Updated: Jul 11, 2022
But if you know what life is worth you would look for yours on Earth.
— Bob Marley, Get Up Stand Up
What happens when we die?
Well, as they used to say about people who live in glass coffins: Remains to be seen.
(Actually, no one ever said that because no one lives in a glass coffin.)
But this part is true: My main takeaway when I was very sick from cancer last year and feared I was going to trip the lights-off fantastic sooner rather than later: I didn’t want to.
I still don’t.
Not because I don’t believe in a heaven or a hell. I don’t, but one can’t absolutely discount the possibility of surviving death in one form or another.
Not because I don’t believe that when the blue centre-light pops, our minds shut down, our window on the world closes, our memories dissipate and our conscious selves slither out of existence. I do.
My dilemma is that both scenarios scare the bejesus out of me. As does the third and only remaining all-but-impossible option: living eternally as a human being.
That one, based on the lousy way I still feel, we can reject right out of the gate, though there is a poignant truth in Edward Young’s famous reflection in his 18th-century poem Night Thoughts:
All men think all men mortal but themselves.
Rainer Maria Rilke, one of the 20th century’s great poets, communicates that sense of our own exceptionalism, to put it in American terms, in his Book of Hours:
I know that nothing has ever been real
without my beholding it.
All becoming has needed me.
My looking ripens things
and they come toward me, to meet and be met.
You might find one of the posthumous possibilities appealing. But for the duration of this essay, think of me as the disgruntled employee at the boss’s funeral, the one kneeling next to the coffin and whispering — as a 1990s joke had it — “Who’s thinking outside the box now, Harry?”
We can quickly dispose of body disposal as a point of contention, for I don’t know anyone who relishes the two current socially acceptable alternatives: cremation or burial. Adding embalming, mummification, exposure to the elements or ejection into space to the mix doesn’t make the prospect a ton more palatable.
Even before it gets to the throwaway stage, your body will have gone through a pretty gruesome process. Here’s a quick guide to dying from the Insider website, which itself arose from the ashes of Business Insider:
Within seconds, brain activity will stop. Deprived of oxygen because your heart has stopped beating, your cells will start to leak and break down — beginning the process of putrefaction. Your body temperature will drop at a rate of 1.6 degrees Fahrenheit per hour until you reach room temperature.
That’s about 0.89 degrees Celsius per hour if you insist on dying in Canada.
In the first hours after death, calcium will build up in the muscles, causing them to tense. This rigour mortis will typically last about 36 hours. Your muscles will then relax, causing the body to release any remaining feces or urine. Gravity pulls skin down, causing it to appear paler, with red splotches.
You start to smell terrible because your decaying body releases such chemicals as putrescine and cadaverine.
Which puts me in mind of another staple of funeral chapel humour: What do you do with a dead chemist? Barium. Kills ’em every time down at Whispering Glades.
In the weeks to come, the body turns green in spots because enzymes in your organs start digesting themselves. usually with the help of bacteria. Bugs start to eat you. Maggots can digest 60% of a body within a week.
Your hair starts to fall out.
Some of us have had a head start.
In a period of months, you turn purple, then black as bacteria continue to digest your body.
If your body is left at 50 F (10 C), it will take about four months for your soft tissues to decompose until your skeleton is all that’s left.
Talk about giving you the inside scoop.
A little more research on the topic dug up the following nugget from the website of an American company called Crime Scene Clean-Up, which offers “emergency cleanup assistance.” Better not to ask:
You may be wondering: will a skeleton also decompose? The answer is yes. If animals do not destroy or move the bones, skeletons normally take around 20 years to dissolve in fertile soil. However, in sand or neutral soil, skeletons can remain intact for hundreds of years.
You could delay the inevitable return of dust to dust with an injection of embalming fluids, of course, to keep you looking in the pink of ill health through the open-casket funeral. But cosmic imperatives always trump cosmetic touch-ups. Eventually, even imperious Caesar, dead and turned to clay, might stop a hole to keep the wind away.
In a 1965 update of his 1935 classic The Illusion of Immortality — I read ’em all — American socialist and humanist philosopher Corliss Lamont gave this description of “the dismal and oppressive atmosphere that usually surrounds the disposal of the dead”:
No matter how skillful the embalmer’s art, no matter how calm and reposed the appearance of the body, no matter how beautiful the floral decorations, it is at best not a pleasant thing to view the cold and unresponsive corpse of a beloved intimate, so appallingly like yet unlike the living person.
The last intense look at the dead body lying in the coffin may haunt for years the inner recesses of the mind.
If I could cleanse my mind of any of the images I have amassed in my dwindling time here on this rotating oblate spheroid, it would be the one of my father kissing my embalmed mother in her coffin. She looked so glazed and waxy that one of her normally composed sisters shrieked uncontrollably upon seeing her reposing in the visitation salon (or whatever it is they call those creepy places).
