Book: "Raymond or Life and Death"

Author: Sir Oliver Lodge FRS

Availability: Out of Print

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- (Part 3) - Chapter 2 - Life and Death -

The Meaning of the Term Death


"And Life, still wreathing flowers for Death to wear."-


          WHATEVER Life may really be, it is to us an abstraction: for the word is a generalised term to signify that which is common to all animals and plants, and which is not directly operative in the inorganic world. To understand life we must study living things, to see what is common to them all. An organism is alive when it moulds matter to a characteristic form, and utilises energy for its own purposes - the purposes especially of growth and reproduction. A living organism, so far as it is alive, preserves its complicated structure from deterioration and decay.

Death is the cessation of that controlling influence over matter and energy, so that thereafter the uncontrolled activity of physical and chemical forces supervene. Death is not the absence of life merely, the term signifies its departure or separation, the severance of the abstract principle from the concrete residue. The term only truly applies to that which has been living.

Death therefore may be called a dissociation, a dissolution, a separation of a controlling entity from a physicochemical organism; it may be spoken of in general and vague terms as a separation of soul and body, if the term "soul' is reduced to its lowest denomination.

Death is not extinction. Neither the soul nor the body is extinguished or put out of existence. The body weighs just as much as before, the only properties it loses at the moment of death are potential properties. So also all we can assert concerning the vital principle is that it no longer animates that material organism; we cannot safely make further assertion regarding it, or maintain its activity or its inactivity without further information.

When we say that a body is dead we may be speaking accurately. When we say that a person is dead, we are using an ambiguous term; we may be referring to his discarded body, in which case we may be speaking truly and with precision. We may be referring to his personality, his character, to what is really himself ; in which case though we must admit that we are speaking popularly, the term is not quite simply applicable. He has gone, he has passed on, he has "passed through the body and gone," as Browning says in Abt Vogler, but he is - I venture to say - certainly not dead in the same sense as the body is dead. It is his absence which allows the body to decay, he himself need be subject to no decay nor any destructive influence. Rather he is emancipated; he is freed from the burden of the flesh, though with it be has also lost those material and terrestrial potentialities which the bodily mechanism conferred upon him; and if he can exert himself on the earth any more, it can only be with some difficulty and as it were by permission and co-operation of those still here. It appears as if sometimes and occasionally he can still stimulate into activity suitable energetic mechanism, but his accustomed machinery for manifestation has been lost: or rather it is still there for a time, but it is out of action, it is dead.

Nevertheless inasmuch as those who have lost their material body have passed through the process of dissolution or dissociative severance which we call death, it is often customary to speak of them as dead. They are no longer living, if by living we mean associated with a material body of the old kind; and in that sense we need not hesitate to speak of them collectively as 'the dead.'

We need not be afraid of the word, nor need we resent its use or hesitate to employ it, when once we and our hearers understand the sense in which it may rightly be employed. If ideas associated with the term had always been sensible and wholesome, people need have had no compunction at all about using it. But by the populace, and by Ecclesiastics also, the term has been so misused, and the ideas of people have been so confused by insistent concentration on merely physical facts, and by the necessary but over emphasised attention to the body left behind, that it was natural for a time to employ other words, until the latent ambiguity had ceased to be troublesome. And occasionally, even now, it is well to be emphatic in this direction, in order to indicate our disagreement with the policy of harping on worms and graves and epitaphs, or on the accompanying idea of a General Resurrection, with reanimation of buried bodies. Hence in strenuous contradiction to all this superstition comes the use of such phrases as 'transition' or 'passing,' and the occasional not strictly justifiable assertion that "there is no death."

For as a matter of familiar fact death there certainly is; and to deny a fact is no assistance. No one really means to deny a fact; those who make the statement only want to divert thoughts from a side already too much emphasised, and to concentrate attention on another side. What they mean is, there is no extinction. They definitely mean to maintain that the process called death is a mere severence of soul and body, and that the soul is freed rather than injured thereby., The body alone dies and decays; but there is no extinction even for it, only a change. For the other part there can hardly be even a change-except a change of surroundings. It is unlikely that character and personality are liable to sudden revolutions or mutations. Potentially they may be different, because of different opportunities, but actually at the moment they are the same. Likening existence to a curve, the curvature has changed, but there is no other discontinuity.

Death is not a word to fear, any more than birth is. We change our state at birth, and come into the world of air and sense and myriad existence; we change our state at death and enter a region of - what? Of Ether, I think, and still more myriad existence; a region in which communion is more akin to what we here call telepathy, and where intercourse is not conducted by the accustomed indirect physical processes; but a region in which beauty and knowledge are as vivid as they are here: a region in which progress is possible, and in which "admiration, hope, and love" are even more real and dominant. It is in this sense that we can truly say, "The dead are not dead, but alive."

