Of all Catholic meditations, none is more wholesome than that on death. Catholic authors like Saint Alphonsus Liguori wrote passionately and extensively on the subject; modern homiletics seems to avoid it like the plague.
The topic remains ever timely nevertheless. Death comes to all in all epochs. It marks the conclusion of earthly human life, when one must render accounts for the life one lived.
O moment on which depends eternity! Death gives life its ultimate meaning. In function of death we live our lives.
The sinner, as Saint Cyprian says, has just reason to fear death, because he will pass from temporal to eternal death. But he who is in the state of grace and who hopes passes from death to life, and he fears not death.
How much evil and sin have been avoided by the mere thought of death!
How much good such meditations have done for society!
Death is Inevitable
It is death’s inevitability, above all, that thrusts itself upon us and forces us to meditate upon it.
Saint Cyprian says that we are born with a rope around our necks and as long as we live on earth we hourly approach the gallows.
“The sentence of death has been written against all men: you are a man; you must die,” writes Saint Alphonsus. “It is uncertain whether the infant that is just born will be poor or rich, whether he will be in good or bad health, whether he will die in youth or old age. But it is certain that he will die. When death comes, there is no earthly power able to resist it.”
Saint Augustine says, ”Fire, water, the sword, and the power of princes may be resisted; but death cannot be resisted.”
“It would be madness for anyone to delude himself with the idea that he shall not die,” Saint Alphonsus concludes. “There never has been a man so foolish as to flatter himself that he will not have to die.”
The Postmodern Folly
Indeed, while such considerations may have nourished the souls of countless men throughout the centuries, our postmodern times are different.
Postmodern man avoids and hates death’s rational and inevitable call. He disdains death’s ability to give identity, meaning, and coherence to our lives. Rather, he prefers a conception of life that resists the face of death and celebrates the incoherent, the fragmented, and the superficial.
In fact, the post-modern world defines itself by its incoherence. MIT professor Sherry Turkle in her book Life on the Screen calls the postmodern a condition where “there is the precedence of surface over depth, of simulation over the ‘real,’ of play over seriousness.”1
The “Death” of FM-2030
In was in this setting that the futurist “FM-2030” died. This tragic and untimely death provides an opportunity for a postmodern meditation on death so contrary to that of the saints.
Who was FM-2030? What is known of the person? The obituary column of The New York Times reported that he died at 69 from pancreatic cancer.
Born F. M. Esfandiary, the son of an Iranian diplomat in Belgium, FM-2030 was the archetypal postmodern man. He sought to surmount repressive modern forms of identity by legally changing his name to FM-2030, an enigmatic name he never fully explained.He eschewed all claims to nationality, proclaiming himself a citizen of the universe. He saw himself as a person of the twenty-first century accidentally born in the twentieth and looked forward to the time when men would become “post-biological organisms.”
“It is only a matter of time before we reconstitute our bodies into something entirely different,” he wrote in 1989, “something more space-adaptable, something that will be viable across the solar system and beyond.”2
FM lived in Miami, forging strange and optimistic thoughts about the future. He envisaged copying machines that would reproduce 3-D objects. He believed that unlimited energy from the sun would soon resolve all energy problems. He dismissed families as anachronistic.
Tyranny of Death
Most of all, he ardently believed that humans would become immortal. Ironically, at the time of his death, he was revising a book called Countdown to Immortality. He denounced death as tyrannical and told his friends it must be eliminated.
Yet, poor FM-2030 died. Cursing his pancreas as “a stupid, dumb, wretched organ,” he succumbed to its cancer.
However, even his death was not without its surrealistic drama. His body is now cryogenically immersed in liquid nitrogen at the Alcor Life Extension Foundation in Scottsdale, Arizona. Expecting future technological advances, FM hoped to be resurrected, cured of his cancer, and freed to continue his future life.
Real-life Science Fiction?
At first glance, the unfortunate FM-2030 might seem to be an eccentric whose views certainly need not be taken seriously. Yet, in our postmodern times, nothing is certain but anything seems possible.
The same obituary notes that FM-2030 taught at the New School for Social Research in Manhattan, at UCLA, and at Florida International University. Besides teaching at these prestigious schools, he wrote novels and other books that apparently sold well. He also served as a consultant, peddling his opinions about the future to such companies as Lockheed, J.C. Penney, and Rockwell International. Many people took FM seriously and paid dearly for his ravings.
A Post-human Nightmare
Even more unsettling is the fact that FM-2030 was not alone. Postmodern culture abounds with references to cyborgs and virtual bodies that aim to change humanity itself.
Not infrequently do we find projections about a so-called “post-human” society modeled on fantastic themes, taking their cues more from popular films like Robocop or Terminator than from real science.
Meanwhile, “serious” scientists, authors, and researchers at major universities and corporations fantasize about a cyberfuture that stretches beyond existing evidence. They leapfrog over necessary proofs for evolution, artificial intelligence, and artificial life, which they assume will be resolved. They take it for granted that man will discover the secret of creating life and even escaping death.
Indeed, theorists of the future have left the sci-fi fringe and gone mainstream.
Wired magazine’s founding editor, Kevin Kelly, writes in his book Out of Control about alternative life in a neo-biological civilization that includes other lives which “are artifacts of humans rather than nature, we call them artificial life; but they are as real as we are.”3
Hans Morevec of Carnegie Mellon University maintains that human immortality will be assured by downloading one’s consciousness on diskette. One thousand years later, one may put the diskette in a machine and start oneself up again.4
What about evolutionary biologist Gregory Paul and Fortune 500 consultant Earl Cox? In their book Beyond Humanity: Cyber-Evolution and Future Minds the co-authors write: “As it becomes increasingly apparent that SciTeeh is going to become increasingly powerful and godlike, the possibility of and the need for a great supernatural deity becomes ever more remote. The Extraordinary Future promises to render faith irrelevant and actually counterproductive because those who choose to hope for immortality via god(s) may miss the real thing.”5
Death Comes to All
The postmodernists’ meditation on death is not to meditate upon it at all. Like FM-2030, they commit the folly of suspending such considerations in liquid nitrogen, vainly waiting for science to resolve the age-old problem of death.
Yet death refuses to cooperate. Amid the delirious speculations about the future only one thing remains certain.
To paraphrase Saint Alphonsus: “The sentence of death has been written against all men, even postmodern men: thou art postmodern; thou must die.”
- Sherry Turkle, Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet (New York, 1995), p.44-45.
- Douglas Martin, “Futurist Known as FM-2030 Is Dead at 69,” The New York Times, July 11, 2000, p. A29.
- Kevin Kelly, Out of Control: the Rise of Neo-Bio1ogical Civilization (Reading, Mass., 1994), pp. 347-348.
- Mr. Morevec’s 1988 book Mind Children was published by Harvard University Press.
- Gregory S. Paul and Earl D. Cox, Beyond Humanity: CyberEvolution and Future Minds (Rockland, Mass.), p. 413.