Musings on the Afterlife
Recently I was thrilled to experience a few days of almost Fall -like weather. I actually needed to use the blanket at night instead of constantly flipping my pillow in hopes of experiencing a bit of untapped coolness which might linger there. Discussions of Thanksgiving began taking place along with the urge to wear my rust sweater and prepare savory stew. It is October and with Halloween and Day of the Dead merchandise popping up everywhere I think I was subliminally or perhaps not so subliminally coaxed into musing on the afterlife. To be honest, these musings really began in August- for I have no idea what reason. So here we go.
When I was about 7 and couldn't sleep, I would lay in bed and contemplate the mysteries of life. I remember trying not to think which is an odd concept for a seven year old. I would just try to visualize a vast greyness with no shape or form or meaning. Very difficult to do. Then I would try to really think hard, like mentally going through the alphabet backwards while counting forward at the same time: Z-1, Y-2, X-3, W-4, V-5. Now that was tough and I always got screwed up in the middle and never made it through. In retrospect, I should have just made some damn flashcards and memorized the sequence so I could take it out of the bag and amaze random people. I guess it is not too late. I would close my eyes and try to mentally describe what I "saw" in the darkness- the closest description would be black with streaks of colored light- almost like lightening, or sometimes patterns of colored neon bars. Did other people have the same experience? Would they think I was weird if I asked them?
Once, while in the wakeful state and trying to get to the sleeping state, surrendering all sense of obligation, I mused upon what it might be like to be dead. I was not raised with formal religion, and this was not a topic we often discussed in our house. I didn't have a template. In my young mind, to be dead just meant not to be alive. To be enveloped in a pure blackness neither hot nor cold, lacking the sensation of feeling the weight of my body upon my resting spot- or feeling anything at all. No future obligations. No memory of the past. I was not taught about a final judgement and an ultimate trip to a different realm. Or of the possibility of being reborn into a life of bliss or misery. Death was not something I feared nor anticipated. It just was. Kind of like life.
Now, as I am more than half way past the middle mark of an average existence, I have had a lot more time to contemplate death. I have been exposed to more doctrine and discussed different philosophies with people I consider wise. I have read many books and will admit that I am quite drawn to the mystery of it all. I believe that in order to understand death, we must first understand life. Now that is a really tall order, but to me, human life can be described as existing on Earth, eating, sleeping, experiencing and shaping our surroundings. Thinking, feeling, hoping, loving, hating etc. And Death, well... not any of those things. But what about the afterlife? Do we really just go "poof" and that is it?
This is not an unusual muse. Looking online, there is a plethora of information. I could read it for years and never tire of it. And how can we ever really know? Well this is where belief, faith and trust come in to play. There are many fascinating accounts written by people who have experienced an NDE ( Near Death Experience ). Many of them share similar themes- the out of body experience, being met by deceased loved ones and brought to the tunnel of white light, and then the feeling of truth, understanding and unconditional love. Could all of these people be wrong? Could there be physical explanations for their experiences?
Then we have the many belief systems including religion, occult, esotericisim, metaphysiics, quatuum physics, spiritualism etc. Each purports to be the truth. Can they all be true? Can they all be false?
Think of a tree diagram with life at the top. This we know is true because we are living it. Under life, we have death. Under death we have two branches: the afterlife and oblivion. Oblivion is the end of the line for that branch, but under afterlife, we have several branches about which much has been written and many wars fought.
Per Wikipedia, the earliest written record of the afterlife was from the ancient Egyptians who believed in Ka-body and Ba-personality. Arriving at one's reward in afterlife was a demanding ordeal, requiring a sin-free heart and the ability to recite the spells, passwords and formulae of the Book of the Dead. In the Hall of Two Truths, the deceased's heart was weighed against the Shu feather of truth and justice taken from the headdress of the goddess Ma'at. If the heart was lighter than the feather, they could pass on, but if it were heavier they would be devoured by the demon Ammit.
