Views & Reviews Book Review

Our obsession with immortality

BMJ 2011; 343 doi: (Published 27 July 2011) Cite this as: BMJ 2011;343:d4710
  1. Julian Sheather, senior ethics adviser, BMA
  1. jsheather{at}

The knowledge that we will die is at the heart of the human experience. Julian Sheather enjoyed a book that tells the stories of those determined to avoid the inevitable

Recently my eldest son woke from a troubled dream seized by a fear of death. “How is it that I will die?” he cried, shaking with terror. “Why must my heart stop?” Repeatedly he took hold of his flawless skin. “Why will this grow wrinkled and loose? Why?” So genuine was his anguish, so badly was he in need of consoling that, secular minded as I am, I ran through some of the more familiar consolations. There are those, I said, who don’t believe that death is the end: we may die to this life but awake to another.

The philosopher John Gray’s latest book, The Immortalization Commission, takes as its theme an entire generation’s struggle to come to terms with something like my son’s anguished arrival of knowledge: the knowledge that death is final and without appeal. To the 19th century, Gray writes, “Science had disclosed a world in which humans were no …

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