“Do Not Die in Bed of Old Age”
L. Stephen Coles
This Eulogy Dedicated to Mr. George H. Johnson, age 112,
on the occasion of his Memorial Service at
Sunset View Mausoleum; El Cerrito, CA; USA on
Thursday, September 7, 2006; 11:30 AM PDT
accompanied by a 21-gun salute
Do not die in bed of old age; die if you must,
but die of something that makes your life truly
worthy – the struggle to understand the mystery
of human life itself. If you merely die of old age,
you admit that you willingly accept the human
condition that was thrust upon you without your
prior consent. (If you were to die in the performance
of your duties [with your boots on] well that’s another
matter. Your mission defines your life.)
The apologists amongst us would define a worthy
life as one for which the world, because you lived
in it, became a better place; others would have you
Rest-In-Peace for merely having fulfilled your
pro-natalistic destiny or Prime Directive – “to go
forth and multiply.” But these “solutions” beg
the question of God’s real purpose or intent. What
teleology is it that provides only gratuitous logic for
the Will of God, consistent with the self-interest of
If you have led the good life and the world is arguably
a better place at the end of yours, so what?
If you raise progeny to reproductive independence,
leading you to become a grandparent at least once,
Indeed, George never had any children over his long life.
Are these your tickets to Heaven, immortality, and perpetual
happiness? In our view, neither of these is sufficient
to reserve a place in Paradise.
As the perennially inebriated poet Dylan Thomas instructed us ...
“Do not go gentle into that good night;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”
But how should one translate this instruction into action
in today’s world?
We are poised, for the first time in human history, with
an opportunity to drink from the proverbial “Fountain of
Youth,” as biotechnology provides us with the tools to read
from the Book of Life – our common Homo sapiens genome.
But to achieve literacy and then interventional understanding,
one must first participate with Informed Consent in a series
of Clinical Trials under the auspices of an Institutional Review
Board (IRB) as part of a Committee for the Protection of
Human Subjects. So that is what you must do.
The ultimate goal is to extend human life without limit in our
own lifetimes, to gambol with the gods on Mount Olympus.
And so we gain the luxury of time to figure things out, to
meditate with our colleagues at leisure on the meaning of a
good life without fear that barbarians at the gate who ever seek
to destroy our civilization and recreate human history in their
own theocratic image will succeed in imposing their will
upon us. Recall that George was a veteran.
Because George agreed to allow his remains to be employed
to advance medical science after his death, humanity owes
him an enormous debt of gratitude. The results of his autopsy
at the Palo Alto VA Hospital will be published along with
other Supercentenarians in a medical journal; hopefully it
will be one more piece in the jig-saw puzzle that will help
us decipher the encryption of the tale-of-life embedded within
It’s not that God deliberately inserted codes that would make
it impossible for humans to read them some day; it’s just
that learning how to read them is not easy -- the text is truly
complex, and we don’t have a Rosetta Stone to guide us.
But dabbling with complexity is not the same as meddling
in an occult, forbidden science for which only severe divine
punishment must inevitably follow. The writers of cautionary
tales have instructed us in our modern literature following the
extensive traditions of Western mythology that God’s divine
punishment for seeking to usurp His power shall be relentless;
don’t even dare to try.
But there is no evidence for this “wrath of God” hypothesis,
Ladies and Gentlemen. It benefits the clever authors of such
admonitions in the case where they prove to be correct and
they get to say, “See, I told you so.” But if their warnings prove
to be of no value, they can merely maintain a low profile. They
can become invisible. What an ego trip! There's no downside
to giving clever but unsolicited advice that could be not only
wrong but vastly damaging. But think of the value of the
upside of our own proposition, if there truly is no
downside, and the nay-sayers are wrong. There is nothing
within the laws of physics, chemistry, or biology that precludes
our being correct. Just because God didn't chose to do it
Himself, doesn't mean it couldn't be done in principle. God
never had an incentive to do it. From His point of view, all
species are a work in progress. If any one of them became
extinct, God wouldn't shed a tear! After all, it would just be
considered as another failed experiment that serves to put us
on a more appropriate track. So, allowing any somatic
individual (and not just the germ line) to live in perpetuity
would inevitably close off the options for species' extinction
and slow the rate of progress toward ever more complex
critters, which is God's true Prime Directive - to fill every
every available environmental niche with one well-adapted
life form or another.
George did not just die in bed of old age. He did his part.
And so we honor him today for his help toward the achievement
our joint quest.