The nature of death and humanity's awareness of its own mortality has for millennia been a concern of the world's religious traditions and of philosophical inquiry. This includes belief in resurrection (associated with Abrahamic religions), reincarnation or rebirth (associated with Dharmic religions as well some strands of Judaism), or that consciousness permanently ceases to exist, known as oblivion.

Commemoration ceremonies after death may include various mourning or funeral practices. The physical remains of a person, commonly known as a corpse orbody, are usually interred whole or cremated, though among the world's cultures there are a variety of other methods of mortuary disposal. In the English language, blessings directed towards a dead person include rest in peace, or its initialism RIP.

Many societies have tried to prevent or slow postmortem decomposition. Mummification, the drying or embalming of the corpse as practised in pharaonic Egypt for reasons of religion, led to the understanding that the root of decomposition was the gut, which was removed prior to the application of chemical drying agents and preservatives.1


Concepts and practices relating to death are influenced by values and social practices.1 Our definitions of what constitutes death affect not only what we consider to count as death, but also questions of grieving, medical treatment, estate planning, organ donation, and a myriad of other legal and ethical issues. As I will argue, what we think of as constituting death is shaped by what we value in persons. However, there is a mismatch between our values and our legal definition of death. The current legal standard of total brain death is inconsistent with what we value in persons. In Section II, I discuss our legal and medical standards for what constitutes death. These definitions include historical and current standards, but also proposed alternative standards. In Section III, I examine what we care about in the death of a person. This will include not only what we currently value in persons, but also what we would value if our beliefs were fully consistent. Finally, in Section IV, I explore ways of synthesizing our definitions of death with what we care about.

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