According to the ancient Greek and Roman beliefs there is the Greek god Hades, known in Greek mythology as the king of the underworld, a place where souls live after death. The Greek god Hermes, the messenger of the gods, would take the dead soul of a person to the underworld (sometimes called Hades or the House of Hades). Hermes would leave the soul on the banks of the River Styx, the river between life and death.
Charon, also known as the ferry-man, would take the soul across the river to Hades, if the soul had gold: Upon burial, the family of the dead soul would put coins under the deceased's tongue. Once crossed, the soul would be judged by Aeacus, Rhadamanthus and King Minos. The soul would be sent to Elysium- for the pure, Tartarus- for the wicked, Asphodel Fields- for the neither good nor bad, or the Fields of Punishment- for the semi bad but redeemable.
The Poetic and Prose Eddas, the oldest sources for information on the Norse concept of the afterlife, vary in their description of the several realms that are described as falling under this topic. The most well-known are: Valhalla: (lit. "Hall of the Slain" i.e. "the Chosen Ones") Half the warriors who die in battle join the god Odin who rules over a majestic hall called Valhalla in Asgard. Fólkvangr: (lit. "Field of the Host") The other half join the goddess Freyja in a great meadow known as Fólkvangr.Hel: (lit. "The Covered Hall") This abode is somewhat like Hades from Ancient Greek religion: there, something not unlike the Asphodel Meadows can be found, and people who have neither excelled in that which is good nor excelled in that which is bad can expect to go there after they die and be reunited with their loved ones. Niflhel: (lit. "The Dark" or "Misty Hel") This realm is roughly analogous to Greek Tartarus. It is the deeper level beneath Hel, and those who break oaths, abduct and rape women, and commit other vile things will be sent there to be among their kind to suffer harsh punishments.
The Abrahamic Religions ( monotheistic ) such as Judaism, Christianity and Islam, hold that the dead go to a specific plane of existence after death, as determined by a god, gods, or other divine judgment, based on their actions or beliefs during life.
In contrast, in systems of reincarnation, such as those in the Dharmic tradition, the nature of the continued existence is determined directly by the actions of the individual in the ended life, rather than through the decision of another being.
There are so many beliefs such as the existence of God but no afterlife ( Sadducees ), or the existence of an afterlife but no God ( Buddhism ). That God is external and we must strive to seek and please Him. That God is Internal and we need only to reveal Him. That angels and demons are altogether separate from people. That people become angels and demons after they die. That our souls existed before we were born and will continue to exist after we die. That after the body dies, the soul is judged. That sinners are destroyed rather than punished. That man earns salvation through good works. That man cannot earn salvation through good works but that it is granted through the grace of God. Perhaps the reason so many of us are drawn towards a belief in the afterlife is because we are too narcissistic to contemplate an existence without us in it. It would be easier if we all knew where the path leads but, then what would be the point of it all? We would lose our free will.
So what would be my perfect heaven? A realm of wonder coupled with understanding. Desire coupled with fulfillment. Potential coupled with realization. Beauty, creation, satisfaction and completion. Perhaps it's really not so different from the thought of the seven year old girl- but just described differently.
1 Stick salted butter, melted, and cooled
1 cup all purpose flour
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
1/4 tsp baking soda
1 cup sugar
1 large egg
1/2 cup chopped walnuts
2 large sweet apples peeled, cored and cut into 1/2 inch cubes ( about 2 3/4 cups )
1)P reheat oven to 350º
2) Butter 8 x 11 inch baking dish
3) Mix flour, cinnamon, baking powder, salt and baking soda in a medium bowl.
4) In a separate bowl beat together butter, sugar and egg with a mixer until pale- about 2 minutes. Add walnuts and apples and stir by hand until combined. Add flour mixture and stir 30 seconds more.
5) Spread batter in the pan and bake until golden brown- about 40 minutes. Let cool for 30 minutes and cut into bars.