Sometimes the embalmer’s art is, well, enigmatic. My mother-in-law, like I daresay most Indo-Canadian women of her generation, spent a lifetime applying makeup that lightened her countenance ever so delicately.
After she died (it wouldn’t have been before, Sherlock), someone at the funeral parlour evidently decided that the solemnity called for blackface. None of us saw it in advance and it was too late at the funeral to do anything about it, but that sweet and sometimes formidable woman would have been beside herself — in a horror movie doppelgänger sort of way — had she known about her crowning makeover before entering the pearly gates and the streets of the Christian heaven she so avidly anticipated.
Part of the existential shudder that attends funeral-going — in particular, first-hand observation of the lowering of the coffin into the grave — stems from either empathy or selfishness: the ability we all possess to imagine oneself in the position of the deceased. You don’t have to be Julian Marty (obscure reference to Dan Hedaya’s buried-alive character in Blood Simple) or the unnamed narrator in Edgar Allan Poe’s harrowing short story, The Premature Burial, to find yourself nodding in agreement with Lamont:
The fact that we have been accustomed to associate the personality of the departed with his body may lead us to half-imagine that the man himself is in the coffin and in the ground, as common idioms, such as “he would turn in his grave,” well illustrate. So we may conceive of the deceased as perhaps overwhelmed by the absolute solitude, stillness and darkness.
Thought of the inevitable decay and dissolution of the body may also come to plague us; and we may meditate, Hamlet-like, concerning the unflattering destiny that overtakes what was once a man.
These painful reflections we may even carry forward to that day when our own familiar body may be interred.
The older and the sicker one gets, it seems to me — in articulo mortis, caelitus mihi vires, nearer, my God, to Thee — the harder it becomes to hold such morbid reflections at bay.
One can, of course, avoid the agonizingly slow slide of one’s mortal remains into history’s dead letter box by opting, as my father did after the trauma of my mother’s funeral, for a quick, easy and relatively cheap cremation. As the top-hatted boys down at Trabb and Sowerberry’s Celebration of Life Experts are wont to joke in their display room of classic pewter Grecian urns, a quick run through the ovens at 760-980 C is the last chance most of us will ever have for a smokin’ hot bod.
(Another big guffaw at Trabb and Sowerberry’s: My dad died when we couldn’t remember his blood type. As he died, he kept insisting that we "be positive," but it’s so hard to do that without him.)
Badda bing. Upon opening my father’s urn to add his wedding ring, some family photos and drawings by his grandchildren, I was jarred by the sight and feel of four or five pounds of a grainy substance that resembled coarse sand. All that was left of his once powerful body, aside from some salts and minerals, was a sickly, pasty grey mix of crushed bones and teeth. Sic transit gloria mundi.
A fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy: he hath borne me on his back a thousand times; and now, how abhorred in my imagination it is! my gorge rises at it.
Don’t know about you, but whenever I feel my gorge rising amid the chilling emblems of the Danse Macabre like those fiddling skeletons and decorated skulls on Dia de los Muertos, I feel the need for a little more hearseplay:
A man attended a funeral for his best friend. He approached the grieving widow, gestured to the podium, and asked, “Do you mind if I say a word?”
“Sure. Go ahead,” she replied.
“Plethora,” he said and sat back down.
“Thank you,” the widow replied. “It means a lot.”
Badda boom. What I actually noticed in my dad when he was dying, and what I now am beginning to see in myself, is that the innate tendency for self-preservation common to the humblest of living things need not abate in the slightest when the frost is on the pumpkin and the hay is in the barn.
A few days before he inadvertently chose the road death travelled, way back in 1903 when he was 88, French philosopher Charles Renouvier put it this way:
When a man is old, very old, and accustomed to life, it is very difficult to die. I think that young men accept the idea of dying more easily, perhaps more willingly, than old men. When one is more than eighty years old, one is cowardly and shrinks from death. And when one knows that one can no longer doubt that death is coming near, deep bitterness falls on the soul.
Woody Allen, now 86, has a similar but more succinct take on dying: “I’m strongly against it.”
I don’t know which is scarier: the thought of either mouldering in the grave or flaking in the urn while undergoing a total extinction, versus the idea of retaining some form of individual consciousness inside a dead body in any kind of shape.
There’s nothing new in this dilemma. In the first century AD, Greek philosopher and historian Plutarch concluded that the people of his time would:
… almost say that all men and women would readily submit themselves to the teeth of Cerberus (the multi-headed hound of Hades), and to the punishment of carrying water in a sieve, if only they might remain in existence and escape the doom of annihilation.
German poet Heinrich Heine in the 19th century:
How our soul struggles against the thought of cessation of our personality, of eternal annihilation! The horror vacui which we ascribe to nature is really inborn in the human heart.
