An atheist's view of death

Part I: Meditations on a Cemetery

(Note: This section of this essay is based on an experience that took place in July 2004.)

I have always wanted, when I die, to be cremated rather than buried. The living, not the dead, are the ones who have need of the space and resources that would otherwise be used for a burial ground. On the other hand, if there are to be graveyards, this is how they should be - a good place to be at peace, to be alone with one's thoughts, and to remember. They are, after all, for the sake of the living and not the deceased.

It is a warm, peaceful summer afternoon. Serried rows of headstones rise from the expansive green lawns, interspersed with flowers and hedges; great trees shade the graves at their feet in musty reddish-green and cool dappled gold. Other than the soft chirping of crickets in the grass and the gentle rustle of the wind, drowsy in the late afternoon sun, it is still and silent, creating the impression that this is a place separate from the world.

Most of the graves are plain white headstones engraved with the names of those who lie buried there. Some are polished granite or marble markers, the letters carved in them as sharp as if chiseled yesterday, while others are softer limestone, their inscriptions weathered and dimmed by time. Among the headstones is the occasional tall white mausoleum; some are freestanding, their sides clad in ivy, while others are built into hillsides. Some of the older graves are covered in beds of moss, while a few - I notice one or two - are freshly dug, plots of raw earth in the peaceful green. Where the land rolls, worn stone steps lead up from the winding main path to enable visitors to walk among the gravestones.

Small, colorful flags ripple in the wind at the head of each veteran's grave. I note in amazement how many there are, and I am reminded that blood is the eternal price of liberty. While most other people have engraved headstones, many of the veterans have only small, flat metal plaques set into the earth, paid for, I presume, by the government for their service. It seems strange, and yet somehow fitting, that they should have such humble memorials.

In this place, with thoughts of transience uppermost on my mind, I inevitably reflect on the words of others who once pondered the same things. At such times, I think of the question posed by a long-ago psalmist - "What is man, that thou art mindful of him?" - or the Buddhist who meditated on the crematory smoke arising from Toribeyama. Walking through a cemetery, one is forcefully reminded, above all else, of the fragility of human life. We tend to take for granted that our lives will continue indefinitely; rarely do we think about how we all - you yourself, everyone you know, everyone you love or care about - will grow old and, one day, will die. Through familiarity, we begin to believe the people, places and situations that surround us to be permanent. It is a natural and human tendency, and a habit difficult to break - difficult, that is, unless one is confronted inescapably with the truth of our own mortality. A quiet walk in a cemetery will accomplish that.

As I walk among the graves, I estimate the ages of the people buried there at the time they died from the inscriptions on the headstones. Fortunately, most are old, hopefully having lived lives full of achievement and happiness. Sadly, a few died young, some in their teens or even as children or infants. It is one of our society's great triumphs that we have, largely, defeated infectious disease and starvation and the other factors that took such a regular toll on human population in ages past, thus allowing both the overall population and the average lifespan to greatly increase; but those rare children's graves are a stark reminder that our medical science is still very far from perfect.

I have often wondered what it says about our species that we have places such as these. What would an alien anthropologist, studying and seeing human beings for the first time, infer about us from the way we treat our dead? Would such an observer conclude that we are a compassionate, sentimental species, one whose respect for others extends even to venerating the deceased? But then, how to explain the way we treat each other while we are still alive? I mentioned earlier how many veterans' graves there are to be seen in this cemetery, but even beyond the sad legacy of hatred and warfare inextricably bound up with our history, there are more common, more mundane instances of inhumanity even in our daily lives. How much do most of us do to help those in need? How often do we put our own desires and feelings ahead of other people's? How often do we remember that those we meet in everyday life, as well as those starving and dying in conflicts around the globe, are not just statistics or faceless strangers, but other human beings who feel, dream and have hopes and aspirations just as we do?

