultural beliefs that make us assume that death of one who has a child is less tragic and less untimely than that of one who has none. Not long ago I was telling some friends about another friend that died in a road accident some years ago in his 30s. Immediately I mentioned that he had two kids before his death, my listeners expressed some relief. Unfortunately, their cultural bias did not allow them to see the other side of it; that the deceased had left behind a young widow and fatherless infants who would have to navigate the uncertain and often tumultuous waters of economic survival and cultural wellbeing, with the end result not exactly known.
President Obasanjo’s first wife, Oluremi, in her 2009 book MY SWEET-BITTER RELATIONSHIP WITH OBSANJO, recalled how as a student in UK, she had asked her husband’s close friend, Major Chukwuma Nzeogwu, who was then the military attache at the Nigerian High Commission in London, why he was yet to marry. According to her, Nzeogwu simply told her that there was no need to marry and leave behind a young widow since he would die young. Nobody perhaps can tell how Nzeogwu knew he would die young, but as things turned out a few years later, he did die in the war front fighting for Biafra in 1967 at the age of 30, and on that account, his answer to Mrs Obasanjo made so much moral sense.
A dead person is irreplaceable not even by his child. To affirm otherwise is simply to surrender one’s reasoning to cultural sentiments. One can replace his parent as a family head, a monarch, a CEO of a family business and in other social and cultural capacities. But no one can replace the BEING or PERSON of another. It’s an ontological impossibility. Therefore, the fulfilment we have when we have an offspring that will inherit our social space and answer our name is purely cultural and psychological. No better evidence exists in that regard than the fact that this fulfilment remains with men even when, unknown to them, the said offspring is not their biological child.
The point I have been labouring to make here is that we are only overreaching ourselves when we think so much about how timely our death will be or how untimely another’s death is, and what and what we must accomplish before dying. The end of life is death, and with death comes the logical conclusion of all accomplishments; it’s the end of all struggles. As Romans would say: MORS OMNES LABORES FINIET – Death will end all labour!
This is my meditation this midweek.
Henry Chigozie Duru, PhD, teaches journalism and mass communication at Nnamdi Azikiwe University, Awka, Nigeria.