Lamont includes a long but rather marvellous passage from English essayist William Hazlitt, whose career spanned the 18th and 19th centuries:
To see the golden sun and the azure sky, the outstretched ocean, to walk upon the green earth, and to be lord of a thousand creatures, to look down giddy precipices or over distant flowery vales, to see the world spread out under one’s finger in a map, to bring the stars near, to view the smallest insects in a microscope, to read history, and witness the revolutions of empires and the succession of generations, to hear the glory of Sidon and Tyre, of Babylon and Susa, as of a faded pageant, and to say all these were, and are now nothing, to think that we exist in such a point of time, and in such a corner of space, to be at once spectators and a part of the moving scene, to watch the return of the seasons, of spring and autumn, to hear
The stockdove plain amid the forest deep,
That drowsy rustles to the sighing gale
— to traverse desert wildernesses, to listen to the midnight choir, to visit lighted halls, or plunge into the dungeon’s gloom, or sit in crowded theatres and see life itself mocked, to feel heat and cold, pleasure and pain, right and wrong, truth and falsehood, to study the works of art and refine the sense of beauty to agony, to worship fame and to dream of immortality, to have read Shakespeare and belong to the same species as Sir Isaac Newton; to be and to do all this, and then in a moment to be nothing, to have it all snatched from one like a juggler’s ball or a phantasmagoria; there is something revolting and incredible to sense in the transition, and no wonder that, aided by youth and warm blood, and the flush of enthusiasm, the mind contrives for a long time to reject it with disdain and loathing as a monstrous and improbable fiction, like a monkey on a house-top, that is loath, amidst its fine discoveries and specious antics, to be tumbled head-long into the street, and crushed to atoms, the sport and laughter of the multitude!
But it’s sad and it’s sweet and forgotten complete when we wear an older man’s clothes. And so we rage, rage against the dying of the light.
There isn’t much we can do about it, but at least we’re not compelled to mutely surrender to the prospect of personal extinction. In his once renowned but now largely forgotten 1912 essay The Tragic Sense of Life, Spanish philosopher and writer Miguel de Unamuno harked back to Cervantes and the gentleman of La Mancha Alonso Quijano:
If it is nothingness that awaits us, let us make an injustice of it; let us fight against destiny, even though without hope of victory; let us fight against it quixotically.
This is, of course, the precise point where belief in an afterlife enters the fray. As Czech writer Milan Kundera, who I note is still hanging in at 93, put it in his 1984 novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being: “The longing for Paradise is man’s longing not to be man.”
Rilke lays out his case against death, or at least against annihilation, this way:
What will you do, God, when I die?
I am your jar (if cracked, I lie?)
Your well-spring (if the well go dry?)
I am your craft, your vesture I —
You lose your purport, losing me.
Regrettably, God seems to have been willing to take that chance with the billions who have lived, loved and died before us. Hard to see him making an exception in your case or mine.
But before we pass on, as it were, like Rilke and so many knights-errant to that undiscover’d country from whose bourn no traveller returns, let’s pause to acknowledge that some people — especially those suffering from terrible pain or who have experienced unendurable tragedy in their lives — would welcome the waters of oblivion rather than a continued existence.
The same is true of whole cultures. Lamont:
… many primitive peoples, including the Old Testament Hebrews and the Homeric Greeks, believed that there existed beyond the grave an unhappy and gloomy underworld where the feeble shades of the departed wandered about in an unmitigated melancholy.
Naturally enough, peoples with such a conception of the afterlife had no burning enthusiasm to go to the abode of the dead. They viewed it as a far from attractive inevitability, frequently took an interest in it mainly for the sake of warding off the harm that the ghosts of the deceased might do to the living, and sometimes simply regarded it with a bored indifference.
In his 1975 book Death: A Comedy in One Act, Woody Allen could have been channelling the ancient Hebraic or Homeric wariness when he wrote: “I am not afraid death. I just don’t want to be there when it happens.”
Ever the pragmatist, he added: “I don’t believe in the afterlife, although I am bringing a change of underwear.”
I have been reading about Buddhism and Hinduism for years, but have never been able to get a fix on what adherents believe about surviving death. There is certainly no consensus. Writes Lamont:
One group claims that the ultimate goal of Nirvana means complete extinction or absorption of the individual personality; another that it is a state of bliss comparable to the Christian’s beatific vision of God.
Whatever the correct interpretation, there can be no doubt that millions of Hindus and Buddhists look forward to their successive reincarnations after death with dread and despair, hoping for nothing so much as the total annihilation of their selves.
Some prominent figures in the history of Western philosophy have also come to the conclusion that the notion of personal survival of death is spurious. Most notoriously, Spinoza in the seventeenth century. “The free person thinks least of all of death,” he counselled, “and his wisdom is a meditation not on death but on life.”
David Hume argued against the view that human immortality (in any sense we’d recognize) is guaranteed by the incorruptibility of the soul:
... what is incorruptible must also be ingenerable. The soul, therefore, if immortal, existed before our birth: And if the former existence nowise concerned us, neither will the latter.
