Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Currents of Space-Time: Why Death is Never Really the End

Woody Allen with Death in his
1975 film, "Love and Death"
There is huge amount of ancient and current evidence which shows both modern humans and their direct ancestors have complex rituals and philosophies regarding death and dying. The way we think about our mortality is somewhat universal, however, there are many differences regarding length of death rites, ideas as to where we might “go” when we pass, and even the nature of mourning by those still living. Death rituals and funerals can be sad or celebratory, or somewhere in between. But while cultural interpretations vary, most cultures view death as a form of the body leaving the physical bounds of the Earth and entering some metaphysical state.

Anthropologically, religions help maintain social control by observing the obvious and fleeting nature of our conscious life. Religions teach us that after death we may receive rewards or punishments based on our actions while alive (Most western religions); or we may or not be reincarnated (Many non-western religions). In each case, the individual will gain or lose something in either the afterlife or the next life if they do not live up to a culture’s rules and order. Here are some simple examples of control, “Be good and go to heaven or be bad and go to hell.” Or, “Be good and come back a higher status human or be bad and come back as a frog.” In each case, the status quo is continued, since few ascribe to live in eternal damnation or regress species-wise.

According to Freud, we humans have a “death drive” which is in opposition to the idea that we naturally favor survival. But actual burial of the dead, the belief in some form of afterlife and death ritual all became common as our kindred species became more conscious of their own mortality. Both Homo Erectus (1.8 YBP) and Homo Sapian Neanderthal (500,000 YBP) have been found buried in elaborate graves along with flowers, tools or other familial objects of cultural significance to the dead and the living.

In western culture, however comforting religious rituals are to enforce community ideas for the living and about the dead, I view the rites of passage associated with death as empty or as void as the newly departed.  Personally, I find the scientific explanation for both our living and our passing most comforting.  When someone asks what death feels like, the best explanation is to ask them what they felt like prior to their own birth. The answer: nothing.  This is exactly what we will feel when we leave our physical body and specific identity upon death.

Death as a process is really just transference from one state of being to another.  

Although the following work is all over the Internet, I think that the piece attributed to Aaron Freeman best describes our end and perhaps how we should feel about the end. Without the cloak of religious or faith-based guilt or superstition.  Here goes:

You want a physicist to speak at your funeral.
You want the physicist to talk to your grieving family about the conservation of energy, so they will understand that your energy has not died. You want the physicist to remind your sobbing mother about the first law of thermodynamics; that no energy gets created in the universe, and none is destroyed. You want your mother to know that all your energy, every vibration, every Btu of heat, every wave of every particle that was her beloved child remains with her in this world. You want the physicist to tell your weeping father that amid energies of the cosmos, you gave as good as you got.
And at one point you'd hope that the physicist would step down from the pulpit and walk to your brokenhearted spouse there in the pew and tell him that all the photons that ever bounced off your face, all the particles whose paths were interrupted by your smile, by the touch of your hair, hundreds of trillions of particles, have raced off like children, their ways forever changed by you. And as your widow rocks in the arms of a loving family, may the physicist let her know that all the photons that bounced from you were gathered in the particle detectors that are her eyes, that those photons created within her constellations of electromagnetically charged neurons whose energy will go on forever.
And the physicist will remind the congregation of how much of all our energy is given off as heat. There may be a few fanning themselves with their programs as he says it. And he will tell them that the warmth that flowed through you in life is still here, still part of all that we are, even as we who mourn continue the heat of our own lives.
And you'll want the physicist to explain to those who loved you that they need not have faith; indeed, they should not have faith. Let them know that they can measure, that scientists have measured precisely the conservation of energy and found it accurate, verifiable and consistent across space and time. You can hope your family will examine the evidence and satisfy themselves that the science is sound and that they'll be comforted to know your energy's still around. According to the law of the conservation of energy, not a bit of you is gone; you're just less orderly.
Isn’t this the best way to look at the frailty of life?  To realize that even in death, we return in no small way to the universe in which we came, never to be the same organic vessel again.  While that may frighten some I find it incredibly liberating and fascinating.  It’s not that we just reset, we are reintroduced to the organic soup of the universe.

This doesn’t mean while we’re alive we should stop missing those who we’ve lost. It just means we shouldn’t be afraid of the end for them or ourselves, because death really isn’t the end. To me this is an amazing, wonderful and spectacular scientific fact.


  1. I love this post... I like that you echo Epicurus' thought that "When I'm here, death is not, when death is here, I am not - so why fear death?" And I also like the idea of looking at the whole universe of space-time from big bang to it's final end as one big cosmic NOW, where every moment of your life is still there for eternity, like pearls on a string (as I think Kurt Vonnegut put it). Thanks again!
    -David Fitzgerald
    Speaker's Bureaus, Secular Student Alliance and Center for Inquiry
    Steering Committee, San Francisco Atheists
    Co-Founder, Director - The Atheist Film Festival
    Founder, Director - Evolutionpalooza!
    Author of Nailed: Ten Christian Myths That Show Jesus Never Existed At All
    (a.k.a. Sci Fi/Fantasy/Horror Erotica author Kilt Kilpatrick, author of UNDER THE KILT)

    1. Hi David,

      Wow! I am deeply touched by your kind words. Your commentary makes my work so much richer.

      As you know, I just returned from speaking at the PATAS convention in the Philippines.

      Warmest regards and perhaps we can talk on email about you contributing to my blog.

      I actually did a very positive post on the SSA early on in my blogging career (which was last year).


  2. I like being my organic vessel. I hate change. Granted, it's not the best organic vessel in the world, but it suits me just fine. Why can't I just continue to be this organic vessel that I like so much?