Many of the extraordinary successes of Western medicine are the result of applying to the clinical field wisdom and technology from the empirical sciences. These include diagnostic tools such as magnetic resonance imaging, based on the latest findings in elementary particle physics, as well as robots for surgery and rehabilitation, employing sophisticated artificial intelligence devices.
Limit and finiteness: from overcoming to concealment
Biomedicine is clearly indebted to the scientific enterprise. The continuous effort to expand the limits of knowledge and explore the opportunities to intervene in the care of the body has enabled us to defeat diseases that were once incurable, as we continue to herald new successes. This has induced a sense that limits are not only surmountable but they can also be concealed and perhaps even suppressed.
It is therefore not surprising that the same attitude is taken toward death, that radical limit to life. Sociologists and anthropologists warn us that in our society death is often concealed and denied. It is banished from everyday social life and relegated to hospital settings where patients become part of a medical system managed by specialized professionals; it tends to be excluded from social interaction; it does not lend itself to shared ways of processing, so that mourning becomes a private matter. These are different ways of removing death from our attention and as an event that affects us.
The pandemic and the multiplication of wars has suddenly made death more visible. But the fundamental situation has not changed. Mass media, including cinema, by translating this trend into statistics and emphasizing its sensational features, has tended to make it anonymous and distant.
We fail to process socially and culturally the various forms death takes: the planetary spread of the Covid virus, the atrociously destructive capacity of weapons, the mass deaths caused by natural disasters. What do they mean in personal and community life? Death is represented is such a way that the viewer is left at a distance, witnessing events that concern others. At best it stirs emotions, but seldom allows space for adequate mourning. Those who “are not mourned are neither living nor dead, but ghostly, and wander in the limbo of the collective conscience.” Thus a kind of tension appears between a death that bursts upon us insistently and with excessive force but lacking inner intelligibility, and “an almost invisible death experience, personal and deeply moving because it is real, and has a considerable psychological impact.”
Removal as a symptom
Faced with this mismatch between the measurable dimensions of the phenomenon and the apparent avoidance of the experience, the question arises whether such removal or avoidance is not a symptom of unease when faced with representations of dying perceived as inadequate. In fact, even at the urging of the natural sciences, death is increasingly regarded as a simple biological fact, which interrupts the life of the organism, ending in nothingness. Today, death as annihilation has lost all its ability to contribute to the meaning of life. But the consequences of this perspective of complete final annihilation, which would render all commitment to others and to goodness meaningless, do not seem to be unambiguously and widely embraced with conviction, even by those who endorse its premise.