Exquisitely expressed, but Samuel Beckett improved upon it in Waiting for Godot:
They give birth astride of a grave, the light gleams an instant, then it’s night once more.
Bertrand Russell, a lifelong atheist, was once asked what he would do if, surprise, surprise, he should find himself face-to-face with the Supreme Being in that better place: “I should say: God! Why did you make the evidence for your existence so insufficient?”
The biblical rejoinder to this, perhaps, is most forcefully conveyed in Jeremiah 5:21: “Hear now this, O foolish people, and without understanding; which have eyes, and see not; which have ears, and hear not.”
As English writer John Heywood wrote with more felicity in 1546, “There are none so blind as those who will not see.”
Sacred wisdom or the triumph of hope over experience?
Depends where you come down. Me, I’m a hopeless agnostic. (Q. What’s agnostic and dead in a closet? A. The world hide-and-seek champion from 1995.)
I will admit to having no hesitation, though, in finding the prospect of losing individual consciousness — either through total annihilation or absorption into some kind of transcendental godhead — less than enthralling, and this is not an uncommon sentiment among people schooled in Western ways of thinking.
In The Life of Samuel Johnson, L.L.D., James Boswell’s unsurpassed 1791 biography of his curmudgeonly older contemporary, he reports a fascinating conversation involving the two of them and two women that took place on April 15, 1778. The Mrs. Knowles whom Boswell mentions was Mary Morris Knowles, a Quaker poet and abolitionist. Miss Seward was English romantic poet Anna Seward:
Boswell: “Then, Sir, we must be contented to acknowledge that death is a terrible thing.”
Johnson: “Yes, Sir, I have made no approaches to a state which can look on it as not terrible.”
Mrs. Knowles (seeming to enjoy a pleasing serenity in the persuasion of benignant divine light): “Does not St. Paul say, ‘I have fought the good fight of faith, I have finished my course; henceforth is laid up for me a crown of life’?”
Johnson: “Yes, Madam; but here was a man inspired, a man who had been converted by supernatural interposition.”
Boswell: “In prospect death is dreadful; but in fact we find that people die easy.”
Johnson: “Why, Sir, most people have not thought much of the matter, so cannot say much, and it is supposed they die easy. Few believe it certain they are then to die; and those who do, set themselves to behave with resolution, as a man does who is going to be hanged. He is not the less unwilling to be hanged.”
Miss Seward: “There is one mode of the fear of death, which is certainly absurd: and that is the dread of annihilation, which is only a pleasing sleep without a dream.”
Johnson. “It is neither pleasing, nor sleep; it is nothing. Now mere existence is so much better than nothing, that one would rather exist even in pain, than not exist.”
Boswell: “If annihilation be nothing, then existing in pain is not a comparative state, but is a positive evil, which I cannot think we should choose. I must be allowed to differ here, and it would lessen the hope of a future state founded on the argument, that the Supreme Being, who is good as He is great, will hereafter compensate for our present sufferings in this life. For if existence, such as we have it here, be comparatively a good, we have no reason to complain, though no more of it should be given to us. But if our only state of existence were in this world, then we might with some reason complain that we are so dissatisfied with our enjoyments compared with our desires.”
Johnson: “The lady confounds annihilation, which is nothing, with the apprehension of it, which is dreadful. It is in the apprehension of it that the horror of annihilation consists.”
Since we are none the wiser, it’s easy to imagine a similar conversation taking place today, though with less eloquence and more pauses to play Wordle. Not much changes in the land of the quick and the dread.
Thomas Huxley was a no-nonsense 19th century scientist best known as “Darwin’s Bulldog” for his advocacy of the theory of evolution, but even he allowed, near the end of his life in 1895:
It is a curious thing that I find my dislike to the thought of extinction increasing as I get older and nearer the goal. It flashes across me at all sorts of times and with a sort of horror that in 1900 I shall probably know no more of what is going on than I did in 1800. I had sooner be in hell a good deal — at any rate in one of the upper circles where the climate and company are not too trying.
Hell, yeah! But let’s not get too hot and bothered.
“The early Greeks and early Hebrews,” Lamont reiterates:
… did not crave immortality, mainly for the simple reason that they could not conceive of a desirable one, being unable to imagine a man enjoying a decent existence when deprived of his earthly body. The religious revolution based on the life, passion and rising of Jesus Christ from the tomb supplied the necessary foundation for a satisfactory future life by promising the resurrection of the body.
For a time there was a glad and glorious sense of complete victory over death; a psychological release of mind and soul perhaps unknown before that day. These feelings were buttressed by the belief that the world would shortly come to an end and that therefore the victory would become apparent and unmistakable to all.
But the world stubbornly refused to enact this grand finale.
So then what? If you’re the early Church Fathers, you remind the faithful of original sin and play up the torments of hell for anyone who steps out of line.
