My husband’s grandmother died last week. Frances was always active, opinionated and funny, even over the past few years when her mobility was curtailed and her eyesight almost gone, she was still sharp witted and retained her cutting sense of humor.
But now she is dead. Her death was like a piece of paper on fire, first bright with beautifully colored fast flames, then curled in on itself, black and spent with the delicate ash remaining, a shell of its former self. The ash and disintegrates into a tiny pile which blows away. Then it is really gone.
As an atheist, I do not believe in the afterlife. I do not think that Grandma Frances is in a better place, that she has been rewarded for living well by getting to go to some perfect glowing room with all her old friends and dead family members (and maybe a deity or two), or that she is anything at all. I think that when a person dies, they are dead. The energy that made them who they were has been spent. All that is left is what others feel: the memories we hold – the sadness at a life being over and the celebration of all that life was.
I like the poetry associated with the idea of being alive after you are dead. Of being able to still exist even though your body is no longer part of the equation. I like the idea that our bodies are just vessels for who we really are. If the body is just a skin and the un-seeable insides are what really make us who we are, than why should that inside thing – spirit, anima, soul –die along with the part that is simply a container?
Poetry aside, we are one thing. There is no separating our skins away from our souls. We live as one thing and we die as one thing. And then, like the paper that burns into ash, we are gone.
I think that when you die you stop being and that is it. You don’t care if you are buried, burned or frozen. You don’t feel things, you don’t think things, you have no opinions or worries. Because there is no more “you.”
The hardest part about death is that what was no longer is. Which is why the idea of an afterlife is so comforting. For millennia people have wanted there to be more; a great kingdom of heaven, ancestral spirits floating in the sky, the underworld of Osiris, reincarnation, some way for you to still exist.
I don’t find comfort in the eternal; I prefer to think there is an end. Like the end of a wonderful movie. It is over, the credits roll and you leave the theater. And yet it isn’t over – if it was well made and thought provoking, the experience can go on and on in your mind. You can live in that movie for a long time. This is what I think happens when you die. You live on in the minds of others.
Grandma Frances had 92 years on this planet. She made us laugh, think and learn. She challenged us with her honesty and directness. We loved her and though she is gone, that love for her is still here and will continue to be present in the memories we all hold of her. No reward, no heaven, no life in the clouds. Just her memory kept alive like a little flame in anyone who knew her.
If you enjoyed this essay, please consider making a tax-deductible contribution to This I Believe, Inc.