Appendix on Feelings when Death is Imminent

Preliminary Statement by OJL

A lady was brought by a friend to call on us at Mariemont during a brief visit to Edgbaston, and I happened to have a talk with her in the garden. I found that she had been one of the victims of the Lusitania, and as she seemed very cheerful and placid about it, I questioned her as to her feelings on the occasion. I found her a charming person, and she entered into the matter with surprising fulness, considering that she was a complete stranger. Her chief anxiety seems to have been for her husband, whom she had left either in America or the West Indies, and for her friends generally; but on her own behalf she seems to have felt extremely little anxiety or discomfort of any kind. She told me she had given up hope of being saved, and was only worried about friends mourning on her behalf and thinking that she must have suffered a good deal, whereas, in point of fact, she was not really suffering at all. She was young and healthy, and apparently felt no evil results from the three hours' immersion. She was sucked down by the ship, and when she came to the surface again, her first feeling was one of blank surprise at the disappearance of what had brought her across the Atlantic. The ship was "not there."

I thought her account so interesting, that after a few months I got her address from the friend with whom she had been staying, and wrote asking if she would write it down for me. In due course she did so, writing from abroad, and permits me to make use of the statement, provided I suppress her name; which accordingly I do, quoting the document otherwise in full.

The Document referred to

"Your letter came to me as a great pleasure and surprise. I have always remembered the sympathy with which you listened to me, that morning at Edgbaston, and sometimes wondered at the amount I said, as it is not easy to give expression to feelings and speculations which are only roused at critical moments in one's life.

"What you ask me to do is not easy, as I am only one of those who are puzzling and groping in the dark - while you have found so much light for yourself and have imparted it to others.

"I would like, however, most sincerely to try to recall my sensations with regard to that experience, if they would be of any value to you.

"It would be absurd to say now, that from the beginning of the voyage I knew what would happen; it was not a very actual knowledge, but I was conscious of a distinct forewarning, and the very calmness and peace of the voyage seemed, in a way, a state of waiting for some great event. Therefore when the ship was rent by the explosion (it was as sudden as the firing of a pistol) I felt no particular shock, because of that curious inner expectancy. The only acute feeling I remember at the moment was one of anger that such a crime could have been committed; the fighting instinct predominated in the face of an unseen but near enemy. I sometimes think it was partly that same instinct - the desire to die game - that accounted for the rather grim calmness of some of the passengers. After all - it was no ordinary shipwreck, but a Chance of War. I put down my book and went round to the other side of the ship where a great many passengers were gathering round the boats; it was difficult to stand, as the Lusitania. was listing heavily. There seemed to be no panic whatever; I went into my cabin, a steward very kindly helped me with a life-jacket, and advised me to throw away my fur coat. I felt no hurry or anxiety, and returned on deck, where I stood with some difficulty discussing our chances with an elderly man I just knew by sight.

"It was then I think we realised what a strong instinct there was in some of us - not to struggle madly for life-but to wait for something to come to us, whether it be life or death; and not to lose our personality and become like one of the struggling shouting creatures who were by then swarming up from the lower decks and made one's heart ache. I never felt for a moment that my time to cross over had come--not until I found myself in the water - floating farther and farther away from the scene of wreckage and misery - in a sea as calm and vast as the sky overhead. Behind me, the cries of those who were sinking grew fainter, the splash of oars and the calls of those who were doing rescue work in the lifeboats; there seemed to be no possibility of rescue for me; so I reasoned with myself and said, 'The time has come - you must believe it - the time to cross over-but inwardly and persistently something continued to say, 'No-not now.'

"The gulls were flying overhead and I remember noticing the beauty of the blue shadows which the sea throws up to their white feathers: they were very happy and alive and made me feel rather lonely; my thoughts went to my people--looking forward to seeing me, and at that moment having tea in the garden at ___; the idea of their grief was unbearable--I had to cry a little. Names of books went through my brain;--one specially, called 'Where no Fear is,' seemed to express my feeling at the time! Loneliness, yes, and sorrow on account of the grief of others--but no Fear. It seemed very normal, - very right,- a natural development of some kind about to take place. How can it be otherwise, when it is natural? I rather wished I knew some one on the other side, and wondered if there are friendly strangers there who come to the rescue. I was very near the border-line when a wandering lifeboat quietly came up behind me and two men bent down and lifted me in. It was extraordinary how quickly life came rushing back;- every one in the boat seemed very self -possessed-although there was one man dead and another losing his reason. One woman expressed a hope for a 'cup of tea' shortly--a hope which was soon to be realised for all of us in a Mine Sweeper from Queenstown. I have forgotten her name but shall always remember the kindness of her crew - specially the Chief Officer, who saved me much danger by giving me dry clothes and hot towels.

"All this can be of very little interest to you - I have no skill in putting things on paper;- but, you know. I am glad to have been near the border; to have had the feeling of how very near it is always - only there are so many little things always going on to absorb one here.

"Others on that day were passing through a Gate which was not open for me - but I do not expect they were afraid when the time came - they too probably felt that whatever they were to find would be beautiful - only a fulfilment of some kind. . ..I have reason to think that the passing from here is very painless - at least when there is no illness. We seemed to be passing through a stage on the road of Life."



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