What is death? Is it merely the cessation of the biological function of living? Is it but the tragedy to end all other tragedies? Is it simply the disappearance of the soul, the end of consciousness, the evaporation of personality, the disintegration of the body into its elemental components? Is it an end beyond which there is only black void? Or, is there a significance, some deep and abiding meaning to death-one that transcends our puny ability to understand?

With all of modern man's sophistication, his brilliant technological achievements, the immense progress of his science, his discovery of new worlds of thought, he has not come one iota closer to grasping the meaning of death than did his ancient ancestors. Philosophers and poets have probed the idea of immortality, but stubbornly it remains, as always, the greatest paradox of life.

In practice, however, we must realize that what death means to the individual depends very much on what life means to him.

If life is a stage, and we the poor players who strut and fret our hour upon the stage and then are heard no more; if life is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing; if life is an inconsequential drama, a purposeless amusement—then death is only the heavy curtain that falls on the final act. It sounds its hollow thud: Finita la comedic, and we are no more. Death has no significance, because life itself has no lasting meaning.

If life is only the arithmetic of coincidence, man a chance composite of molecules, the world an haphazard conglomeration without design or purpose, where everything is temporal and nothing eternal—with values dictated only by consensus—then death is merely the check-mate to an interesting, thoughtful, but useless game of chance. Death has no transcendent significance, since nothing in life has had transcendent significance. If such is the philosophy of life, death is meaningless, and the deceased need merely be disposed of unceremoniously, and as efficiently as possible.

If life is only nature mindlessly and compulsively spinning its complicated web, and man only a high-level beast, and the world—in Shopenhauer's phrase--eine grosse shlachtfeld, a great battlefield, and if values are only those of the jungle, aimed only at the satisfaction of animal appetites—then death is simply a further reduction to the basic elements, progress an adventure into nothingness, and our existence on this earth only a cosmic trap. In this scheme, life is surrounded by parentheses, dropped or substituted without loss of meaning to nature. Death, in this sense, is the end of a cruel match that pits man against beast, and man against man. It is the last slaughter. Furtively, irrevocably, despairingly, man sinks into the soil of a cold and impersonal nature, his life without purpose, his death without significance. His grave need not be marked. As his days were as a passing shadow, without substance and shape, so his final repose.

If life is altogether absurd, with man bound and chained by impersonal fate or ironbound circumstances, where he is never able to achieve real freedom and only dread and anguish prevail—then death is the welcome release from the chains of despair. The puppet is returned to the box, the string is severed, the strain is no more.

But if life is the creation of a benevolent God, the infusion of the Divine breath; if man is not only higher than the animal, but also "a little lower than the angels"; if he has a soul, as well as a body; if his relationship is not only the "I-it" of man and nature, but the "I-Thou" of creature with Creator; and if he tempers his passions with the moral commands of an eternal, transcendent God—then death is a return to the Creator at the time of death set by the Creator, and life-after-death the only way of a just and merciful and ethical God. If life has any significance, if it is not mere happenstance, then man knows that some day his body will be replaced, even as his soul unites with eternal God.

In immortality man finds fulfillment of all his dreams. In this religious framework, the sages equated this world with an ante-room to a great palace, the glorious realm of the future. For a truly religious personality, death has profound meaning, because for him life is a tale told by a saint. It is, indeed, full of sound and fury which sometimes signifies nothing, but often bears eloquent testimony to the Divine power that created and sustained him.

The rabbis say hai alma k'bei hilula damya, this world can be compared to a wedding. At a wedding two souls are united. In that relationship they bear the seed of the future. Ultimately, the partners to the wedding die—but the seed of life grows on, and death is conquered, for the seed of the future carries the germ of the past. This world is like unto a wedding.

Death has meaning if life had meaning. If one is not able to live, will he be able to die?