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Facing the End

Human beings are the only creatures on earth that truly recognize a single stark fact: that life inevitably ends in death. For thousands of years past, it’s waited for everyone, rich or poor, man or woman, king or peasant. Some people have been frightened by the thought of their own death, others have been able to accept it calmly, but very few people have ever thought it unimportant.

That’s why death has been such an important part of human culture, from religion to art and literature. We talk about death and portray death in an attempt to understand it and accept it. Modern technology hasn’t changed the human fascination with death, but it has created new ways for us to approach it. In the past, writers and poets often asked what it would be like if you could know the date of your own death. Today, people are using computers to try and answer that question.

There are online tests where you can answer a series of questions about yourself: how old you are, how much exercise you take, whether you smoke and drink, what sex you are, and so on. A programme then takes this information, processes it, and tells you your chances of dying within the next five years. One test created by Swedish scientists is said to be 80% accurate – and that’s just from answering a few questions online.

A proper medical examination and genetic analysis would make the prediction even more accurate. It’s a disturbing thought that you can be told when you will die, but there’s one positive thing: there’s a lot you could do to defeat the prediction. If you’re leading an unhealthy life, eating too much or taking too little exercise, you can change that and add extra years to your life. In the future, it will be possible to defeat a future threat of cancer or organ-failure by having medical intervention now.

But that’s about the flight from death. In some religions and philosophies, people are encouraged to do the opposite: to embrace the fact of their own mortality and even to experience it. There are religious rituals that involve spending the night in a grave or tomb, pretending to be dead before being called forth in the morning by a powerful leader. In this way, you face death and lose your fear of it. A ritual like that can also be symbolic of the death of your old life, full of sin and sorrow, and your re-birth into a new and happier life, guided by the wisdom you’ve learnt.

That sort of ritual has been going on for thousands of years, but modern technology has introduced a new twist. In the Chinese city of Shanghai, people are now able to experience a “virtual cremation”, or a simulation of what it’s like to be placed in a furnace and burnt to ashes. Of course, there are no real flames or heat and the person comes out of the pretend furnace in perfect health, but the experience can be psychologically positive. Even if the cremation is not real, you’re still facing the fact of your own mortality and accepting that one day you will have left the world of the living for ever.

That can help you place your everyday problems and fears in perspective. They might seem big and important, but one day they won’t matter at all. Should you spend so much time thinking and worrying about them? If you experience a virtual cremation, you might decide that you shouldn’t. Life is fleeting and we should embrace the positive things it offers, not waste our time on the negative.