When my father-in-law suddenly passed away in June 2006, I had to explain it to my oldest son Alex, who was nearly five. My husband and I are not very religious, but my husband’s family is Catholic. Alex needed a concrete explanation — none of this “we don’t know” stuff that is as good as most agnostics get. I told him Grandpa had joined God and Jesus Christ.
I personally won’t speculate about where I’ll go when I die. Over the years, I have found I don’t need to. There is another sort of afterlife that compels me to live as well as I can. It is right here on earth. Mine begin as soon as my mother became aware of me, and will continue after I die, especially if I make myself matter to others. It touches everything and everyone I could possibly care for in the past, present and future. I am talking about all I transmit through my body and my behaviour — roughly speaking, my genes and my memes.
My genes are my physical legacy, the traits I share with blood relatives. My memes are my ethical legacy. Every habit I pass on, from recycling garbage to writing “To Do” lists, is a meme. So is every action, expression, rule, assumption, competence or invention.
The word “meme” was coined by the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins in his famous book, “The Selfish Gene.” Memes are alive in the sense that, like genes, they reproduce. But whereas genes must wait to be reborn through a baby, memes can flit from person to person like a contagion, potentially spreading as fast as human communication. We have the power to evolve ourselves individually and collectively, which we rapidly do.
Memes are why I believe everything I do or say deeply matters, including things beyond my control. My afterlife is simply anything I put out there that takes on a life of its own. It is the “me” that lives beyond the confines of my body. My tangible afterlife is not the immortality of my conscious mind, but of my influence. For example, even as a bump in my mother’s belly, I profoundly changed my parents’ lives.
I am very grateful to whoever thought up garbage collection, indoor plumbing, soap and asphalt. These people, who lived generations ago, accompany and help me everyday — as do the people who made their lives possible, and all the living people who reproduced their ideas for my benefit, and so on. Everyone and everything is so densely interdependent that our lives are deeply affected by people we have never heard of. I figure I can increase my odds of a thriving afterlife if what I put out there is useful or beautiful.
I also do believe my father-in-law is with Jesus. He lived by Christ’s words, His beliefs, His ethics. He joined the Jesus’s living legacy here on earth long before his body ever passed away.
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