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Posts Tagged ‘afterlife’

Kirsty and I stopped in on the Wellcome Collection’s exhibit on death a while ago, on our way to a comedy gig about sex. And I wish my whole life was as awesome as that one sentence kinda makes it sound.

Anyway, it was interesting. The ubiquity and variety of art which focuses on our mortality wasn’t really a surprise, but made me think consciously about just how much of everything we do is motivated by the fact that we’re all going to die.

There were a lot of skeletons. A skeleton makes sense as a symbol of death, I guess, because the bones are the most resilient part of the body to decay, so once rot sets in, that’s all that’s going to be left before too long. And pictures like this are used to say all sorts of things about death’s inherent connection with life, and how it’s entangled with our everyday existence despite our efforts to deny or forget about it.

I can see the value in reminding ourselves that life is fleeting and we’re all going to die – not least the simple fact that it’s true, and believing true things is preferable to any alternative. But I can’t shake the feeling that our efforts to “confront” or “face up” to the idea of death, particularly our own, often just obfuscate or ignore the reality.

Our skeletons, and the bones of which they’re constructed, are just as functional and essentially lifeless a part of us as our hair, teeth, skin, or lungs, after all. But in art, they rise up, they walk about, they dance. They’re lively. They do most of the things that the living do, without death seeming to act as any impediment. One of the pictures I saw at the exhibition was called frolicking skeletons. These emblems of death are still sufficiently full of vim to frolic.

It all seems to obscure and evade the point that death is the end. It’s nothingness, it’s an absence, the ceasing of something that was. I know evading this idea happens all the time with stories of an afterlife, but skeletons aren’t in the same genre as loved ones waiting for us in the next world. If death isn’t the end, but just a moving on to another place, that’s one thing – but all this art about death was ostensibly intended to force us to recognise that it is the end. And yet, how can we do that if decay and decomposition gets to seem so bouncy and fun?

(I’ve just reminded myself, incidentally, of the LucasArts game Grim Fandango, where you play a dead guy ushering other unfortunates into the Land of the Dead. It’s a sort of limbo most people pass through before being sent on their way to some sort of eternal reward, but all the dead people still have personalities and walk around and such, much like they did in life (though they’re all skeletons now, of course) – and, relevantly here, you can still die. Or at least, you can be “sprouted” – shot with some kind of dart gun, as I recall, which makes you lie down and stop moving while plants grow out of you. It ups the stakes and adds some tension to the storyline, sure, but it also re-emphasises that the “dead” characters are really still alive, in every sense aside from the label describing their mortal condition.)

It could be that I’m missing the point. Maybe it’s just a way to align the deathly nature represented by the skeleton with the living world, and I’m just looking at art wrong. As someone who’s never studied the humanities in any detail (and barely ever notices things like metaphor in films or art unless I’m well and truly bashed around the head with it), I’d hazard a guess that the physical energy of these lifeless beings represents the machinations of life itself which seek to drag us ever closer to the grave. It’s this which is imbued with energy, not truly the dead themselves.

And yet a lot of this kind of art seems insistent on imbuing the dead with vitality. I suspect creating a truly provocative display, which actually confronts the real blank, empty, ultimate, irreversible deletion of personhood that death really implies, isn’t easily done. But we really are all going to die, however oblivious or unable to conceive of such a thing we might be. All the more reason to be good to each other now, while we still can.

I should really play through Grim Fandango again. That game was awesome.

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While I was offline for a month, I kept a note of any links and news stories worth commenting on. Now that I’m back, I’m aiming to post two short items a day here, about stuff that happened during my online absence, until I’ve cleared the backlog. This is one of those.


If you were hoping to be told what card you’re thinking of by a carrion bird, I can only apologise for the disappointment.

Evan Bernstein reported recently about a woman who charges dying hospital patients $125 to spin some yarn about “who’s waiting to greet them on ‘the other side.'”

Talk about the repulsiveness of the image of an ambulance chasing lawyer. Well, this is a psychic chasing the hearse on the way to the hospital to pick up the bodies.

Seems an appropriate analogy to me.

There are people standing up for her, of course, and declaring that anyone who won’t instantly believe in these outlandish claims entirely at face value must be living a life with no hope or meaning. Which is bewildering enough, but okay, let’s work with them a bit. Let’s say she’s real, she genuinely has some power to do what she says she does, and she’s making a really, really good living by providing a legitimate service.

Personally, I find that a real stretch to believe. But let’s run with it. Here’s something that’s absolutely not a stretch to believe:

Somewhere, some unscrupulous con artist would read this article, see this woman making a fortune by telling dying people reassuring things, and think: I have got to get me a piece of this action.