Hell and purgatory — a fanciful but brilliant invention allowing for the remission of sins and a lucrative system of indulgences — “came to be so emphasized in Catholic doctrine and practice that the masses of men could hardly be expected to look forward to immortality with a consuming eagerness,” Lamont writes.
Anyone who peers at medieval art or tours Gothic cathedrals can’t help but have been struck by — and perhaps recoiled from — the horrifying orgy of memento mori and menacing reminders of the Big Adios.
According to the immensely inventive Dominican friar Thomas Aquinas — the Doctor Angelius, the Doctor Communis and the Doctor Universalis of Catholic theology — even the blissful souls in heaven must remain eternally mindful of the horrors of hell:
In order that nothing may be wanting to the happiness of the blessed in heaven, a perfect view is granted them of the tortures of the damned.
One might have thought that witnessing loved ones who went the other way being poked and prodded by devils and demons in the underworld would put a bit of a damper on the paradisiacal party, but Lamont’s explanation provides an insight into Dark Ages/Republican Party operative thinking: “This statement was based on the general principle that an awareness of the opposite misery always increases the relish of any pleasure.”
It’s great and glorious to see the bad get it for good. Party like it’s 666. Forever and ever, amen.
It took the Reformation, the ditching of purgatory and the advent of fire-and-brimstone Protestantism for the concept of hell to truly descend to sadistic, psychopathic, certifiably depraved pitches far beyond (below?) the relatively civilized retribution dished out by Dante to his enemies and virtuous pagans alike in The Divine Comedy, the Italian narrative masterpiece completed the year before he died in 1321.
Lamont offers this sample from the great English preacher Jeremy Taylor, an Oliver Cromwell-era author sometimes known as the “Shakespeare of the Divines” for his poetic flourishes:
Husbands shall see their wives, parents shall see their children tormented before their eyes. The bodies of the damned shall be crowded together in hell like grapes in a wine press, which shall press one another till they burst.
Today, this system is known in the great state of Texas as immigrant transport.
Speaking of. Here is noted Puritan theologian Jonathan Edwards, the hectoring voice of an 18th-century America that has echoes in the ways ardent QAnon conspiracy theorists describe the fate awaiting the George Soros-funded, cannibalistic Democrat pedophiles and global child-sex traffickers of today:
The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect, over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked: his wrath towards you burns like fire. …
You are ten thousand times more abominable in his eyes than the most hateful venomous serpent is in ours. … It would be dreadful to suffer this fierceness and wrath of Almighty God one moment; but you must suffer it to all eternity. There will be no end to this exquisite horrible misery.
So … pretty much what Jesus had in mind when he told his disciples to “love one another, as I have loved you.” The unfailing capacity of avenging evangelists in every religion to get ahold of the wrong end of the stick, which they then use as a cudgel for anyone who doesn't agree with them, is one of life’s little miracles. Could it be … Satan?
Edwards was just getting started. The heads of the wicked, he prophesied, along with:
… their eyes, their tongues, their hands, their feet, their loins, and their vitals shall forever be full of glowing, melting fire, fierce enough to melt the very rocks and elements; and also, they shall eternally be full of the most quick and lively sense to feel the torment … nor for one minute, nor for one day, nor for one year, nor for one age, nor for two ages, nor for an hundred ages, nor without any end at all, and never, never be delivered!
Well, isn’t that special?
Perhaps because the loudest choir lofts now belong to radio and TV “personalities” like Alex Jones and Tucker Carlson, apocalyptic warnings of lakes of fire and brimstone seem to thunder less frequently today from Protestant pulpits than in the days when they were giving us that old-time religion. Modern televangelical superstar Joel Osteen has amassed a fortune in excess of $100 million US while delicately skirting the subject altogether.
But when I was avoiding altar boy duties, direful warnings of hellfire were a big part of the sulphurous showmanship of the generation that gave us the likes of Oral Roberts, Jimmy (I Have Sinned) Swaggart and Billy Graham.
Graham always struck me as the most sensible and sedate of the Garner Ted Armstrong/Jim Bakker/Pat Robertson crowd, but his take on hell was only a burner setting or two cooler than that of the early Puritans:
Hell is a place of sorrow and unrest, a place of wailing and a furnace of fire; a place of torment, a place of outer darkness, a place where people scream for mercy; a place of everlasting punishment.
The eternal damnation forecast (cloudy with no chance of falafels) isn’t a lot more temperate for wayward Muslims. Wikipedia’s explanation:
In Islam, jahannam (related to the Hebrew word gehinnom) is the counterpart to heaven and likewise divided into seven layers, both co-existing with the temporal world, filled with blazing fire, boiling water, and a variety of other torments for those who have been condemned to it in the hereafter. In the Qur’an, God declares that the fire of Jahannam is prepared for both mankind and jinn.
