Mortality is defined as “the quality of being mortal or subject to death.” Death is the permanent end or ceasing of the life of a biological organism. A common thread that links all living creatures is the fact that someday they will die. Unlike their fellow creatures, human beings are aware that they are mortal and have devoted much of human history to the pursuit of overcoming this mortality.
One of the favorite themes throughout history in religion, literature, and art has been the theme of immortality or the escape from death and the extension of one’s time. The belief in life after death is based on the notion that some part of the human person, usually described as the soul, goes on for an infinite period of time. This is a quest that has produce many stories and is the basis for many systems of belief.
The fascination people have with their own mortality is not a new phenomenon. The literature of the ancient Greeks mentions it frequently. One of the most well-known scenes in ancient Greek philosophy is Socrates’ deathbed speech. Most of what we know about Socrates comes from Plato’s account of this speech. Stories of the River Styx and Hades illustrate the early Greek ideas of mortality and death.
In the Judeo-Christian tradition, the Hebrew scriptures provide insight into the concept of mortality as understood by the ancient Hebrews, whose focus was very much on this world; little is said about the notion of an afterlife. A similar outlook underlies many of the beliefs and practices found in modern Judaism. With the advent of Christianity, however, ideas of the afterlife took on greater importance. Islam, which shares the Abrahamic tradition with Judaism and Christianity, also finds the basis of some of its beliefs about an afterlife in these early traditions.
In the Asian religious and philosophical traditions, reincarnation is a concept that takes on major importance; to be reincarnated is seen as a form of prolonging life, but in Hinduism and Buddhism, the cycle of endless reincarnation is understood as a form of bondage that the enlightened hope to escape into a state of nonbeing, thus attaining true immortality.
In popular culture, a continuing fascination with mortality and the human desire to escape the finality of death manifests itself in the current interests in ghosts, mediums, and other psychic phenomena. In an age when tangible evidence is often needed for people to believe in something, some are trying to find tangible evidence to prove the existence of life beyond death.
Science, too, is subject to a concern with mortality and the search for ways to overcome it. Studies in genetics have made some previously fatal diseases treatable. Advances in certain medical technologies have made physical life sustainable in cases where it previously would not have been. This has given rise to the debate over exactly what constitutes life.
In the health care and insurance industries, mortality usually refers to the measurement of life expectancy. Mortality rates, which assess the frequency of death occurring annually in a given population, have declined substantially over the last century in many countries because of progress in science, medicine, and sanitation.
Carol Ellen Kowalik
See also Cryonics; Diseases, Degenerative; Dying and
Death; Fertility Cycle; Gerontology; Grim Reaper; Life
Lief, J. L. (2001). Making friends with death: A Buddhist guide to encountering mortality. Boston: Shambhala.
Tarlow, S. (1999). Bereavement and commemoration: An archeology of mortality. Oxford, UK: Blackwell.