Describe the emotions that your own death arouses in you. Write down, or think carefully about, what you think will happen to you when you die, when you are physically dead. Be as specific as possible.
Now that you have completed this task, I predict that you will have a stronger opinion on whatever follows in this article. Or, really, on any article. In all likelihood, because of this reminder of your mortality, you will be more passionate about your take on Britney Spears not wearing shoes into a public bathroom, global warming, or the successful first week of Transformers 3 (180 million).
This is what is called “mortality salience,” the polarizing effect of the subliminal awareness of mortality. It has been tested scientifically, and was exemplified by the extreme public embrace of George W. Bush, a charismatic, value-driven leader, after we observed, nationally, people diving off buildings to their death on 9/11. We felt for the victims and the victims’ families, but, more importantly, we were reminded vividly that each of us, personally, are going to die. Except for Charlie Sheen.
I will be thinking about death all summer, so I apologize, in advance, for moody diatribes against the new films Captain America, Cowboys and Aliens, the Zookeeper and Rise of the Planet of the Apes. No, it is not clinical depression I am going through. I am, rather, designing viral videos to promote my father’s new book on death, out next year. It is a science book, and there is a distinct lack of comforting fiction in it. In other words, he is not guiding you on how to approach death or offering salvation as a condolence. He is describing, quite nakedly, our society’s limited understanding of the scientific mechanics of death and the trouble this gets us into, most importantly, in terms of organ donation.
It seems that most of the public think organs are taken from dead people. “I’ll be dead,” people say, filling out their organ donation cards, “So what do I care?” If only this were true, it would be a nice, appropriate sentiment. Why shouldn’t my organs, now useless to me, expand someone else’s life? The problem is that organs cannot – let me repeat this, cannot – be taken from dead people.
…unless you change the medical definition of death, as so happened in 1968, when a collection of Harvard medical specialists met to change the official criteria for death. Finally, death was scientifically clarified – it was now, officially, “a loss of personhood,” which for the Harvard committee meant brain death.
Believe it or not, even “braindead” does not mean your brain is exactly dead. It means that your brainstem isn’t working, admittedly a vital, essential part of your body, basically the on-off switch, which is responsible for such things as ‘wakefulness.’ The cerebral cortex, which contains consciousness and pain, may still be in tall order. So, being braindead simply doesn’t rule out pain (or EXTREME PAIN) during organ removal. To add insult to injury, the medical establishment fails to provide anesthetic to organ donors, because, well, that’d be admitting you weren’t quite dead (and it also potentially harms the organs). Furthermore, there have been cases of people declared dead, and then cleared for organ donation, who have then come back to life and fully recovered. Very few, but a single exception nullifies Harvard’s definition, at least from a scientific perspective.
This is an inconvenient truth. Nobody wants organ donation to be flawed. It’s wonderful to be able to save people in ways that before were impossible. However, as it stands, it just isn’t honest.
I’d like my father’s book to succeed in the market, obviously, as I think it contains information heretofore unknown to most of the public. Besides organ donation, it covers the history of scientific death, non-western death, near death experiences, PVS, and, maybe unavoidably, my father’s own nihilism. It’s presented in an amazingly readable way, like a Malcolm Gladwell book but with more substantive scientific backing (sorry Gladwell…) It’s also surprisingly funny, in a dark way. The anecdotes are well picked, unpretentious and cutting, and he describes the unique situation of having to come face to face with death, daily, for ten years. Pantheon, the publisher, has selected it as one of the books it’s going to push heavily at the beginning of next year. My father’s last book, on non-western math and science, was not a huge commercial success but it did become a New York Times notable book of the year, so odds are this one will be somewhat critically embraced as well.
But how do you sell a book that is so fundamentally grim? Do you embrace and parody the bleakness (as I am naturally inclined to do) or do you cover it up and spin it in a more digestible way? Or maybe you do the book complete justice, in documentary style a la Errol Morris?
These issues have been bouncing around as I brainstorm marketing ideas, as well as my own death, which increasingly doesn’t freak me out as much as most. My dad and I are, for now, hedging our bets and creating a bunch of different short viral ads, some interview-style, some more imagistic, and some lampooning my father (one features him, after not being able to get through to the reading public, going on a book tour and lecturing to farm animals). It’s a fun project and it allows for a lot of experimentation as we head into unfamiliar territory for both of us. We don’t know what will come out of it. It’s a lot like life, really. Maybe the viral videos will explode and garner interest, maybe they’ll obscure the point, or maybe our attempts are entirely in vain, and there is no way to get people to read this book.
5 books and 25+ years in as a freelance science writer, my father is pretty eager, I think, to have this one be a big seller. Also, he realizes he’s going to die, and, odds are, sooner rather than later. I called him the other day to tell him the final chapter was maybe a little too bleak. I asked, maybe there was an honest way to lighten the last part up without compromising the book? “Look, I’ll do it anything,” he confessed, “If it helps the book, I’ll tell people at the end that they’re not really going to die, after all.”