Two years ago I shared a beer with a guy who had lost his younger sister to cancer. He didn’t know what to think about her death. Where was her soul now? Did she even have a soul anymore? If not, if there was no life after death, what meaning had her short life had?
I told him that I had never lost anyone, so I didn’t know exactly what he was going through. But I had thought a lot about death and offered him my perspective.
Death is worth thinking about. Even if, like me, you haven’t lost anyone yet, even if you’re still relatively young and free of disease, remembering the finiteness of our existence is the ultimate way to become aware of our true values and realign our actions with them.
At some point in their life, everyone will eventually ponder the same questions: Why must we die? And what happens when we do? Looking for the answers, many people will turn to holy books.
The Problem of Unfairness
I understand the allure of religion. It promises you something nobody else is willing or able to promise. Whether you fear your own death, or whether you’re trying to make sense of your pain and want to believe that your loved one who left too soon is still around somewhere, religion comforts by saying: Death is part of a plan, death is meaningful, and death is followed by something beautiful. The dead shall be with God.
And God is good, they say. But he is the same God who took their life in the first place. The same God who gives serious privileges to some people and crippling disadvantages to others. The same God who lets bad things happen to good people, and lets bad people get away with horrible sins. An ostensibly omnipotent and omniscient God who doesn’t care to interfere when he sees disease, murder or rape.
How can we reconcile with this unfair God? With the welfare state, the judicial system, the medicinal industry and other institutions, we’ve tried to mitigate his unfairness, but the injustice is still overwhelming. So we embrace a belief that solves the problem of unfairness in one, big swoop: The afterlife.
The criminals who got away in real life will be punished in hell for eternity. The good people who suffered through life’s challenges are rewarded in heaven, a paradise where we are all equal and celestial, free from our bodies and our pain. And our loved ones who passed are still around, either waiting for us in heaven or reborn here on Earth with a new body and a new chance to live a better life.
All the unfairness God allowed on earth will be compensated for in heaven. Every injustice he created in life will be corrected in the afterlife.
This is what we tell ourselves. The idea of an afterlife lets us believe that everyone gets what we think they deserve. It solves the problem of unfairness because we’ve designed it to do so.
But without evidence the afterlife is just a comforting belief. We simply don’t know what happens after death. Maybe we all go to hell because we killed animals and polluted the earth. Maybe suicide bombers go to heaven and celebrate with 72 virgins because their God was the right one. Maybe we all just enter a deep, eternal sleep. Quite probably, death feels like nothing at all.
Is that so frightening? So unbearable? We were dead billions of years before we were born. We hadn’t died, but we hadn’t come alive either. This state of unbornness, of not-yet-aliveness, caused us no misery or suffering. Or if it did, apparently we were too dead to notice or remember. Is there really anything to be scared of? We were dead once already, and there is no reason to think the next death will feel any different or any worse.
Religion almost has monopoly on death. Only priests, imams and monks are allowed to speak on the matter, almost as if death was their domain. But they have no privileged insight into the afterlife. The guess of a priest is no more educated than that of anyone else.
So what do we do if we have lost someone and want closure, but we’re unwilling to accept guesswork and religious superstition? Is there something we can be certain of? Can we know the distance between the living and the dead?
Everything Is Dead, Everything Is Alive
Ever since the ancient Greek philosophers, humans have struggled to draw a line that separates life and death. Scientists still don’t have an undisputed definition for what constitutes life, because whatever criteria they use, there is always an exception to the rule.1
The reason we can’t define it is because life is actually just a human idea, a concept we invented. The difference between dirt, mould, fungi, plants, jellyfish, cats and humans isn’t their degree of aliveness, only their degree of complexity.
“On the most fundamental level, all matter that exists is an arrangement of atoms and their constituent particles. These arrangements fall onto an immense spectrum of complexity, from a single hydrogen atom to something as intricate as a brain. In trying to define life, we have drawn a line at an arbitrary level of complexity and declared that everything above that border is alive and everything below it is not. In truth, this division does not exist outside the mind. There is no threshold at which a collection of atoms suddenly becomes alive, no categorical distinction between the living and inanimate, no Frankensteinian spark. We have failed to define life because there was never anything to define in the first place.”
— Ferris Jabr, “Why Life Does Not Really Exist”
The atoms in your body are borrowed. Some of them you have shared with a dinosaur. In your right hand is a hydrogen atom from a star that exploded and spread its dust across the galaxy billions of years ago, and in your left hand is an atom from a different star. We carry in us the shape of almost everything that has ever existed. Bits of trees, oceans, animals, rocks — they have come together for a brief moment to give you a body and let you experience life as a human.
”The atoms that comprise life on Earth, the atoms that make up the human body, are traceable to the crucibles of [stars]. … We are part of this universe, we are in this universe, but perhaps more important than both of those facts is that the universe is in us … because [our] atoms came from those stars.”
— Neil de Grasse Tyson
It is only fair and appropriate, then, that life eventually takes it all away again and passes it on. We will disintegrate and our atoms disperse. Some of them will turn into soil, out of that soil may grow a tree, of that three may grow a fruit, and maybe the fruit will be eaten by a person. We will be plants, we will be stone, we will be water, we will be someone’s blood. We will be in the ground and in the wind.
Sadly, our loved ones who have passed will never exist again as that same person. We can never speak or be with them again in the same way. There is no remedy for our longing to be with them again. Their sudden absence is an emotional blow that only time can soften.
But I think there is beauty in knowing that, in a very real and physical sense, everything is energy, and energy never dies. We are temporary constellations of all kinds of matter, we are creatures whose bodies contain components from the farthest corners of our galaxy. We can look up at the night sky and, with no self-delusion or exaggeration, say that our loved ones came partially from the stars and will one day spread to the heavens again. They have returned to the totality from which they came, and we shall too. Others have died so that we may live, we will die so that others may live. In our bodies we carry the past and the future. We take part in an eternal cycle of life, an infinite process of exchange with the rest of the universe.
