October 19, 2001 (Ira Pilgrim)

Fear of Death

The average man does not know what to do with this life, yet wants another one which will last forever.

Anatole France

Once, in Nigeria, I was being driven from Lagos to Ibadan by the Anatomy Department's driver in the department's Mercedes. Ajadi was a fine man, a poet, and a person to be trusted. He was an excellent driver who knew his way around the area. He had one problem; a heavy foot. This can be a serious problem in a country where the pot holes in the road might more appropriately be called cauldron holes and many of the other drivers on the road were incompetent. Hitting one of these holes at high speed could rupture a tire and capsize the vehicle. That happened once with the same driver, but fortunately, it just ruptured the tire. I asked him a number of times to slow down. He would slow down, but gradually the speed of the vehicle increased. Finally in exasperation, I commanded, "Ajadi, you are not to go faster than 60 kilometers per hour!!" Ajadi scowled, hunched over the wheel in deep thought. After a while, he suddenly brightened up. "Ah, now I understand. You are afraid to die! .............. I am not afraid to die."

He was, of course correct, I was afraid to die. I prefer to say that I have no wish to die before my time, which would be, hopefully, at a ripe old age. If I could avoid death then, I would.

Ajadi was one of only three people who have said to me that they had no fear of death. One was an army buddy. He was a devout Roman Catholic and I assume that he expected to go to heaven. The other was an African American, and I didn't ask him how come. He died at a relatively young age. Everyone else I know doesn't want to die. Even if they are believers, they consider life to be a very very precious commodity that is not to be lost without a struggle.

In an interview on Sixty Minutes, a man who arranged for suicide bombings in Israel explained that suicide bombers will be true martyrs and that they expect to awaken in a paradise filled with delights. Specifically mentioned was that a martyr will have 60 virgins at his disposal. This has been promised and suicide bombers are true believers. They have no doubts. Having no doubts is implicit in the definition of a fanatic. Yet, when a suicide bomber blew himself up, his brother wept inconsolably. He considered his brother's death to be a great loss and a tragedy. Many, if not most, people who believe in paradise are desolate when someone they love dies and they try to avoid their own death when possible.

The main reason that people cry when someone they love dies is a feeling of the personal loss of someone they love. Where that person went after he died seems to be irrelevant at the moment. I wept when by brother, father and mother died. I might have been consoled if I believed that after I die, I would see them again. However, I don't have to die to see them. I see them often in my mind. I even talk to them and sometimes I get an answer.

It should be obvious that a suicide bomber really believes that he will go to paradise after he dies. When someone who is not a suicide bomber tells me that he believes in an after life, it would be in extremely bad taste for me to question it.

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