A classical point of departure in defining death, seems to be life itself. Death is perceived either as a cessation of life – or as a passage on the way to a continuation of life by other means. A logically more rigorous approach, would be to ask “who dies” when death occurs. In other words, the identity of the dying is essential in defining death. But how can we establish the dying entity’s unambiguous and unequivocal identity?. Death escapes all definitions, it is the great Unknown, the ultimate truth.
In western law, a person can be pronounced dead in three different ways. By far the most common is pronouncement by a medical doctor. The second most common is pronouncement by a coroner or a medical examiner. The third way a person can be pronounced legally dead is by the courts; after a person has disappeared for some time, the courts will pronounce them dead so that their property can be distributed appropriately. A death certificate is a legal document which states how and when a person died, and who pronounced them dead.
A person is not fully dead, Hertz argues, until the proper rituals have been completed.
For the Roman Catholic Church death is the “complete and final separation of the soul from the body”. However the Vatican has conceded that diagnosing death is a subject for medicine, not the Church. In 1957 Pope Pius XII raised the concerns over whether doctors might be “continuing the resuscitation process, despite the fact that the soul may already have left the body.” He even asked one of the central questions confronting modern medicine, namely whether “death had already occurred after grave trauma to the brain, which has provoked deep unconsciousness and central breathing paralysis, the fatal consequences of which have been retarded by artificial respiration.” The answer, he said, “did not fall within the competence of the Church.”
“It remains for the doctor and especially the anaesthesiologist, to give a clear and precise definition of “death” and the “moment of death” of a patient who passes away in a state of unconsciousness.”
Pope Pius XII.
Followers of religions like Zen Buddhism, and Shintoism believe that the mind and body are integrated and have trouble accepting the brain death criteria to determine death. Some Orthodox Jews, Native Americans, Muslims and fundamentalist Christians believe that as long as a heart is beating–even artificially, you are still alive.