I think again of the way we treat our dead - the elaborate ceremonies, the costly preparation of the body, the expense of a lavish casket that more often than not will immediately be buried underground and never again seen by another living person. Other cultures in history went to even greater lengths. Surely, all this ritual is pointless, except to the extent it helps the survivors mourn and heal; the deceased have no need of it. (I wonder momentarily how many of the people buried here donated their organs to those in need.) On the other hand, while a theist might think of a body as just an empty vessel, a cast-off shell, I am not so certain an atheist can. After all, if the mind, the personality, is identical with the body, there is nowhere for it to go. I am reminded of Carl Sagan, who wrote of his experience of holding the preserved brain of the great 19th-century neurologist Paul Broca and wondering if Broca was, in some sense, still in there; if his wit, his quiet sentimental moments, his skeptical outlook, his habit of gesturing while talking, his memories of a moonlit autumn stroll still resided somewhere within the formalin-soaked synapses. If the body we see is indeed the closest continuer of a departed loved one, it makes sense to pay our respects.

And yet, when a person dies, surely what is left behind can no longer be considered that person, not in any meaningful sense. It is a truism that what makes us who we are is not our outward appearance, but our character, our unique consciousness - our mind. And when the body ceases to function, the mind too will cease. This is a concept difficult, perhaps impossible, for a sentient human being to grasp. After all, to conceptualize anything is to think, and as Descartes wrote, we think, therefore we are. How can we conceptualize the lack of conceptualization? How can we think of a state where there will no longer be any thought? Such a state is, by definition, utterly unlike anything in our experience.

I chose to come to this place in order to have these thoughts, in order to reflect on our mortality. I do not view this as morbid at all, but as one of the most powerful affirmations of life there is. Nothing else I know of makes one appreciate and cherish life as much as a walk through a graveyard; nothing else makes one realize just how fragile, and therefore how valuable, life really is. It is a profoundly spiritual experience, a humbling experience, and one I recommend to all atheists. If any of us ever forget why the need for religion in human beings is so enduring and so strong, a walk among the peaceful graves will soon remind them. As well, a walk through a cemetery is a powerful antidote to arrogance, whether among theists or my fellow atheists, in both of whom it sometimes appears. The realization - we will all end up here - is destructive to all pretensions and self-delusions. Death is the great leveler - no matter who these people were, how long they lived, or what they did in life, they now lie here all alike in silent dignity. No self-congratulatory illusion can last in the light of such a realization.

I also view this experience as a test, the most profound test of an atheist, to see if I truly live my life in accordance with the principles I claim to follow. Death is a natural and inevitable part of the cycle of life, and any worldview worth being held should be able to handle it with maturity, without unreasonable fear. There is no doubt that death is less fearful to a theist who believes it to be only the gateway to an eternity of bliss (even if few actually hold this conviction so strongly as to be willing to act on it). For an atheist, however, death is the true end, the cessation of consciousness and being. It is entirely fair to say that such a fate, whether for oneself or for others, is probably the single greatest thing a nonbeliever has to fear - aside, perhaps, from a life of perpetual suffering. If I, as an atheist, can confront it and still endure, then I will know that the worldview I have chosen can withstand the harsh truths of reality.

So, can I face it? Does the knowledge of my own eventual death shake me?

Truthfully, it does not. Many people's fear of death, I believe, is founded at some level on the idea that the dead are somehow aware of their condition and unhappy because of it, or that they are suffering. But there is no suffering here. The dead are beyond suffering, beyond pleasure, beyond experience of any kind. Being dead is not "like" anything. As the philosopher Epicurus once said, when we are, death is not come; when death is come, we are not. Why fear something you will by definition never have to experience?

In any case, there is no use in obsessing over something we cannot change. We cannot prevent death, and so instead we should do the next best thing: work to make sure that life is not wasted, that both our lives and the lives of those around us are filled with happiness and purpose and free from suffering.

I am virtually alone in the cemetery. So many of these people died years or decades ago; so many gravestones are now faded almost beyond legibility. Once or twice I see other people standing over graves in the distance, but it is a large cemetery, and that is all. No voices, no sounds from the outside world disturb the reverent silence. I cannot say I am ungrateful for the solitude, but still, does no one else come to these peaceful graves? Does no one else remember these people? They must have living relatives, somewhere among the branching and intertwining family trees. Are these distant ancestors, people to whom their living descendants never felt particularly close? Do people become so involved with the minutiae of day-to-day life that they forget to pay their respects as often as they would like? Or is there a different reason I walk alone through this cemetery on this sleepy summer afternoon? Do people instinctively shun association with that which they fear? Do places like these remind them of things they would rather not think of?

