There is a species of small jellyfish that will, when it is sick or injured, instead of dying, fully regenerate itself. It will sink “to the bottom of the ocean floor, where its body folds in on itself—assuming the jellyfish equivalent of the fetal position. The bell reabsorbs the tentacles, and then it degenerates further until it becomes a gelatinous blob. Over the course of several days, this blob forms an outer shell. Next it shoots out stolons, which resemble roots.” These stolons grow into new jellyfish.
The description is from Nathaniel Rich’s article in the New York Times Magazine (Dec. 2, 2012). Over two years, one lab colony of such jellyfish rebirthed itself ten times. The jellyfish’s official name is Turritopsis dohrnii; its nickname, the Benjamin Button jellyfish. As different from humans as it may look, our genetic makeups are surprisingly similar.
The immortal jellyfish is a specialty of Dr. Shin Kubota at Kyota University’s Seto Marine Biological Laboratory. Dr. Kubota spends much of his days feeding, caring for, and observing his wards. His expressed goal is to become young again himself, perhaps even to achieve immortality, or at least to point a way towards a cure for cancer.
Dying seems to be a boundary that all living things share, part of the definition of being alive. But it’s not an absolute part. Clichés such as “you live and then you die” and “life is short” call all the more attention to the exceptions. Bacteria don’t die, they divide. An individual bacterium may be destroyed or die from illness, injury, or antibiotics, but usually bacteria divide (or is it multiply) into identical clones, which in turn will divide again.
And as for life being brief, Buffalo grass, a prairie plant resistant to extreme weather, sprouts underground stems which in some locations may have been growing for the last 15,000 years. Among individual plants, the Bristlecone Pine named “Methuselah” still grows in California as it approaches its 5000th birthday. And Wikipedia’s lengthy “List of longest-living organisms” is not only long itself but has spawned the likes of “List of oldest dogs.”
I can understand that words for death and dying help people share their fears and grief when one of their group passes away from the circle of the living. And I can understand the simultaneous desire to imagine that person not “really dead” but still and fully alive in a better realm. But perhaps we don’t need to reach into a spiritual world for such consolation. We might contemplate the models here on Earth of how living, reproducing, self-healing, and dying are variously rearranged among species.