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He is entering, however, a new age of search for meaning of existence, and all cardinal issues will have to be faced. Death is grim, harsh, cruel, a source of infinite grief.

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Our first reaction is consternation. We are stunned and distraught. Slowly, our sense of dismay is followed by a sense of mystery. Suddenly, a whole life has veiled itself in secrecy. Our speech stops, our understanding fails. In the presence of death there is only silence, and a sense of awe. Is death nothing but an obliteration, an absolute negation?

The view of death is affected by our understanding of life. If life is sensed as a surprise, as a gift, defying explanation, then death ceases to be a radical, absolute negation of what life stands for. The problem of how and whether I am going to be after I die is profoundly related to the problem of who and how I was before I was born. The mystery of an afterlife is related to the mystery of preexistence.

Passion for man

A soul does not grow out of nothing. Does it, then, perish and dissolve in nothing? We are what we are by what we come from. Human living is always being under way, and death is not the final destination. Do souls become dust? Does spirit turn to ashes? How can souls, capable of creating immortal words, immortal works of thought and art, be completely dissolved, vanish forever? Who could seriously maintain that members of the human species, a class of mammals, will attain eternity?

It’s an illogical question

What image of humanity is presupposed by the belief in immortality? The likeness of God means the likeness of Him compared with whom all else is like nothing.

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They signify something which we can neither comprehend nor verify. For what is our image? What is our likeness? Our eyes do not see it; our minds cannot grasp it. And still they hold the most important truth about the meaning of man. Obscure as the meaning of these terms is, they undoubtedly denote something unearthly, something that belongs to the sphere of God. Demut [likeness]and tzelem [image]are of a higher sort of being than the things created in the six days.

Humanity without death would be arrogance without end. He is God; what he does is right, for all his ways are just; God of faithfulness and without wrong, just and right is he. Just art thou, O Lord, in causing death and life; thou in whose hand all living beings and kept, far be it from thee to blot out our remembrance; let thy eyes be open to us in mercy; for thine, O Lord, is mercy and forgiveness. We know, O Lord, that thy judgment is just; thou art right when thou speakest, and justified when thou givest sentence; one must not find fault with thy manner of judging.

If life is a pilgrimage, death is an arrival, a celebration. The last word should be neither craving nor bitterness, but peace, gratitude. We have been given so much. Why is the outcome of our lives, the sum of our achievements, so little? Our embarrassment is like an abyss. Whatever we give away is so much less than what we receive. Death is not seen as mere ruin and disaster. Which is more extraordinary: the details of the last meal or the fact that this was the last meal of an exceedingly ill man? Illness murders appetite. Medication blunts and steals taste buds. Entirely reasonable existential angst, a fear of the end, can fill the belly with nothing but lead.

The grandiose Mitterrand might have been able to pull off this final, shameless flourish, but I suspect that, were I in that situation, I could not. It is the summer of The late afternoon is shading into dusk. I came here with six friends, our Interrail cards securing the hour train journey from Florence to a town where impoverished backpackers can afford rooms in a four-star hotel on the beach.

I feel intrepid. I have travelled. So why not travel a little more? While my friends explore the narrow alleys behind the hotel, I go alone to the beach. Bobbing on the steel-grey waters a little way offshore is a diving platform. What fun.

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I would go for a swim, a proper grown-up bit of exercise with a destination. I am 15 minutes into the swim when I realise the mistake I have made. The diving platform is much bigger than I had thought, which means perspective and distance have played their tricks. I have completely underestimated the length of the swim.

It is a quarter of a mile from the beach, perhaps more.

Currents are pulling in different directions. The waves are getting up as an evening breeze kicks in, and I am tiring quickly. But I am now closer to the platform than to the shore. I stop for a moment and tread water, looking back at the empty beach. Behind it, lights are coming on in the restaurants and bars that cluster the corniche. Life is continuing. Not a soul knows I am out here. I turn and push for the platform, and somehow, 10 minutes later, drag myself up on to it.

I sit there shivering, despite the warmth of the North African winds, trying to drag air into my exhausted lungs and looking back at the beach.

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I look around for any passing boats, but there are none. I have no choice. I take a deep breath, drop off the side of the platform and push for the shore. The waves are no longer a gentle bob and heave. They are peaks and troughs that make the beach disappear from view.

There must have been a beginning

I try to focus on the lights, the symbols of undramatic life continuing, but they are rising and falling as I do and disappearing behind walls of water that, at their tops, shade now into a sky fading to the colour of ink. All I can do is kick. And kick. And kick again. My legs are just one long length of cramping muscle. My shoulders are sore and with every third stroke I am getting a mouthful of water. My eyes sting and a nausea — part seawater, part fear — is closing my throat.

Now the balls of my feet are digging in. I can hear the surf breaking on the beach. I crawl the last 5ft, clawing at the sand until I am up and out of the water. I turn and, in the darkness, drop on to my arse, my back to the corniche, looking out at the platform I have come from, my arms resting on my knees. I drop my head and sob. A lot of thoughts went through my head during this experience.

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  • There was the slow-motion terror of my fight against the waves. I thought about my parents and my friends. However, not once did I think about food. A real brush with death can impact upon you in many ways. The bottom line is this: last suppers are a brilliant idea, but they are wasted on the very people who are eligible for them.

    The more I thought about this, the more it seemed to me extremely unfair. I was excluded from enjoying this blissful meal by the piffling detail of not actually being that close to death. And so I came up with a plan: I would stage my own last supper now, when I was fit and well and able to enjoy it.