Kaarel Tarand: The old always die first ({{contentCtrl.commentsTotal}})

Kaarel Tarand.
Kaarel Tarand.

Kaarel Tarand thinks about death in Vikerraadio's daily comment and finds that immortality will never be found, no matter how much one borrows to get there.

When the emergency situation first began, Prime Minister Jüri Ratas loved to use the slogan of even a single death being one too many. The coronavirus has allegedly claimed 55 lives in Estonia, which in any normal situation would mean that the PM has hopelessly failed to deliver on his promise of preventing deaths.

Now for the surprise: dying has been regularly taking place in Estonia from the dawn of time. In recent years, around 15,000 people have died annually. This increases the head of government's failure 300-fold when compared to the so-called coronavirus death count.

The government can take solace in good news from Statistics Estonia, according to which the death rate for the first 17 weeks of the year is well below the many-decade average (by around 220 deaths) this year. It's almost as if the heroic struggle against death has produced results, and if we could just keep up the effort, we could declare immortality in Estonia in 2043.

Preparing for death

Why bring up death in the first place? It's because every time I've spoken out in favor of protecting freedoms and in protest of the coalition's little abuses of power in the emergency situation, there have always been critics to label my utterances irresponsible. Simple boasting that would stop as soon as death paid a visit to an elderly relative of mine. "You would not say those things then, because it is not something you are prepared for," people who present their irrational fears or indecisiveness as responsibility tell me.

I am prepared. However, mathematicians have been so kind as to calculate, for the benefit of people who do not gamble, that keeping up appearances and regular habits would still only increase one's chances of catching the coronavirus on the street to one in ten thousand. Who on Earth would bet on a horse or a soccer club if their chances of winning were 0.01 percent? Only a madman.

Back when I was a kid, I had no more contact with death of loved ones as was usual for families at the time. But then, the year 1988 rolled around and the activities of student organizations that had been banned in the early days of the red occupation began to reappear in Tartu.

For us at the Estonian Students Society (EÜS) it meant combing the land to find around 150 men aged 68-93 who had joined the fraternity before June of 1940 and were still alive. Their lives had been spent living during the occupation, with slight variations, in a manner that was typical of highly educated patriots belonging to their generation. Every man with his own prison and Siberian slave camp experiences and the lost opportunity to have a family, pursue a desired career, with a side order of a constant feeling of loss.

But suddenly, a ray of hope appeared in the reformation of that which they had kept dreaming about for decades and to which they had sacrificed their health. I believe to this day that many who had the strength to wait for the reformation of EÜS and Estonian independence did not die of diseases, even though diagnoses were surely added to their medical records. No, they died of the relief of old age and the satisfaction derived from the fact their eyes had seen the fruits of their tenacity.

They began dying quickly. Over what were just a few years, I had the honor of attending the funerals of more than 50 of these men. Fraternities observe an age-old and strict tradition of burying members with honor, complete with a flag, vigil, paying for the whole thing etc.

We were lucky at EÜS to have ministers Otto Tallinn, Harald Tammur, Herbert Kuurme, Valter Vaasa and other old boys still with us to conduct these funerals. They talked at length about the life and struggle of the departed and only very little about the afterlife.

I can say in summary that I definitely earned enough credit points for a bachelor's degree in the art of the funeral when standing vigil for these men. Of course, it was an entirely different day and age then.

The threshold of 80

Where mankind and death stand today was rather elegantly summed up by Yuval Noah Harari in an essay published in The Guardian a few weeks back when he saddened the more pious part of the readership by saying that the outgoing crisis will not lead mankind back to a more traditional treatment of death or bring back humility or reconciliation with a higher will, and that rather, the opposite is true.

The men in white coats are about to secure yet another victory over those in black robes. The conviction that death is merely a technical problem for which there is a technical solution will only gain more sway over other views.

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Harari notes that the only thought system that still idealizes premature or meaningless death is nationalism. Nationalism promises one eternal life in the collective memory in exchange for a heroic death. All others take things easy. To a point.

Theoretical physicist at the Santa Fe Institute Geoffrey West has quite convincingly shown, in his book "Scale," why a human being, considering their mass, number of cells and metabolism, cannot live beyond 125 years. And even that is in the reach of a precious few.

A mere decade ago, the average life expectancy fell short of 40 because of the high child mortality rate. By today, we are hovering around the 80 years mark. We still have a third to go until we hit West's ceiling, but it is possible only if we refrain from sacrificing the opportunities of children, youths and those who have reached middle-age by spending all of our know-how and resources on fighting for a few more days for very old people who have too often been abandoned by their loved ones.

Immortality will never arrive, no matter how much we borrow to achieve it.

Has anyone even asked people in the elderly risk group what they want or desire in their nursing homes? Perhaps if they did, they would sometimes get a reply similar to what Seneca wrote to Lucilius in a letter two thousand years ago:

"…to depart calmly when the inevitable hour arrives. Other kinds of death contain an ingredient of hope: a disease comes to an end; a fire is quenched; falling houses have set down in safety those whom they seemed certain to crush; the sea has cast ashore unharmed those whom it had engulfed, by the same force through which it drew them down; the soldier has drawn back his sword from the very neck of his doomed foe. But those whom old age is leading away to death have nothing to hope for; old age alone grants no reprieve. No ending, to be sure, is more painless; but there is none more lingering."


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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