Over hell, a narrow bridge called As-Sirāt is spanned. On Judgment Day, one must pass over it to reach paradise, but those destined for hell will find it too narrow and fall from it into their new abode. Iblis, the temporary ruler of hell, is thought of as residing in the bottom of hell, from where he commands his hosts of infernal demons.
But contrary to Christian traditions, Iblis and his infernal hosts do not wage war against God; his enmity applies against humanity only. Further, his dominion in hell is also his punishment. Executioners of punishment are the zabaniyya, who have been created from the fires of hell. According to the Muwatta Hadith, the Bukhari Hadith, the Tirmidhi Hadith, and the Kabir Hadith, Muhammad claimed that the fire of Jahannam is not red, but pitch-black, is 70 times hotter than ordinary fire, and is much more painful than ordinary fire.
Other religions, sects, cults, denominations and traditions offer their own interpretations of hell — spewing pitiless revenge fantasies and one-upping each other with ever more savage thanatological pathologies — none of which I pretend to understand.
Still, it’s a no-brainer to come to a singular conclusion: Any time spent in hell would be worse than sitting through consecutive screenings of Ishtar, and I don’t want to spend a second marooned in any of them, let alone an eternity.
Heaven’s relationship to hell, on the other hand, has always struck me as analogous to that of the movie good guy to the big-screen bad guy. Way better looking but way less interesting. All happy afterlives are alike, it seems, but every unhappy afterlife is unhappy in its own way.
Even Dante, who presumably exhausted his fecund and ferocious imagination in devising torments in the nine circles of the Inferno and the nine of Mount Purgatory, was unable to sustain more than a disappointingly flat, mystical anti-climax in his description of the Garden of Eden, the nine celestial bodies of paradise and the Empyrean abode of the essence of God.
There’s a poignant moment in the Paradiso section of The Divine Comedy in which Dante the pilgrim descries Beatrice, the Florentine girl he had loved (from afar) who became his personal spiritual docent, representing divine revelation and God only knows what else:
I lifted up my eyes and saw her where she made for herself a crown, reflecting from her the eternal beams. From the highest region where it thunders no mortal eye is so far, were it lost in the depth of the sea, was my sight there from Beatrice; but to me it made no difference, for her image came down to me undimmed by aught between.
“O Lady, in whom my hope has its strength and who didst bear for my salvation to leave thy footprints in hell, of all the things that I have seen I acknowledge the grace and the virtue to be from bondage into liberty by all those ways, by every means for it that was in thy power. Preserve in me my great bounty, so that my spirit, which thou hast made whole, may be loosed from the body well-pleasing to thee.”
I prayed thus; and she, so far off she seemed, smiled and looked at me, then turned again to the eternal fount.
Mother Meh-ry comes to me. But mostly meh.
How long do you suppose you could stare at an eternal fount, now matter how wondrous the light, before wondering whether the Blue Jays are still in the toilet or if those rumours about Pete Davidson ditching Kim Kardashian were true? Three years? Three thousand? Three hundred million?
How many hands of canasta or celestial charades could you play with the people you love most before the thrill would be gone? Even the Crazy Eights table would lose its appeal. If you ever got really bored in heaven, I suppose, you could always tune into the latest unspeakable abuses from hell. That would get the old embalming juices flowing. But probably not for more than a kajillion years. And then what?
In a flash of understanding he admits even he can’t find words for, Dante ends his narrative showpiece by witnessing the triune godhead and finally getting a handle on the divinity and humanity of Christ, as his soul aligns itself like an iron filling amid the lodestone emanation of the Creator’s reciprocated affection:
But already my desire and my will
were being turned like a wheel, all at one speed,
by the Love which moves the sun and the other stars.
I’m suddenly hearing the McGarrigle sisters (obscure Heart Like a Wheel reference; you were expecting Sarah McLachlan or Let it Be, maybe?). But the point is that if the heavenly versions of we the people are anything like the terrestrial ones, it will take one hell of an effort to be continuously having the time of our post-lives unto the end of time.
Those comparatively few Westerners who insist they want oblivion are motivated, I think, by several considerations. In the first place, they may be recoiling in horror and disgust from the orthodox and traditional Christian view of immortality that puts so much emphasis on eternal punishment. In the second place, they may be afflicted with the idea of endlessness.
“Is it never to end?” protests one individual (here he’s quoting Scottish philosopher Andrew Seth Pringle-Patterson). “The thought appalls. I, little I, to live a million years — and another million — and another! My tiny light to burn forever!”
Another (this time he means American psychologist James H. Leuba) writes: “I feel time lasting indefinitely, space lengthening without end, something like a never stopping crescendo. It seems to me that my being gradually swells, substitutes itself to everything, grows by absorbing worlds and centuries, then bursts, and everything ceases, and I am left with an atrocious pain in the head and in the stomach. It is eternity which is frightful.”
Declares a third (only not really a third, for Lamont is citing Pringle-Patterson again): “It is the aimlessness of the process which afflicts the mind; for it is progress which leads nowhere, which has no goal, seeing that, after ages of forward movement, you are precisely as distant from the imagined end as when you started.”
