Are all equal in death? On April 25, 2013, Al Arabiya English said the following: “Saying that death makes everyone equal is true, but not absolutely. It is true that there must be no aristocracy in death or pain, but each death has its own context.” There are a great many inequalities in death. There are inequalities as to how long people live before they do, how well they live before they die, how they die, how they are buried, how they are remembered (or not) after their death, how their graves are cared for, what eternal destiny they have, and so on, but there is one way that the dead are unmistakably equal, and that is that they are all dead. When we judge the democracy of the dead, we are too prone to forget that, and to be confused, as Al Arabiya was, by the context of each death. There is, no doubt, a great inequality to how we are treated in life, and there are wide and varying standards to how we are treated in death. Some of us are buried in sumptuous graves and fancy mausoleums, some are buried in a pine box in the back 40, some are cremated and their ashes scattered to the four winds, and some left without burial on the face of the earth to be gnawed on by scavengers. But however we die, we are dead, and that is that. We cannot feel the insults inflicted upon us after we are dead, however much they may hurt our loved ones, and that is a mercy, perhaps one of the few mercies we may have in life.
Why is it that the equality of death matters? At some level, human beings are aware of our equality. This demand and recognition of equality may take very many different forms, and it may lead us to be discontented about various aspects of our lives that are obviously unequal and therefore seen as equally obviously unjust. Our God-given gifts and talents are obviously unequal, and the place to which we are born and placed by divine providence varies widely, and the experiences we have in life are also without a doubt very unequal. We also work in an unequal fashion with the various gifts and opportunities that we have been given. Some people do little with much, others much with little, others middling amounts with little or middling or much, or much with much and little with little, and so on. It is beyond our limited capacity for justice to determine what someone deserves because we seldom know enough about the whole picture of someone’s life to know what they had to deal with and what standard they achieved with it. Such questions are beyond my own paygrade, and thankfully so, at present. Yet regardless of all of those inequalities, there is a sort of peace, if a desolate one, that comes from the realization that in death our strivings are over, and we can take nothing with us when we go.
Some people might philosophize to themselves, as one quora user did, by saying that the human condition is one of consciousness. And yet that is not necessarily so. We spend a good portion of our lives in unconscious sleep, hopefully the sleep of the blessed. A great many people, myself sadly included, lose at least some consciousness to seizures of one kind or another for seconds at a time, at least. That is not even considering the consciousness that is lost by those who are comatose, or by people who live their lives unconsciously and without reflection, of which far too many do, or who blot our their consciousness through alcohol and various other drugs. And all of those pale into insignificance when compare to the massive amount of unconsciousness that exists before we are born and after we die. Most of the human experience is either anticipation prior to our experience or in quiet repose after our shadow and flicker of an existence has been snuffed out. To be sure, while we are alive there is a great deal of consciousness, or at least the possibility of it, but it is precisely in this regard that we are the most unequal. What we do, what we attend to, what we think about, what we muse and ponder over, all of that is highly unequal and varies widely based on one’s interests and one’s knowledge and one’s inclinations. It is the less elevated drives and aspects of our existence in which we are more equal, in that we all eat, breathe, drink, sleep, and various other activities, however differently we may do these things in style. And as we might expect, we are the most equal the less consciousness is involved in the matters. We are closer tied in our hungers and longings than in our understanding, and are more equal on those grounds, and upon those matters we can therefore better relate to each other rather than in the stark inequality of our conscious lives.
To be sure, we rebel against the idea that we are equals in death just as we rebel as human beings against any other painful truth. The stark differences that exist in our treatment of the dead that reflect our desire to inflict degradation upon our enemies even after they can no longer feel suffering, or to give honor beyond the grave to those who cannot feel honored by it, are testament enough to that. Yet the dead do not know if we memorialized their life with praise of their worthy lives, or with eating and drinking and singing and mourning. The dead do not know if they are buried in a fine tomb or in a plain one or not buried at all. They do not know if they are forgotten and consigned to oblivion or if people build statues of them so that they may be remembered or that their books remain in print for hundreds of years to be read and appreciated by others who wish they were alive to be friends in existence and not only in our imagination. It is we, the living, who know these things, and must reflect on whether we are just or unjust in how we behave towards others, living and dead. And it is we who live who will be judged for those things, just as others will be judged for how they think of us and treat us. Once we are dead, we are all equal in that we can do nothing more to clear our name or right our wrongs, but simply await the judgment that comes to all souls, eventually.