About once or twice every month I engage in public debates with those whose pressing need it is to woo and to win the approval of supernatural beings. Very often, when I give my view that there is no supernatural dimension, and certainly not one that is only available to the faithful, and that the natural world is wonderful enough- and even miraculous enough if you insist- I attract pitying looks and anxious questions. I am asked, do I find meaning and purpose in life? How does a mere and gross materialist, with no expectation of a life to come, decide what, if anything, is worth caring about?
Depending on my mood, I sometimes but not always refrain from pointing out what a breathtakingly insulting and patronizing question this is; (It is on par with the equally subtle inquiry: Since you don't believe in our God, what stops you from stealing and lying and raping and killing to your heart's content?) Just as the answer to the latter question is self-respect and the desire for the respect of others- while in the meantime it is precisely those who think they have divine permission who are truly capable of atrocity- so the answer to the first question fall into two parts. A life that partakes even a little of friendship, love, irony, humor, parenthood, literature and music, and the chance to take part in battles cannot be called "meaningless" except if the person living it is also ad existentialist and elects to call it so. It could be that all existence is a pointless joke, but it is not in fact possible to live one's everyday life as if this were so. Whereas if one sought to define meaninglessness and futility, the idea that a human life should be expended in the guilty, fearful, self-obsessed propitiation of supernatural nonentities and but here, there. Enough.
-Christopher Hitchens, Hitch-22 A Memoir
The real question of life after death isn't whether or not it exists, but even if it does, what problem it really solves.
Rabe'a al-Adiwiyah, a great woman saint of Sufism, was seen running through the streets of her hometown, Basra, carrying a torch in one hand and a bucket of water in the other. When someone asked her what she was doing, she answered, "I am going to take this bucket of water and pour it on the flames of Hell, and then I am going to use this torch to burn down the gates of paradise so that people will not love God for want of Heaven or fear of Hell, but because he is God.
-John Green, Looking For Alaska
Seeing death as the end of life is like seeing the horizon as the end of the ocean.
This clear awareness of having been born into a losing struggle need not lead one into despair. I do not especially like the idea that one day I shall be tapped on the shoulder and informed, not that the party is over but that it is most assuredly going on- only henceforth in my absence. (It's the second of those thoughts: the edition of the newspaper that will come out on the day after I have gone, that is the more distressing.) Much more horrible, though, would be the announcement that the party was continuing forever, and that I was forbidden to leave Whether it was a hellishly bad party or a party that was perfectly heavenly in every respect, the moment that it became eternal and compulsory would be the precise moment that it began to pall.
-Christopher Hitchens, Hitch-22: A Memoir
I don't believe in an afterlife, so I don't have to spend my whole life fearing hell, or fearing heaven even more. For whatever the tortures of hell, I think the boredom of heaven would be even worse.
But how can the characters in a play guess the plot? We are not the playwright, we are not the producer, we are not even the audience. We are on the stage. To play well the scenes in which we are "on" concerns us much more that to guess about the scenes that follow it.
Until we find out who was born this time around, it seems irrelevant to seek earlier identities. I have heard many people speak of who they believe they were in previous incarnations, but they seem to have very little idea of who they are in this one... Let's take one life at a time. Perhaps the best was to do that is to live as though there were no afterlife or reincarnation. To live as though this moment was all that was allotted.
-Stephen Levine, A Year to Live. How to Live This Year as If It Were Your Last
Nor dread nor hope attend, a dying animal; a man awaits his end, dreading and hoping all.
The dead are merely the countrymen of my future.
-Dean Koontz, Fear Nothing
The human mind is so limited it can only build an arbitrary heaven - and usually the physical comforts they endow it with are naively the kind that can be perceived as we humans perceive - nothing more. No: perhaps I will awake to find myself burning in hell. I think not. I think I will be snuffed out. Black is sleep; black is death, with no light, no waking.