Comparatively few believers in the Christian West have thought through the full meaning of durational eternity, have ever asked themselves the simple question: Do I, who know so well the length of one earthly life, really believe that this conscious self of mine is to go on existing for 500 million years and then 500 hundred million more and so on ad infinitum? If persons who have faith in immortality asked themselves this question, they would perhaps pass into a temporary state of intellectual vertigo.
I can’t speak for persons who have faith in immortality, but can attest to intellectual vertigo. Especially before breakfast.
Not to get overly Kantian on you, but one possible workaround here could be to acknowledge that our experience and understanding of both space and time are limited by the way our brains are constructed. There is clearly something wrong — at least limited — about the way we process events as happening in the past, present and future.
In the Special Theory of Relativity, Einstein determined that time is relative; the rate at which it passes depends on your frame of reference.
If you somehow survived a fall into a black hole, billions of years would pass here on Earth in what to you would seem only like a few milliseconds. In the words of contemporary American singer-philosopher James Taylor:
Now the thing about time is that time isn’t really real.
It’s just your point of view, how does it feel for you?
Einstein said he could never understand it all.
Planets spinning through space, the smile upon your face, welcome to the human race.
Science fiction writers have been shaking up our preconceptions about an orderly flow of events at least since H.G. Wells published The Time Machine in 1895.
In the 1969 novel Slaughterhouse-Five or The Children’s Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death, Kurt Vonnegut posits the existence of a race of intelligent aliens called Tralfamadorians who experience all of time all at once and pity what seems to them as our primitive now this and now this and now that and now that purchase on duration.
A guide at the zoo where abducted protagonist Billy Pilgrim is being exhibited does the best he can to explain to fellow Tralfamadorians the human relationship to mundane temporality:
The guide invited the crowd to imagine that they were looking across a desert at a mountain range on a day that was twinkling bright and clear. They could look at a peak or a bird or cloud, at a stone right in front of them, or even down into a canyon behind them. But among them was this poor Earthling, and his head was encased in a steel sphere which he could never take off. There was only one eyehole through which he could look, and welded to that eyehole were six feet of pipe.
This was only the beginning of Billy's miseries in the metaphor. He was also strapped to a steel lattice which was bolted to a flatcar on rails, and there was no way he could turn his head or touch the pipe. The far end of the pipe rested on a bi-pod which was also bolted to the flatcar. All Billy could see was the little dot at the end of the pipe. He didn’t know he was on a flatcar, didn’t even know there was anything peculiar about his situation.
The flatcar sometimes crept, sometimes went extremely fast, often stopped — went uphill, downhill, around curves, along straightaways. Whatever poor Billy saw through the pipe, he had no choice but to say to himself, “That's life.”
Maybe when we die, the pipe welded to our eyehole — or whatever corresponds to an eyehole in a spiritual dimension — is removed and we’ll understand, as Billy Pilgrim comes to see, that “everything that ever has been always will be, and everything that ever will be always has been.”
If Billy’s experience of buying the farm, cashing in the chips, drawing the curtains, giving up the ghost, going six feet under, pegging out, kicking the bucket, pushing up daisies, sleeping with the fishes, taking a dirt nap, pining for the fjords, kicking the oxygen habit, biting the dust, breathing his last, going the way of all the earth, meeting his maker, travelling beyond the veil, entering into his reward and playing that great gig in the sky is anything like what actually happens, O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?
Billy Pilgrim had stopped in the forest. He was leaning against a tree with his eyes closed. His head was tilted back and his nostrils were flaring. He was like a poet in the Parthenon.
This was when Billy first came unstuck in time. His attention began to swing grandly through the full arc of his life, passing into death, which was violet light. There wasn't anybody else there, or anything. There was just violet light — and a hum.
Just violet light and a hum. And then you swing back into life again, for when a bug or a human previously gummed down in metaphorical amber becomes unstuck in time, there is no causality, no before and after, just an eternal now. It’s a playful, chimerical, quixotic (there’s that word again) idea, but no more than the fantastic notion of some kind of immaterial aspect or essence of our humanity capable of surviving the death of our bodies.
The latter concept is, of course, an ancient one. It existed among whimsical animists and other so-called primitive peoples, and there are tangled skeins of whole eschatologies loosely coiled and knotted around the persistence of immortal souls in the Egyptian and Chinese traditions, along with the Abrahamic religions.
But unless you’re willing, against all scientific evidence, to reject the reality of natural selection and our incontrovertible animal origins, it’s hard to see how one could grant souls to human beings and deny them to the apes from which we evolved. Was there some point in human prehistory where our brains surpassed a threshold or watermark of complexity, such that the sons and daughters of soulless beasts were — mirabile dictu —miraculously born with passports to a transcendental existence beyond the grave?
Talk about a generation gap.
