Death and the Meaning of Life

A painting of an autopsy, by Rembrandt, entitled "The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp"

Death causes many to doubt life’s meaning. It isn’t surprising that the meaninglessness of life consumes Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich, or that death figures prominently in the world’s literature about the meaning of life. Consider these haunting lines from James Baldwin:

Life is tragic simply because the earth turns and the sun inexorably rises and sets, and one day, for each of us, the sun will go down for the last, last time. Perhaps the whole root of our trouble, the human trouble, is that we will sacrifice all the beauty of our lives, will imprison ourselves in totems, taboos, crosses, blood sacrifices, steeples, mosques, races, armies, flags, nations, in order to deny the fact of death, which is the only fact we have.[i]

Something binds the topics of death and meaning. The thought of oblivion arouses even the non-philosophical among us. What is the relationship between death and meaning?Death is variously said to:

  1. render life meaningless;
  2. detract from life’s meaning;
  3. add to life’s meaning;
  4. render life meaningful.

Death has always been inevitable, but the idea that science will eventually conquer death has taken root—achieved through some combination of future technologies like nanotechnology, genetic engineering, artificial intelligence, and robotics. Some think the possibility of technological immortality renders human life meaningless, others that life can only attain its full meaning if death is overcome.

But whatever view one takes about the relationship between death and meaning, the two are joined. If we had three arms or six fingers, our analysis of the meaning of life wouldn’t change; but if we didn’t die our analysis would be vastly different. If our concerns with annihilation vanished, a good part of what seems to undermine meaning would disappear. To understand the issue of the meaning of life, we must think about death. Pascal’s words echo across the centuries:

Imagine a number of men in chains, all under sentence of death, some of whom are each day butchered in the sight of the others; those remaining see their own condition in that of their fellows, and looking at each other with grief and despair await their turn. This is an image of the human condition.

Can we find meaning in this picture?


[i] James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time (New York: Vintage, 1992).

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17 thoughts on “Death and the Meaning of Life

  1. I don’t think that death and meaning have anything to do with one another. Philosophers are always claiming that death makes life meaningless, or meaningful, or things like that. But it doesn’t. Life is inherently good. Death is inherently bad. Life is meaningful; it’s meaning is completely unrelated to the fact that it eventually ends. The value is in the journey itself, not the inevitable endpoint of the journey, and the fact that the journey must end does not detract from or add to the fact the the journey is unique, special, and irreplaceable. If anything, the meaning of death is imperfection, inadequacy. As a Transhumanist I believe that death is a problem to be solved, not some metaphysically relevant locus of transcendent meaning. Your article, thus, fails to mention this prominent viewpoint: that death means absolutely nothing. Life is what matters.

  2. Seth, why do assume death is inherently bad? You obviously don’t really know, so why try to assume?

  3. Is it pedantic to point out that even though the body may not die for thousands of years, but the universe might collapse at some point in the future? I know this is a long time we speak about, but technically death still exists at that point, so we haven’t overcome it but postponed it by quite a bit. I imagine the spectre of death would still be there in the mind.

  4. Death is not the meaning of life. Life is something that is worth living for. Live for the best. Don’t waste it. People are better than that. No one is to be wasted away because of one thing. People are not just like a toy meant to be played with and then thrown away later on. Live like you really mean it. Death is NEVER the answer. Remember that.

  5. Death is most definitely NOT the meaning of life. Any philosophy that argues against this should itself be deemed invalid. When people claim that we may die from the collapse of the universe, they are not certain about their claim. Hypothetically speaking, there could be multiple universes. The end of one universe could be the beginning of another, meaning that we could escape to a parallel universe in the distant future.

  6. In what year were you people born? Are you of the young society,middle aged or old aged, – if there was a meaning to anything, even me as an individual or everyone else, which of course have to experience these things at some point, the cycle of life which we were there before, we are born, we grow into adulthood, we work, we retire, we grow old and frail and then we die…after that we do not know what happens, other than our bodies will be gone, but the soul lives on in peoples mind, it is passed on. If we do not reach an answer, in these more than a thousand years and no one has seeked an answer, which brings me down to this, why cant we as a chance of life inspire people, a generation, we were not around before, never existed, but we have known a world existed, we have lived it, we can inspire people that we were here, whether it makes a difference or not, we were people and the mind can do amazing things, to live in the human colony, as a human, we could wear shirts with words written on them, yearly or every 6months, anything to get any messages across, playing with the mind of others. – and other generations also who are welcome to follow, being the example, looking after ourselves. I think we should all start a meeting. I am from the UK in Peterborough, if you wish to contact me, please find me on facebook, Mike Hodgson. Thank you.

