Death and the researcher

From philosophy to biology and materials research: far beyond the bounds of medicine, the human and natural sciences are engaging with the end of life. By Roland Fischer (rf) and Luzia Budmiger (lb). Illustration: Christoph Frei

(From "Horizons" no. 112 March 2017)​​​

What we lose with death

For good reason, the death of loved ones makes us
unhappy to the point of despair. But what about
the prospect of our own death? It's not always
irrational for it to make us feel regret, says the
philosopher Federico Lauria of the University
of Geneva. In his research project 'Death and
powers' he has developed his own approach to
this thesis. His inspiration comes from the interdisciplinary
'Immortality project' currently running
at the University of California. Death robs us of the
ability to enjoy the benefits of life, says Lauria.
This is why we have good reason to approach it
with a sense of sadness. Lauria's research aims at
justifying our feeling of sadness when faced with
the prospect of our own death. But it also offers
us a perspective based on the other side of the
argument: would it be irrational to wish ourselves
immortal instead?

Rapid rot

Our interaction with dying does not end at death.
Human pathologists try to prevent the decay
of the body for as long as possible, but Francis
Schwarze, a tree pathologist at the Swiss Federal
Laboratories for Materials Science and Technology
(EMPA), is using his expert knowledge to accelerate
the process of decay. Early on in his research
career he was employed to give expert opinions on
the state of trees in cities, especially with regard
to fungal diseases. For a good ten years now he
has been putting his knowledge to good use in a
start-up company that has created a quite special
fungal mixture. When applied to coffins, they
pass over considerably quicker into the heavenly
forests (and take their corpses with them).

Learning from cell death

Our bodies dispose of billions of cells every day.
In order for this process to function properly, the
cells are inscribed with a kind of 'suicide program'
that can be triggered by signals from either inside
or out. This 'apoptosis' is found in both complex
and simple organisms. The molecular, biological
fundamentals are astonishingly similar in each
case, says Michael Hengartner of the University of
Zurich. In order to understand the process better
in humans, his group is investigating apoptosis
in the threadworm C. elegans. How exactly does a
cell 'notice' that it is irrecoverably lost – perhaps
because its DNA is damaged? And what signalling
pathways lead to its death and elimination by its
neighbouring cells? Medical researchers are also
interested in the precise processes in these model
organisms. They would like to boost apoptosis in
cases of cancer, but inhibit it during a stroke.

Unequal to the grave

Today, most of us die in old age. This makes us all
the same before death: fragile. At least, that's the
common opinion. But this homogeneous image
of death is being debunked by Marthe Nicolet, a
sociologist at the Interfaculty Centre of Gerontology
at the University of Geneva. Her work is
benefitting from her current visit to the National
Institute for Demographic Studies (INED) in Paris.
Using obituary notices from Switzerland, she is
investigating people's environment at the end
of their life – their families, economic situations
and medical care. The words of thanks penned by
the next of kin are especially revealing: our last
phase of life is marked by inequalities. Nicolet's
doctoral thesis 'Annoncer la mort' ('announcing
death') focuses our gaze not just on how we die,
but on how we age. And she shows us the society
in which we live today.

The urn supplants the coffin

Even dying does not stop the march of modernity. Thirty years ago, only few people were cremated in Taiwan, but today it is one of the countries with the highest proportion of cremations in the world. Not even ten percent of the deceased are buried there anymore. This shift has also been driven by the state authorities, whose reasons are founded in land-use planning and economics. Taiwan is simply following a global trend. But this cultural paradigm shift in funerary practices also displays regional variations, as the religious scholar Urs Weber has found in his extensive field research and conversations with authorities, funeral homes and those responsible for the ritual aspects of death. It's not just a result of secular upheaval, but also of religious changes. Buddhists prefer cremation, and since the 1980s they have quintupled their numbers as a proportion of the residential population.rf

Dead poets' dialogue

Reading is a kind of silent dialogue with the author. In libraries, we find the voices of authors from all periods of history, gathered in a single space. You could imagine them as a kind of society of dead poets and thinkers. Such ideas are found throughout the history of literature, as the classical philologist Rebecca Lämmle explains: time and again, writers conjure up underworlds in which long-dead authors speak again, talk to each other, or answer the questions of the living. Such dialogues between the great figures of different epochs offer Lämmle an alternative form of writing literary history. When the poets and thinkers of the past become alive again, they negotiate tradition and innovation in a dialogue across the ages.rf

The fingerprint of putrefaction

When a corpse decomposes in nature, a kind of microbial oasis is established in that spot and remains there for several years. A dead body means new life – that's a biological truism. But the actual variety of this new life was a surprise to the soil ecologist Edward Mitchell from the University of Neuchâtel: "In such spots, we find a highly characteristic population of microorganisms. These include very rare species, and even species we've never encountered before". And it's not just biologists who are interested in this 'fingerprint' left by a body in the soil. Forensic experts are also keen to know more. Analysing these microorganisms promises to complement the insect analysis that is already a standard practice in criminal cases. Mitchell's group is working on this, too. "It's just a matter of time before this method has become established in the courtroom", he says.rf

Dying? No thanks.

Freshwater polyps might be tiny and inconspicuous, but they bear a series of astonishing characteristics. Some researchers even believe that they are immortal. Brigitte Galliot of the University of Geneva is more circumspect in how she puts it. Under ideal circumstances, you see almost no ageing process in these rod-shaped little creatures. How they manage this has not yet been fully explained. Galliot's laboratory is investigating the role of their stem cells in particular, which can restore any part of the body at will. When placed under stress, these polyps shift from asexual to sexual reproduction, and thereby lose much of their stem cell magic. Does this fact perhaps conceal a basic principle of ageing? Galliot's group hopes that their work will help us to better understand our own ageing process.rf

Roland Fischer is a science journalist.
Luzia Budmiger is an editor at the Swiss Academies of Arts and Science.