If you’re prepared to grant souls to apes, where do you stop? Do plants have them? Unicellular organisms? Artificial intelligence programs? And Gates said: Let there be Byte.
Cartesian mind-body dualism has always seemed like stacking the deck to me, but I know many people who are firm in their faith in the persistence, before and after death, of what influential 20th century Protestant pastor Harry Emerson Fosdick used to refer to as “invisible, spiritual personalities.” He died in 1969, so I guess he’d know for sure now. Or not.
The one thing we can say with certainty is that encouraging an expectation of a personal sequel in the next world pays up-front dividends in this one to the ten percenters currently housing their earthly tents in fabulous mansions. Always has. Always will. Follow. The. Money.
Karl Marx’s trenchant observation:
The mortgage held by the peasants on heavenly estates guarantees the mortgage held by the bourgeoisie on the peasant estates.
Lamont fleshes out (you’ll pardon the expression) Marx’s das-Opium-des-Volkes verdict on religion this way:
Poverty-stricken, lacking the very necessities of life, crushed by grinding toil, they (the world’s poor) have had ample reason to flee for refuge and recompense to visions of a world beyond. Shut out from the rich empires of art and culture, denied access to education and opportunity, ever the most numerous of the bloody wars that have plagued mankind, these masses have easily and naturally fallen prey to hallucinations of a blessed hereafter when everything will be set aright.
And they have listened with eager ears to the teachings of kings, priests and other henchmen of the status quo to the effect that if they remained resigned and humble on this earth, they will have a marvellous reward.
Moreover, it’s up to God alone to judge the wicked. The scales will be balanced in the long run and apparent evil is simply part of the divine order in the Big Picture, so there’s no need to be overly concerned about righting wrongs here on the practice field. Joan Didion wrote about her year of magical thinking after her husband died. Two thousand years after the death of Christ, a fair whack of Western culture is still in the thrall of enchantment and thaumaturgic incantation.
Most people think great God will come from the sky. Take away everything and make everybody feel high.
But half that story ain’t never been told — and this is already much too long. The Rapture is a topic for a different day.
Lamont, who was 93 when he died in 1995, winds up by quoting Rupert Brooke’s satire titled Heaven. Mud unto mud, I could scarcely do better:
Fish (fly-replete, in depth of June,
Dawdling away their wat'ry noon)
Ponder deep wisdom, dark or clear,
Each secret fishy hope or fear.
Fish say, they have their Stream and Pond;
But is there anything Beyond?
This life cannot be All, they swear,
For how unpleasant, if it were!
One may not doubt that, somehow, Good
Shall come of Water and of Mud;
And, sure, the reverent eye must see
A Purpose in Liquidity.
We darkly know, by Faith we cry,
The future is not Wholly Dry.
Mud unto mud! — Death eddies near —
Not here the appointed End, not here!
But somewhere, beyond Space and Time,
Is wetter water, slimier slime!
And there (they trust) there swimmeth One
Who swam ere rivers were begun,
Immense, of fishy form and mind,
Squamous, omnipotent, and kind;
And under that Almighty Fin,
The littlest fish may enter in.
Oh! never fly conceals a hook,
Fish say, in the Eternal Brook,
But more than mundane weeds are there,
And mud, celestially fair;
Fat caterpillars drift around,
And Paradisal grubs are found;
Unfading moths, immortal flies,
And the worm that never dies.
And in that Heaven of all their wish,
There shall be no more land, say fish!
Celebrated almost as much for his boyish good looks as for his idealistic war sonnets written during the First World War, Brooke died at 27 (the fabulous yellow roman candle age, exploding spiders across the stars like Hendrix and Morrison and Joplin and Cobain) while sailing with the British Mediterranean Expeditionary Force in 1915.
William Denis Browne was with him, on a French hospital ship moored off the coast of the Greek Island of Skyros in the Aegean Sea, and wrote of his friend’s death from septicaemia. When each of us attends to that one clear call, let there be no moaning of the bar and may we all put out to sea as gracefully:
I sat with Rupert. At 4 o’clock he became weaker, and at 4:46 he died, with the sun shining all round his cabin, and the cool sea breeze blowing through the door and the shaded windows. No one could have wished for a quieter or a calmer end than in that lovely bay, shielded by the mountains and fragrant with sage and thyme.
And in the middle you see the blue centre-light pop and everybody goes “Awww!”
As we all move toward François Rabelais’s Great Perhaps, I can’t help elaborating on singer-philosopher Steve Goodman’s under-appreciated Door Number Three, a paean to the Monty Hall-era Let’s Make A Deal:
I don’t want what Jay’s got on his table (extinction?)
or the box Carol Merrill points to on the floor (hell, surely).
No, I’ll hold out just as long as I am able and someday I’ll go unlock that lucky door.
She’s no big deal to most folk but she’s everything to me, ’cause my whole world lies waiting behind door number three.