The year is drawing toward winter. Most of the leaves have fallen, and browns have begun to dominate the landscape. Grass is still green, and some of the bushes, but the seed heads of the ornamental grass and the brown stalks of flowers and weeds promise the end of the year. Spring, with its renewal of life, is a long way away. The message is that everything ends. Life is ephemeral. Death is universal. We all die.
A month ago, one of my closest friends passed from a full and vigorous autumn into a brief winter and death. She was 87 and ready to go, but her death has been a major loss for me. This post is in her memory.
My friend talked occasionally about death. Some of our friends would speak with great confidence of heaven, of reunion with family and friends, of everlasting joy. She used to say – and I firmly believe – that we don’t know what comes after death. We have no idea. We don’t have a clue. But whatever happens, it’s God’s doing, so it’s all right. We don’t have to worry. We don’t have to speculate. We don’t have to strain our puny human imaginations to envision what might be. Whatever we may imagine, it will probably be wrong. And because whatever comes next is God’s doing, it will be good, just as this life, in spite of all its suffering, is good.
Human beings have always speculated about life after death – some, like the ancient Egyptians, so fervently that they became obsessed with the afterlife they imagined and devoted a great deal of time and energy to its enhancement. Others imagined – still imagine today – an afterlife filled with all the material and emotional blessings of this life, or all the torments and suffering for those who have displeased God. Yet others are convinced that our spirits return to new life, like the seeds of the grass in the spring. And of course, because life after death is so unreasonable, rational people often argue that there is no life after death.
There seems to be a continuing strong desire to believe that this life is not all there is, and that the person/entity/soul continues in some form after death. Perhaps all our ideas of life after death spring from a desperate desire to believe that somehow the self – the identity, the soul, the consciousness – doesn’t just disappear from creation. When Christians (and others) talk about joyful reunions in heaven, is that simply a denial of the frightening thought that all that I am, all that I think and feel and do, could simply be snuffed out, like a burned-down candle?
When the body dies, the elements of which it is composed eventually return to the earth and reappear in other bits and pieces of the world. The calcium in my body might show up in a piece of limestone, or in a rabbit’s teeth. Those elements are physical. They are not all there is to what I think of as me. But still, they are part of the me, and that connection is so strong that humans have often tried to imagine what sorts of physical bodies they might have after death – a perfect, pain-free body in heaven; the original body carefully preserved by mummification or sealed coffins; reincarnation as another human being (or cat or bird or insect).
The part of the me that is more than my physical body is even harder to imagine ending. How can the world continue if I’m not around to observe it? I don’t want to accept the obvious fact that the universe did without me for a very long time and will do without me quite well at some point in the not-so-distant future. And perhaps my consciousness will continue in some fashion, though probably not in any fashion I can imagine. Or perhaps the part of me that belongs to God – soul, spirit, identity – will simply be reabsorbed into the Being from which it came, and I will continue only as a small speck of that universal conscious connectedness I glimpse from time to time and call God. And if that’s the case, then that’s God’s intention, and that’s all right.
Is my friend laughing?