One can hardly blame people for not wanting to think of or confront death any more than they must. And yet, could such an attitude turn out to be the cause of so many of our problems? Might it be that our all-too-frequent lack of respect for human life, the dreary mundanity that pervades so many of our own lives, the absence of a true spirituality in human society, all ultimately stem from our reluctance to confront death and acknowledge that it awaits us all?

I firmly believe that, if we ever fully realized the fragility of life and the finality of death, we would never speak a word of anger or impatience to anyone close to us in our lives ever again. Such an epiphany might have other beneficial effects as well. It might help us realize that there are more important things than money and material gains. It might make us less willing to expend the future for the sake of the present. Almost certainly, it would give us perspective, help us see beyond the everyday - help us recover some of that sense of spirituality, that sense of cosmic awe, that is found in our lives far too rarely. Would political leaders be so eager to send soldiers to their deaths if they spent some time each morning alone in the cemetery grass? Would religious authorities praise martyrdom so highly, or declare with such certainty the fate of those who believed differently, if they saw the graves of the faithless and the faithful peacefully side by side?

Such are the thoughts on my mind as I at last, and not without some reluctance, leave this tranquil place. After all this time, leaving the cemetery is like returning to another world, a world of honking horns and traffic lights changing color and music blaring from radios, a world where people run errands, shop at supermarkets, watch commercials, drive to their jobs and eat at restaurants; the world of travel and information and commerce. It all seems so strange with the graves just behind me, so unaware. Of course, inevitably my meditative mood begins to fade as I readjust to reality; we cannot live life with death every moment on our minds. But still, I wonder - could we not think of it just a little more often?

Part II. Stardust

As an atheist, one of the questions I am occasionally asked is, "Aren't you afraid of death?" Sometimes it's asked in a spirit of genuine curiosity. Other times it's asked belligerently, arrogantly, with the implied suggestion that I'll break down and become a theist as soon as I experience an intimation of my own mortality.

To make my position absolutely clear, I don't believe in an afterlife of any sort - no heaven, no hell, no reincarnation. I do not expect my consciousness to survive the physical dissolution of my body. I see no reason to believe anything but that death is the end.

And, in short, no - I'm not afraid of it.

If there's anything I do fear, it's dying. I don't wish to experience a long and protracted period of suffering. There are diseases that ravage the body but leave the mind intact; there are others that do not touch the body but that do destroy the mind. Both, in my opinion, are equally undesirable fates. If my own death is inevitable, I at least want to die with dignity in a time, place and manner of my own choosing. But it is only the thought of being denied this, of dying in pain, that frightens me - death itself does not. Death is not pain, but release from pain.

But does the cessation of consciousness frighten me? The prospect does not appeal to me, of course. I know my passing will sadden my friends, relatives and loved ones, and I have no desire to inflict that pain on them. I do not want to miss out on the many great scientific and artistic achievements the human race doubtlessly has ahead of it. Nor do I want to pass on before completing my writing or attaining my other goals for life. For all these reasons, I am not looking forward to the end of my consciousness, but neither am I afraid of it. After all, when it happens there will no longer be a "me" to feel or think anything. I will not grieve or suffer; I will simply cease to be. There is no reason to fear this any more than there is reason to fear the temporary cessation of consciousness that occurs each night when we go to sleep.

To do so would be irrational, and religion is, in a sense, the ultimate expression of irrational fear of death. Most religions assure their followers that there is no cessation of consciousness, that their soul or spirit merely sheds its mortal shell and travels to an eternal afterlife of bliss. This seems, at first glance, to be exactly what we most want; and that fact should make us more wary, more skeptical, not less. We as a species have fooled ourselves far too many times, often with tragic results, by believing what we want to be true rather than what the evidence points to. And, indeed, the available evidence suggests that our consciousness is identical with the physical structure of our brains, and so will cease to exist when the brain ceases to function.

But even if this conclusion is mistaken and there is an afterlife, wouldn't it get boring eventually? As argued in "Those Old Pearly Gates", no matter how blissful Heaven is, it cannot possibly keep a human being engaged forever, not when there is literally an infinite amount of time to grow accustomed to, and then bored of, every new distraction. Soon a glorified soul will have checked off everything on their list, accomplished everything they ever wanted to do during life, met all their idols and heroes in person, obtained answers from God to every fundamental or nagging question, and still the afterlife drags indefinitely on. After a few thousand trillion eons, it is virtually certain that eternal bliss would become eternal monotony. Eventually, oblivion would become a reward, not a punishment. Who really wants to live forever?

