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My friend read this science fiction story as a kid, probably written prior to 1970. Forgive me it's a second hand description: Earth is visited by aliens. The aliens note that every race in the galaxy is "unique" in some way; but humankind does not seem to have anything that makes our race unique. Eventually when a character in the story dies, and the aliens don't know what death is, the aliens realize humans are the only species they have ever known that dies! First, Thank you all! Talked to my friend who added this clarification - in his own words: You got it almost all correct in your story synopsis. However, in the story after an allotted time-period where humans are given the chance to display their uniqueness and fail, the alien envoy is being given a right back to its ship and has to stop for a funeral procession. It asks what is going on and when described it is mentioned that the person being honored/intured had died. Surprisingly, the alien doesn't seem to understand the concept of people dying so it is told exactly what happens when a being dies and the alien exclaims something like, "That's what humans do that's unique!" Of course, this means that death, our eternally accepted nemesis, proves to be the sole savior of our race in terms of entering the confluence of sentient beings.

Thank's again!

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    That's a good answer, but then there's also a story by R A Laffery where the amabassador another intelligent races comment "No, we do not die. [Our species] and all intelligent species are too cultured to die - we leave that to animals." – Covertwalrus Jun 30 '18 at 3:53
  • This is a fuzzy match to my fuzzy memory of a story set in a universe where Earth has 4 alien trading partners, and we are both the only ones with a programmed death and the only ones who get cancer. (The 4 alien races grow forever, like sharks, but can die of accident or disease, just not old age.) – arp Jun 30 '18 at 19:01
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    @arp This story (with the 4 trading partners, etc.) is "Hostess" (1951), by Isaac Asimov. – David Moews Jul 1 '18 at 1:07
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    What does your friend think of the stories that have been suggested here? Especially the story "Greyspun's Gift" (available here) suggested in the most recent answer, by sagiliss? It doesn't match the new details—there is no funeral procession and the alien does not get a ride back to his ship, he just walks by a funeral home and goes in to see what's going on; and the human race (except for one baby) is not admitted to any "confluence of sentient beings". – user14111 Jul 1 '18 at 3:58
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Edit. This is a wrong answer. The story "Greyspun's Gift", suggested in the answer by sagiliss, is a much better match than anything else that's been mentioned here.

Possibly a blurred recollection of "Knock", a short story by Fredric Brown which has its own Wikipedia page. It was first published in Thrilling Wonder Stories, December 1948, which is available at the Internet Archive, as are the Dimension X and X Minus One radio adaptations.

The alien Zan are not just visitors, they are invaders who have killed all human and animal life on Earth except for a few specimens they saved for their zoo. In the excerpt below, one of the human specimens is visited by a Zan whom he calls "George":

Walter Phelan called out, "Come in," and the door opened. It was, of course, only a Zan. It looked exactly like the other Zan; if there was any way of telling them apart, Walter hadn't found it. It was about four feet tall and it looked like nothing on Earth—nothing, that is, that had been on Earth before the Zan came here.

[. . . .]

"There is some-thing we do not un-der-stand. Two of the oth-er an-i-mals sleep and do not wake. They are cold."

"It happens in the best-regulated zoos, George. Probably not a thing wrong with them except that they're dead."

"Dead? That means stopped. But noth-ing stopped them. Each was a-lone."

Walter stared at the Zan. "Do you mean, George, that you do not know what natural death is?"

"Death is when a be-ing is killed, stopped from liv-ing."

Walter Phelan blinked. "How old are you, George?" he asked.

"Six-teen—you would not know the word. Your pla-net went a-round your sun a-bout sev-en thou-sand times. I am still young."

Walter whistled softly. "A babe in arms," he said. He thought hard for a moment. "Look, George, you've got something to learn about this planet you're on. There's a guy down here who doesn't hang around where you come from. An old man with a beard and a scythe and an hourglass. Your vibrations didn't kill him.

"What is he?"

"Call him the Grim Reaper, George. Old Man Death. Our people and animals live until somebody, Old Man Death, stops them from ticking."

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This sounds very much like Greyspun's Gift (1970) by Neal Barrett, Jr.

It's the story of a young woman named Mary Ann Darling who encounters an alien while shopping in New York, and invites him home with her to meet her husband Big Charlie. He admits that his human disguise is not very convincing, and tells them that he is visiting Earth to find out what humans do:

"You see, Big Charlie, all persons and peoples in the universe do something. Something they alone are well suited to do."

He describes the many purposes that other alien species have, and tries to identify the purpose of humans by asking about professions, but nothing meets his criteria. In an effort to help, Mary Ann takes him to see many things in the city, hoping they can identify one single thing that humans do. Eventually, they visit a funeral home, where he reacts with confusion and is nearly arrested for touching the bodies. Afterwards he disappears, leaving them a note:

"I am much saddened to leave but I cannot face you knowing you will one day be in the Still Waters Funeral Home and Non-denominational Chapel. And I do not blame you for not telling me. While the Om has never doubted me before I wonder if he will believe that this is what persons do? That persons stop being."

  • Hello, sorry my friend sad that the short story he remembers doe not match any of the current answers. – Rosenthal Jul 1 '18 at 23:56
  • @Rosenthal I doubt that we're going to find a better match than "Greyspun's Gift". Perhaps your friend's memories of the story he read are not erfectly accurate? Has he read the stories suggested in the answers, or is he going by the summaries? "Greyspun's Gift"is available for free at the Internet Archive: archive.org/stream/… – user14111 Jul 3 '18 at 7:24
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The story "Mortal Gods" (1979), by Orson Scott Card, fits in two ways:

  • Earth is visited by aliens.
  • Humans are the only race that dies; other sentient races are all immortal (they reproduce by fission.)

What doesn't fit:

  • It wasn't published before 1970.
  • The death of humans doesn't come as a surprise to the aliens (they came to the Earth to worship humans as "Mortal Gods".)

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