“They say every atom in our bodies was once part of a star. Maybe I’m not leaving… maybe I’m going home.”
Outside the entrance to a cemetery in my city there is a stone that says, “The earth bears your mark”. I see it as a reminder that, even when someone has passed, their existence has left a mark on the people they met and the places they went. Every smile they gave, every conversation they had, every kind gesture they made changed the world ever so slightly. They may be gone, but their legacy remains and can never be erased.
That, to me, is the true afterlife. That is what should inspire us to do good things. Not hope of heaven, not fear of hell and not to please a God which might not exist, but to better the lives of people who do exist.
This is what I told him about his sister. We finished our beers and went to get two more.
Death, The Unlikeliest of Friends
When we look at death and come to terms with our finiteness and mortality, we begin to learn. Death is the greatest teacher of life. He becomes our strange ally because he gives us incredible clarity.
We live as if we’re nearly dead already. We numb our minds with trivial entertainment, we care more about following other people’s lives than living our own and we escape reality with our smartphones, alcohol and drugs.
But death wants us to celebrate life. So he looms behind you and whispers in your ear that the clock is ticking. Time is eternal, but you are not. You will die. Death is already standing at his gate awaiting your arrival, and he hopes you’ll you greet him with peace after having lived a full life. Death wants to scare you to come alive.
In the words of Mark Twain, the fear of death follows from the fear of life. A man who lives fully is prepared to die at any time. Face your fears so that, when your time comes, facing death will be easy. Don’t let yourself be ruled by the opinion of others, live by your own light and go for the things you want. Death reaps to remind you that any moment could be your last. He urges you to not waste a single breath. Savour every second, every smell, every smile.
“It is the knowledge that I will die that creates the focus that I bring to being alive. The urgency of accomplishment, the need to express love — now, not later. If we lived forever, why even get out of bed in the morning? You always have tomorrow. That’s not the kind of life I want to lead.”
— Neil de Grasse Tyson
In this way, death inspires you to live more, to do more, to cherish life. But death also teaches you the opposite: To not hold on too tight. Because one day you will have to let go of it all.
Imagine a church. It’s full of people who are sobbing but otherwise quiet. At the altar is a coffin. You slowly walk down the aisle, curious to see whose funeral it is. When you finally reach the altar, you look down and see that the person lying in the coffin is you. The people in the church are your friends, family, and even some people you hardly knew, who have come to pay their respects and mourn your passing.
What do you hope those people will remember you for? What kind of person would you have liked to be for them? If you could have inspired them to do something, what would it be? What values, what actions, what kind of life would let you meet death with peace of mind?
Your only opportunity to make those things happen is now. Life does not wait for you to get ready, death does not wait for you to start living. You don’t have time to make all your fantasies come true, you don’t have time to do everything you want.
Will your dying thought be, “I wish I had gotten more likes on my pictures” or “I’m so happy I didn’t go talk to that cute person sixty years ago because it might have been embarrassing”? Will you care about what clothing brand you wore or what strangers thought of you?
Whatever you cherish the most, death will separate you from it. The body or the business you’re working so hard to achieve, the recognition you’re working so hard to earn, you will have to let it all go.
Whoever you love the dearest, death will take them too. Death does as he pleases. He doesn’t care how old your siblings are or when you’ve planned to reconcile with your parents. If he chooses to knock on their door, nothing stops him from entering. Don’t forget to appreciate them and spend time with them while you can.
So on the one hand, death reminds us to engage in the world, to not be idle, to not take things for granted, to make something of the time we’ve been given. To take a big bite of life and chew on it. On the other hand, since he will take it all away in the end, he helps us to see clearly and cut through the bullshit. To care less about trivialities, to not take things so seriously, to not not lose ourselves in things that don’t matter.
I hope that you will live a long life. But I also hope you remember that life is now. Wake up from your sleep. Think about death, and everything unimportant is immediately stripped away.
If There Is No Second Chance
Finally, I think death teaches us to not give up on ourselves. To hold on no matter how hard things are.
On the day you were born, death promised you that he would take you back into his arms again. You will never know what comes after death, but whatever it is, whether it’s awful or amazing, you know will get to experience it eventually. You know you will die.
But what about life? Can you be sure that you get to try life again? What if there is no afterlife, what if there is no rebirth or heaven? This is probably your only chance to experience existence as a human being.
So if things are unbearable, if death feels like the easy way out, or indeed the only way out, if you start to think that whatever is on the other side has to be better than this, you ask death: Should I hold on for just one more day? What should I hold on for, when my pain, loneliness, fear and depression makes life feel like a living hell?
Death knows that if you think of suicide, it is not because you yearn for death, it is because you want to feel better. You don’t want to die, you want more from life. So death urges you to hold on, because there is something better ahead. Maybe there is a life worth living, maybe even a life more wonderful than you can currently imagine, which you will only taste if you hold on for another day. You know that you will experience death, but you don’t know what you will miss if you rush to his gate.
Death hasn’t promised you that his realm will be comfortable. Maybe death is painful, maybe death is lonely. There is a risk that you feel just as bad or even worse in death as you do now. Maybe there really is a hell after death. I don’t think there is. But hell can exists for those who are alive; hell is something we can create for each other. And to take your own life is one way to create a living hell for those you leave behind.
Whether you fear death or whether you think he will save you, look him in the eye. He will look back and say: Do not fear me, for I am the reason you come alive. Do not rush to me, for we will meet soon enough. When we do I want you to smile, so until then, embrace my sister, embrace life, see what she has to offer and revel in her bittersweet finity.