Meditations on Mortality

11 03 2016


I don’t often attend funerals, or as some prefer to call them, memorial services, or even celebrations of life. Prior to this latest one, I attended my sister’s funeral, an unspeakably painful experience. The first funeral I can recall attending was for my mother. I was twelve. I remember almost nothing about it, other than the shocking sight of my father openly weeping, something I’d never seen before.

The services I attended yesterday were for the husband of a good friend of mine. The funeral home was packed. I closed the library to go, and when I arrived, I had to park a good piece down the road and hustle up to the door.  There was standing room only.

Because one branch of my family are Deerfield people, I had distant relatives there myself. One of them came up and spoke with me. Yes, I do actually have blood relatives who are still speaking to me. It’s a family tradition to hold our grudges long and hard, a tradition I have tried to break and not pass along to my boys. But this particular second cousin is a kind, affable fellow and we made pleasant small talk at the reception afterward. I could barely hear him over the rumble of conversation around us. Like I said, standing room only.

The front of the room was full of family, including lots of children. His son got up to deliver the eulogy, and was so overcome by emotion that he could barely speak. I could feel my eyes start to sting, and before I really knew why, I was silently crying, tears running down my cheeks. Grief. Grief for their family, grief for my family, grief for all the people to whom Death has dealt an agonizing blow.

The utter unfairness of it. But then again, the Universe isn’t about fairness. Fairness is a human construct.

And so we have to deal with grief. Awful, wrenching, crippling grief. People take solace in their religion. I listened to them speak of God, of Heaven, of a Savior who died for their sins so that they could all look forward to being reunited in a life after death. I don’t understand the Christian concept of sin, and why the son of their god dying horribly somehow redeems them. But I don’t need to understand. It makes sense to them and it comforts them. They cling to a merciful, loving God who will make everything right in the end, who has a purpose for all this. It enables them to go on, to endure the grief and suffering. That is what matters.

This is why I get annoyed when my fellow atheists speak so derisively of religion, when they talk about abolishing it, tearing down churches, putting an end to silly superstitions and illogical beliefs. Yes, a great deal of harm has been done and is being done in the name of religious faith. But I don’t blame religion. I blame people who use religion as a justification for their worst and ugliest impulses. Who use isolated passages out of their holy scriptures to righteously commit evil. Their ignorance, their malice, is at fault. Not the religion.

How many others use religion to inspire them to do good acts? To forgive, to seek peace, to practice charity and stand up for what is just and noble? How many have used their faith to justify opposing slavery, poverty, and war? And how many turn to the comfort of their beliefs when Life lays a burden of unbearable suffering upon them? They say God gives them strength, and the sacrifice of their Savior fills them with awe, His suffering on the cross makes them feel humble and better able to shoulder their own burdens, small by comparison. I was standing in a room full of decent people taking refuge in beliefs that make no sense to me. And it was good.

I got to thinking about that afterwards. Me, for whom science is the ultimate arbiter of reality, for whom happiness and the reduction of suffering is the measure of all moral good, where do I turn in my time of grief? What gives me comfort in the face of Death? And what would I want said at my funeral?

The answer to the latter was remarkably simple. When I am gone, given what I understand to be the case, I won’t be in any position to give a damn what is said at my funeral. If it comforts my survivors to conjure God, let them do so. It might be a bit awkward for them, though, since I don’t believe, and that’s supposed to be a prerequisite to being welcomed into the Kingdom of Heaven. But I have a feeling that my Christian friends will figure out a way. They’ll suppose that because I was a good person (at least, I do try to be one), God will understand and forgive my disbelief. Perhaps they will make jokes about how surprised I’ll be when I find out the truth. Well, they are correct about one thing: I sure would be surprised if I find out there is an afterlife. All I can do is be prepared to greet that eventuality with an open mind. I’ve been wrong before, and I’ve tried to accept it with humility and grace. I do my best based on what makes sense to me. What more can be expected of any of us?

As for what comforts me in the face of grief, that is equally simple. I turn to one of the most inspirational people I have known in my life: Carl Sagan. I am star stuff. That which composes me cannot be destroyed. It merely changes form. I will become the earth, the air, the trees, the birds. All that I am will go on to be a part of other beings, perhaps even other worlds. Death really is merely an occasion for transformation.

And my mind? My conscious self? I turn to philosophy. It goes all the way back to Epicurus: If Death is the utter annihilation of the soul, it is nothing to us. What is there to fear? Or as Mark Twain put it, “I had been dead for billions and billions of years before I was born, and had not suffered the slightest inconvenience from it.”

I also take comfort in knowing that everything I’ve done while alive ripples outward into the world. The consequences of my actions continue long after my death. This is a powerful motivation to act wisely and skillfully.  Each time I help someone else, it may inspire them to pay it forward, to help or be kind to someone else.  And so on.  I take satisfaction in knowing I leave this world a better place than when I came into it (I hope!). My boys will go on, my work will continue to be read (again, I hope!), what I have done for others will be remembered. And even when I personally am forgotten, the effects of my actions will continue. In some subtle, small way, I have been a force for good in this world. My efforts, combined with the efforts of others, combine to bend the arc of the Universe towards justice and greater happiness.

This is how I am at peace in the face of Death without benefit of God.




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