How should we define death? This used to be quite straightforward in that when breathing ceased and the heart stopped beating, one was pronounced dead. In movies time and again we see a finger trying to find a pulse or in really old movies a mirror held at the mouth to check for breath. These were the only tools needed to make this significant determination. But in the nineteen-sixties and seventies, life support, also known as aerating corpses, became available. This system keeps the heart beating and the lungs working for as long as insurance or family members cover the cost.
Through this medical advance, another definition of death has emerged wherein one could be brain dead yet still alive through life support. However, this in itself raises new questions that prod at our sense of ethics. We are asked to consider the young woman whose doctors moved to declare her brain dead and subsequently removing life support but whose family argued she was not brain dead, as the woman was still menstruating, a function monitored by the brain. The determination of the date of death is important for a variety of legalities not to mention the peace of mind of family members. However, another issue that must also be taken into account and again prods at our sense of ethics is the harvesting of organs from donors is much more successful from one declared dead by brain death than one who has passed from cardio pulmonary failure.
One aspect of this debate brought up the point that western societies, in considering a definition of death, “emphasize the importance of the mind, for which the brain is used as a proxy.” This sentence is intriguing. A proxy is something that has the authority to represent someone, or in this case, something. In a list of synonyms for proxy, you would find emissary, broker, mediator, go-between and mouthpiece. The brain is a go-between for the mind? But then, where is the mind? A neurosurgeon once explained that in all his surgeries poking and prodding around his many patients’ brains looking for one thing or another, he never came across a tiny pocket containing a collection of his patient’s thoughts. Yet, we all all sense our thoughts are within us – somewhere. But where? Where do our thoughts reside if the brain be only a proxy for them?
Maybe the answer brings us back to this debate on the definition of death which moves between the heart for pumping blood, lungs for pumping air, and the brain for its operating functions. However, this is a trinity – heart, lungs, brain -a trinity working within one unit. The trinity I was raised on gave me the Father who is love and loves me, (my heart), his Son who is my teacher and taught me through his words, (my brain), and the Holy Spirit, who breathes life into me (my lungs). They work together as one, a mystery my faith allowed me to accept, and a pattern of three I see time and again in the world around me.
This idea perhaps does nothing to move forward the definition of death, but it does help me understand my personal relationship with this Holy Trinity and a glimpse to understanding the mystery of where my mind might reside.