This is easy to imagine. There are undeniably people like this in the world, trying to make a fast buck and not caring who they hurt in the process. Some of them rob banks. So why wouldn’t some of them, somewhere, decide that dispensing a few platitudes to some old suckers desperate for some comfort before they pop their clogs might be an easy gig?

And if it’s obvious that there really could be scammers trying to rip people off with a pale imitation of what the real psychics do, how do you tell the difference?

That’s not at all a rhetorical question. I’m not trying to say that you can’t tell the difference between a real psychic and a con artist, and so you’re a fool for believing that any of this is real. It’s genuinely worth considering how to distinguish the two, and avoid falling for someone’s dishonesty.

It’s something so many believers seem entirely unwilling to consider.

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This isn’t an argument I’ve seen put forward anywhere before, so it’s possible I’m having one of my more original moments here. I’ve written before about the idea that only a god, or an eternal afterlife, or something of that ilk, can give life any meaning or purpose, and why I think it’s bollocks. But here’s a way of looking at it which I only recently thought to consider.

To recap briefly and coarsely the position I’m taking a stand against: “What’s the point in anything if we’re all just going to die and rot in the ground?” My actual answer to that is in the above-linked article. Here, I’m going to look at it another way.

Suppose, for now, that there is an afterlife. Imagine that all humanity are possessed of souls, spiritual elements of our being which survive bodily death and pass on to a higher plane, where there awaits us all a true, blissful Eden of utter contentment and gloriously divine holy commune with Vishnu himself. Or whatever. However lovely you could hope for your choice of afterlife to be, it’s that with knobs on. Heaven. Sweet.

Only, imagine it’s not quite eternal.

Okay, as a mathematician I can’t use a meaningless phrase like “not quite eternal” without wincing – something can’t be just a bit less than infinity – but suppose that the soul itself has a finite life-span, and will eventually die. It’s just that it’s a really, really long life-span. Say, a trillion years. Or, better, a trillion trillion trillion. That’s, like, loads. (See, I really am a mathematician.)

So, after you die, your soul lives on for more time than you can possibly conceive. You could live a million natural lifetimes, and a hundred million more, see the entire universe through every moment of its existence so far, watch countless millions of stars explode and die, burn up and fizzle out, over billions of years… and still, after all this time of ecstasy and delightenment, of utter heavenly fulfilment and rapture, you’ve made barely the lightest hint of a shadow of a sliver of a dent in your allotted time. Not a microscopic fraction of a percent of a trillionth of a percent of your afterlife is done. To within any reasonable level of accuracy, you still have absolutely everything to look forward to – and still will do a further trillion years of bliss from now. And so on, and so on, lofty rhetoric, yadda yadda.

But at the end of all that, you will die. Again. For real this time. Your near-immortal spirit gets snuffed out, your soul ceases to be. No after-afterlife. No post-postscript. Annihilation. Nullity. Although you have all this fun for many orders of magnitude more time than it’s possible for the human mind to fathom, there will come a day when it all stops. Eventually, total oblivion is your unavoidable fate.

So. Is it all still completely pointless?

One way of looking at it is that all the complaints about the miserable hopelessness of an atheistic worldview still apply. We’ll all be super-dead someday, with nothing of us remaining. It seems unthinkable that the existence of a conscious soul could just stop. There’s no ultimate, eternal accountability, so why worry about anything you do now, in this temporary state of being?

But this seems silly. If you can’t find enough opportunities to make your afterlife worth living throughout 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 years in Heaven, then frankly you’re beyond pity. Is there anyone who could really go through all that and still not be satisfied, not content with what they’ve been given, insist that it’s pointless and not fair unless there’s somewhere else to go onto next, and somewhere else after that, and somewhere else after that, or they get to stay here for ever and ever and ever, like some four-year-old throwing a tantrum and insisting that they want more ice cream and they’re never going to go to bed?

Well, probably. There’s no pleasing some people. But it does seem like a ridiculous position to take. You get more years than you could even count to in a trillion years, and which you could treat like eternity – it’d be indistinguishable from it for virtually the entire time. I’d say it’s a pretty sweet deal. I can’t see it realistically being deemed an utterly pointless and bleak existence.

The only alternative is that an existence can have a purpose, can be meaningful and worthwhile and fulfilling in itself, without needing to be completely endless. The fact that it all stops one day doesn’t make this impossible. Because it’s good, now, during the time you do get, and that’s enough.

And then it’s just a matter of arguing the numbers. If value can be found in a squillion years in Heaven (for any finite value of “squillion”), but not in a life-time on this planet, then I say you’re just not trying hard enough.

So, what does anyone think? Am I making sense? Is this at all convincing? Is it well trodden ground already? Enquiring minds want to know. (And low-rate bloggers wouldn’t mind the traffic.)

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