-Sylvia Plath, The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath
We had enough quite enough snobbery in this world without exporting it to the hereafter.
-Rick Riordan, The Throne of Fire
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When I stand before God at the end of my life, I would hope that I would not have a single bit of talent left, and could say, "I used everything you gave me.
Being a Humanist means trying to behave decently without expectation of rewards or punishment after you are dead.
To die, to sleep. To sleep, perchance to dream ay, there's the rub. For in this sleep of death what dreams may come...
-William Shakespeare, Hamlet
If there are no dogs in Heaven, then when I die, I want to go where they went.
The hottest places in Hell are reserved for those who, in times of great moral crisis, maintain their neutrality.
-John F. Kennedy
In sorrow we must go, but not in despair. Behold! We are not bound forever to the circles of the world, and beyond them is more than memory.
I have no idea what's awaiting me, or what will happen when this all ends. For the moment I know this: there are sick people and they need curing.
-Albert Camus, The Plague
I would love to believe that when I die I will live again, that some thinking, feeling, remembering part of me will continue. But as much as I want to believe that, and despite the ancient and worldwide cultural traditions that assert an afterlife, I know of nothing to suggest that it is more than wishful thinking.
-Carl Sagan, Billions & Billions: Thoughts on Life and Death at the Brink of the Millennium
He Is Not Dead
I cannot say, and I will not say that he is dead. He is just away.
With cheery smile, and a wave of the hand, he has wandered into an unknown land.
And left us dreaming how very fair, it needs must be, since he lingers there.
And you- oh you, who the wildest yearn, for an old-time step, and the glad return.
Think of him faring on, as dear, in the love of There as the love of Here.
Think of him still as the same I say. He is not dead he is just away.
-James Whitcomb Riley
The soul takes nothing with her to the next world but her culture. At the beginning of the journey to the next world, one's education and culture can either provide the greatest assistance, or else act as the greatest burden, to the person who has just died.
-Plato, The Republic of Plato
I believe that when I die I shall rot, and nothing of my ego will survive. I am not young and I love life. But I should scorn to shiver with terror at the thought of annihilation. Happiness is nonetheless true happiness because it just come to an end, nor to thought and love lose their value because they are not everlasting. Many a man has borne himself proudly on the scaffold, surely the same pride should teach us to think truly about man's place in the world. Even if the open windows of science at first make us shiver after the cozy indoor warmth of traditional humanizing myths, in the end the fresh air brings vigor, and the great spaces have a splendor of their own.
All goes onward and outward, nothing collapses, and to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier.
That's what heaven is. You get to make sense of your yesterdays.
-Mitch Albom, The Five People You Meet in Heaven
The heavens will not be filled with those who never made mistakes but with those who recognized that they were off course and who corrected their ways to get back in the light of gospel truth.
-Dieter F. Uchtdorf
Conscience is no more than the dead speaking to us.
- Jim Carroll
-Kim Harrison, Something Deadly This Way Comes
I believe human have souls, and I believe in the conservation of soul.
-John Green, The Fault In Our Stars
There wasn't a lot of bullshit in my heaven.
-Alice Seabold, The Lovely Bones
There's a part of me that thinks perhaps we go on existing in a place even after we have left it.
-Colum McCann, Let the Great World Spin
-Gabrielle Zevn, Elsewhere
After your death, you will be what you were before your birth.
There is a sort of mental treason, that smothers dreams outside of reason.
-Mike Corbett, Laughter of the Damned
Hell is the impossibility of reason.
The human life is but a first installment of the serial soul and that one's individual secret is not lost in the process of earthly dissolution, becomes something more than an optimistic conjecture, and even more that a matter of religious faith, when we remember that only commonsense rules immortality out.
-Vladimir Nobokov, Lectures on Literature
Life goes on. And so does death.
-Michael L Martin Jr., Burn in Hades
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