Death and beyond

March 21, 2008

Today’s humanist society meeting was very interesting. We had a man with us who’d never been before, and he soon told us that he’d had a pretty bad time and that he’d been diagnosed with a terminal illness, and he’d been going to all different religious organisations, and now he was looking at humanism for answers. He asked some really good questions and brought up some issues that I want to discuss here a little. It’s going to be a brief one because I’m due in work fairly soon.

Anywho this man (let’s call him John for anonymity’s sake) was scared, quite frankly, by the humanist viewpoint that there’s nothing after death, it’s just oblivion. David, our rather blunt philosopher-in-residence, replied that there’s nothing you will experience that is oblivion because you won’t be there, so it’s not that bad.

Personally I gave my own slant on the issue, which I’ve probably mentioned somewhere on here before. For me, although there is nothing physical or “spiritual” after death (Tim at the Friendly Humanist would probably not like me using the word ‘spiritual’ in this way, contributing to religion’s monopoly on it), you live on in people’s memories of you and the
legacy that you leave on the world and on people around you. You would hope that these memories and your influence would be a positive one, but maybe not.

The conversation took many twists and turns (including a hell of a lot about brain surgery, can’t imagine why), but somewhere along the way we got onto the topic of the meaning of life, or to quote exactly from John, “why am I here?” Again, humanists don’t agree on everything, but I’m sure a lot of them would agree with me that since there’s no creator, noone has sat down and made a purpose for each one of us to live, or given a reason for life more generally. So your reason for living can be whatever you think is important, and we agreed that “making people’s lives better”, as we put it, was a very good start. John was a healthcare worker so I’m sure he’s done this in many ways.

John asked if we thought it was necessary to have children in order to leave a positive legacy on the world, and each one of us replied with an emphatic ‘no’. Although in purely scientific circles the reason each one of us lives is because of a long line of predecessors, and so it could be argued that our purpose in life is to continue the species and to “live on” through them, personally I think it has less to do with the continuation of your DNA, and more to do with how you’ve influenced people, regardless of whether they’re of your bloodline or not (or to put it in Dennettite language, “less to do with genes and more with memes”).

I’m glad we had this discussion. It showed us that although the humanist worldview is perfectly capable of providing comfort and guidance to someone in quite a difficult position, so far organised humanism has found it difficult to replace the community feeling that religion benefits from. It’s my vision that in the future this will change.

To finish this off, I’d like to quote Richard Dawkins from the opening lines of his book Unweaving The Rainbow, which are very meaningful for me, and I’m sure a good number of other humanists feel the same way.

“We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born. The potential people who could be here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of Arabia. Certainly those unborn ghosts include greater poets than Keats, scientists greater than Newton. We know this because the set of possible people allowed by our DNA so massively exceeds the set of actual people. In the teeth of these stupefying odds it is you and I, in our ordinariness, who are here.”

I think I’ll leave it at that for today.

December 23, 2007

Today I went to visit my friend’s grave. He died a little over a year ago in a motorbike accident, but today was the first time I went to his grave. I’ve never been one for gravesides or funerals really. Don’t get me wrong, today was absolutely appropriate; two of my friends and I went down, laid some flowers, stuck around and had a beer each in the mid-afternoon moonrise (stupid early nights :P), left him one on his headstone, remembered some good times, and then went on our way. It was nice.

But it’s not something I normally do. I have a lot of dead relatives; all my grandparents have died, as has my great aunt who I was close to, my great uncle and several family friends, all people I knew. But I don’t visit their graves. My adopted grandmother (long story) is buried right over the road from my house, but I still don’t visit her grave.

My main reason is that I don’t know what to do there. Obviously I don’t pray, so should I just talk to them? But I know they can’t hear me, so the only reason I’d be talking is for my own benefit, and I can do that anywhere, I don’t need to be near a grave. I suppose I could just do what I did today, but again I can do that anywhere, and I often have met up with mates for a drink in his honour, and remembered the good times. The presence of a dead body isn’t really a prerequisite. Nor is it desirable in most cases, hehe.

In any case, his death came as a shock to all of us, particularly as he was someone our own age. It was a very sobering reminder of our own mortality, and it provoked thoughts in me about my own funeral arrangements. I read fairly recently that in 2008, humanist funerals are expected to become the third most popular type of funeral ceremony in Scotland, presumably after Catholic and Church of Scotland ceremonies. But I don’t think I want a grave in some graveyard with a load of other dead bodies, where people will feel obliged to visit and feel awkward. I’d much rather have a bench or something, and a memorial service with my favourite music, photographs, hopefully decent holograms by the time I die, rather than the depressing death ceremonies that are so common. I decided a long time ago that if anything were to happen to me, all my organs can be donated to whoever needs them, and anything that’s left will be donated to science.

Something that always seems to confuse people when I tell them of my atheism is my beliefs about after we die. Lots of people I’ve met who don’t believe in God have told me that they like to think there’s something better afterwards, or that they believe in some airy-fairy kind of spirit or ascended being, that I don’t really understand properly. I think it’s important to face up to the fact that once you’re gone, you’re gone for good, and there’s no consciousness left over. The only thing that’s left of you is your impact and legacy on the world through people’s memories of you, and the influences you’ve had on them. Which is why it’s important to make the most of this life. It’s the only one you’re going to get.