  7. Death is he meaning of life because your days are counted and you are limited of time, which makes one want to do their best. Eternal life would be useless because at one point you’ll all be the best and what’s the challenge. Death makes you want to do your best before your time is up.

  8. I think meaning itself is not the fundamental bedrock up on which we build our understanding of life and death.Because it heavily depend on what we feel in our heart and the corresponding myths and imagination our mind projects on a screen we call reality. If what we feel is ,overwhelmingly or predominantly ,love then life is full of worthiness hence our mind projects diverse meanings for existence in life. On the other side if our heart is overwhelmed by fear , our mind predominantly projects a diametrically opposit myth to that by love it projects on the screen of reality. In both of the situations our attempt to understand what is on the screen of reality ignoring from which side (love or fear) we positioned ourselves, is at fault and even is fruitless .so meaning itself is not apriory to the state of our mind or the myth it projects of more so to the feeling our heart is overwhelmed by ,is it love or fear……..!?

  9. Some say, life is meaningless, some say they want to live a meaningful life, some say we have a higher purpose, some say there is no purpose to any of us. I think life and death are what you make of it. I want to do my best so my spirit and soul is at peace when I face death. If you want to know more on how to do the best for your spirit and soul, I have found this article and others at this site to be helpful. Take a look at this link –

  10. Do the Means have to equal the Extremes? Dust to Dust? What lays between we call life. And life by all accounts is a burden and a mix of pain, pleasure and satisfaction. What makes our human life is accountability. That we have the ability to pass on or write history, albeit as we see it, or stories passed on orally or written. If we could figure out how instinct is passed on, but then we would move out of the parameters entitled by our understanding or concept of life. many years ago there was a belief that overpopulation of a species brought upon the ultimate destruction of that species. Competition harbored extermination. Who or what makes that judgement? Those elitist who truly believe they run the world and those below lack any thought of immortality. My dream has always been a non competitive yet discipline of the strongest survival. Our bodies wear out, things happen. If I do enjoy the ride, I do fear it’s end or death. If there does exist a spirit, We will never comprehend contact. Perhaps my purpose of life is only to have written these words today.

  11. No one knows and it is pointless to ask others kid, they know as much about this subject as you – that is to say nothing. Everyone alive today hasn’t lived much longer than you have and they haven’t received any special knowledge. The only fact we have is that we are going to die, that’s it…..

  12. i am working on a paper for my masteral and chose the pragmatic aspect on death… Do we find meaning in life because of death? Or the other way around? I cannot simply make a better statement of a more controversial problem about it? Where do we hold meaning in life? Is it death or something else? Would that something else be more tragic than death or less?

  13. why should there be life if the end results is eternal end. all those years from BCE to date that has never been an hint of some form of existence after death. All those people from long time ago to date have died and gone forever. Some people talk of spirits and souls, but no one has ever found anything about them…… That makes us just physical beings that have a complex combination of elements which break down to its simplest form when we die. And used by other life forms

  14. The meaning of life is the reward you receive for a patient and constant inner work on yourself thru thought. Once human beings have reached a certain stage of consciousness heaven gives them an atom, like a droplet of light, a quintessence that
    impregnates all the matter of their being. From that point on their lives take a new dimension and intensity. They experience events with new clarity, as if they had been granted the understanding of the reason for all things… Even death no longer frightens them because this atom, this electron reveals the immensity of an eternal world where there are no more dangers or darkness and where they sense they are already walking in the boundless space of light. Christ Lives !!!

  15. For me, it is crucial to think that death is actually what gives meaning to life or to the human person, life will be meaninglessness if humans are to enjoy limitless existence, but hence that is not the case we strive to live up to certain expectations which defines our humaness.

  16. They always say that death is the opposite of life but death is just the part of our life that we must learn to accept when time comes. Cause’ that’s it we don’t have control to our lives.

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