Furthermore, this afterlife doctrine devalues our existence here and now. Life on Earth is all the more precious because it is brief. What is the point of improving yourself or cultivating your mind now if there will be infinite time after you die to do those things? Why bother fighting for justice or defending the downtrodden when a perfect world awaits us anyway? Although arguments could be concocted for why God still wants us to do these things, the existence of an afterlife would remove all the urgency from them. In the theist worldview, life on Earth is ultimately pointless. It is atheism that provides a real reason for living life to the fullest.

On a side note, there is an interesting observation regarding the way atheists and theists react to death. When a person is seriously ailing, why do theists pray for their recovery? Why do they grieve when a loved one passes away? Atheists have good reason to do this, but it would seem theists do not. If a theist truly believes that people who die merely go on to a better place, rather than mourning, shouldn't they rejoice? But this rarely seems to be what actually happens in such circumstances.

Death is always a sensitive topic, and so it is easy to understand why the debate over the afterlife is dominated by hopes and wishes. We don't want our loved ones to be gone forever. We don't want to believe we'll never see them again. We want to believe that they've only shed their mortal shells, that they're still here and watching over us, that they're in the loving arms of God, and that someday we'll be reunited with them. We want to believe all these things. Nevertheless, that does not necessarily make them true. We may find the idea of an afterlife comforting, but if there is no good evidence for it, then we should be mature enough to set it aside and live life as it is. Yes, it can be difficult to face death - one's own or others' - without religious beliefs to fall back on. But atheists do it all the time, and we handle it in the same way as theists do. When a loved one dies, we grieve for a time, we mourn their loss, we remember them - their character, their passions, the ways they touched our lives - and, eventually, we heal and continue on. It can be done.

I say that I am not afraid of death. This does not mean that I will welcome it, only that I hope to accept it peacefully when the time comes. But, some might ask, can I really draw comfort from such a belief? Wouldn't it be more reassuring to believe that I will continue to exist even after my physical dissolution?

In fact, I do believe that - in a sense.

Compared to the great vastness of the cosmos, the ocean of deep time, my individual existence is a blip, a bubble in the foam on the surface of a flowing river. I am a momentary arrangement of atoms and molecules - an arrangement that lives and moves, to be sure, an arrangement that thinks, laughs, appreciates beauty, dreams, and loves - but a mere arrangement nonetheless, a transient state, an ephemeral gathering. Soon the blip will go out, the bubble will pop, the arrangement will dissolve, molecular bonds released by entropy. My consciousness will cease. But the molecules that once were me will still exist. The atoms that made up my body - iron, carbon, oxygen, nitrogen, all the heavy elements forged in the crucibles of dying stars - will remain. Liberated from their temporary home, they will rejoin the rest of the planet, taking new shapes, finding new arrangements, becoming part of other life. I will become merged with everything.

I will become part of the trees that grow wherever my ashes are scattered, joining the ecosystem of the forest. I will be in the slow green heartwood of the trunks as they patiently tick off the centuries, in the buds that burst forth in spring and in the leaves that explode with color in autumn. I will be the sparkle of sunlight on the surface of a flowing mountain stream. I will sink into the earth and mix with the groundwater, eventually flowing back and rejoining the ocean where all life on this planet ultimately began. I will be in the waves that crash on the shore, in the warm sheltered tidal pools, in the coral reefs that bloom with life, and in the depths that echo with whale songs. I will be subducted into the planet's core and join the three-hundred-million-year cycle of the continental plates. I will rise into the sky and, in the fullness of time, become dispersed throughout the atmosphere, until every breath will contain part of me. And billions of years from now, when our sun swells and blasts the Earth's atmosphere away, I will be there, streaming into space to rejoin the stars that gave my atoms birth. And perhaps some day, billions of years yet beyond that, on some distant planet beneath bright alien skies, an atom that once was part of me will take part in a series of chemical reactions that may ultimately lead to new life - life that will in time leave the sea that gave it birth, crawl up onto the beach, and look up into the cosmos and wonder where it came from.

And the cycle will begin again.

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