By Harold W. Anderson, Ph.D., LMFT, M.Div.
I attended the funeral of a good friend recently. Her son and husband did the eulogy and did a very good job. However, following that, the minister started speaking. In his words, we received insight into what he thought happened after we die. Quoting from John 14, a standard passage used at funerals, he informed us that “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places.” According to the minister, this meant that people who die—if they are good—will go to a heavenly place where they will dwell forever. In this case, the woman who died loved horses and her dwelling place would be a field in which she could ride her horse, a place where she would be joined by other loved ones upon their demise. While this passage of scripture has always sounded highly questionable to me, to hear this minister read it and apply it to my friend not only seemed incredible, but it also seemed somehow to cheapen the life she lived. So, what happened to my friend upon her death? Is there life after death and if so, what does this mean to not only those who die but also those who yet live? I do not pretend to have a definitive answer to these questions, but in this essay, I would like to explore what happens when we die.
A large part of religious mythology wrestles with the issue of death. We brought back from our travels in Egypt a papyrus painting of the god of death weighing the heart of the pharaoh. If the heart of the pharaoh weighed more than a feather, the pharaoh would be condemned for living a sinful life and the afterlife would be one of misery and torture. But if the heart was equal to or lighter than the feather, the pharaoh is judged to have lived a good life and the afterlife will be one of bliss and reward. These types of scenarios are found throughout ancient religions, but even philosophers such as Plato wondered if there was life on the other side of the grave. In Plato’s account of the death of Socrates, Socrates is reported to have said “Let us reflect in this way…that there is good hope that death is a blessing, for it is one of two things: either the dead are nothing and have no perception of anything, or it is, as we are told, a change and a relocating for the soul from here to another place” (Apology in Plato: Complete Works, Kindle Edition, p. 85). In other words, we do not know what death holds in store until we actually die, and then it will be what it will be. This leads to many more questions. What is the significance of death to the living? How should we look at and understand death existentially? Obviously, death is the inevitable reminder that life is finite. It will end, but is there a significance to this end? Put differently, is the significance of death found in the promise of eternal life, or is the significance of death found in the light it sheds upon a life lived?
The Death of Socrates...
Socrates was sentenced to death by the people of Athens after a trial recounted by Plato in “The Apology.” For his crimes–corrupting the youth, and atheism–he was put to death by drinking hemlock.
I must confess that I am sympathetic to Socrates agnosticism about death. However, Plato’s Socrates also seems to embrace the dualism for which Plato was so famous. If there is life after death, Socrates seems to hold, this life is lived by a soul that separates from the body which, during life, it inhabited. Indeed, many philosophers, theologians, and ministers such as the one who presided over my friend’s funeral have held that death’s significance is found in the liberation of the soul from the body. They believe that the soul is the essence of a person, an essence that is spiritual and hence an eternal substance unlike the material body that is marked by its finitude and its decay. If a person has lived a worthy life, however defined, then the soul will escape the earthly suffering that marks day-to-day life and ascend to the heavenly realms where it will live forever. But like the Pharoah, if the life lived is one that does not live up to the proper standards, the afterlife will be marked by torment and greater suffering. These stories have an obvious moral to them. When living we need to live as meritoriously as we can so that in death, we will find life eternal in the heavenly realms escaping the torment of hell fire.
The notion of a soul is difficult. What is it? Of what is it comprised and where in the body does it reside? René Descartes famously speculated that the pineal gland is the seat of the soul and the place where all thought is formed. Descartes’ contemporaries were skeptical of Descartes’ claims and today, the pineal gland as the seat of the soul has been thoroughly debunked, but Descartes’ attempts to find a place for the soul proves a point. Finding the soul is very difficult to do unless one defaults to a “spiritual” substance that defies the laws of physics because of its immateriality, a spiritual substance that is one with the ethereal realm of the gods but is ontologically different from material substances. Again, while there is something to be said for spirituality that transcends empirical realities, dualism reminiscent of Plato’s is probably not the most viable way to understand the wholistic nature of human beings
What are human beings that we should be mindful of them, and what is meant by a holistic view of being human? If we reject the notion of soul as being a mythological entity rooted in story more than reality, then what are we to make of death? Can death be transcended, and what would transcendence mean for both the life lived as well as its death?
Whatever the meaning of death, philosophers from Plato to Heidegger, from Heidegger to Levinas all seem to agree that it plays a fundamental role in the significance of life. How it does this, and what it may mean for living life is a matter of dispute. Whether one, like Plato, understands death to be a liberating event where the “soul” escapes the perils of materiality, or as in the case of Heidegger, death is the ultimate limit of one’s existentiality forcing one back into oneself in an act of authenticity, for these philosophers, death is something experienced alone. It is always my death, and no one can substitute their death for my own, nor can I find meaningful ways to avoid it. To pretend that death is not the end of life is the pretense of religious and philosophical dualism that draws one away from the meaning of this life and delusionally pretends that life’s meaning is found in something that extends beyond death’s finitude. In this case, death’s intensity is ignored and its relationship to life as something fundamentally significant to life’s meaning is hidden in favor of the frivolity of existence.
We live in a web of influence shaped by the huge relational matrix of which we are all a part.
In my way of thinking, however, many philosophers and theologians miss the ultimacy of death and the significance of its absolute boundary because they think of it only as a solitary event. According to them, death is something that happens to us only in our solitude. They believe that no one can join the event; no one can help. We die alone. I think such thoughts are grounded in a misunderstanding of what it means to be human and the relationality out of which human beings are born. When the soul reigned supreme as the essence of life, such singularity may have sounded reasonable. But as long ago as the thought of David Hume, notions such as the soul, the self, psyche, etc., were called into question and sometimes, as in the case of Hume, dismissed as meaningless fictions. It is important that we do not—as Kant asserted of Hume—throw the baby out with the bath water. Rather, it may be wiser to embrace the relational character of being human over-and-against our supposed solitary existence. Even when alone, human beings are not alone. We are born into a relational matrix, which is the substance of the language we speak and the inspiration of all that we imagine. There is never a time when we are not a part of this relational matrix, and death is no exception. Rather, death intensifies life’s relationality, an event that is brought to the fore in not just our own death, but in the death of others as well. When confronted with death, we are forcefully reminded that death threatens a loss marking not just our finitude—none of us will live forever—but because we are confronted by finitude, drives us more deeply into the web of relationality that is the ground of our existence imposing upon us the fact that we are never alone. Death is the part of life that grounds us in the relationality of what it means to be human. We cannot nor should we ever think that we can do life alone. Living is a communal process of which death is a constant reminder that meaning and wisdom reside in the relationships we keep.
But death is never an emotionally neutral process, for death is defined by a culture of suffering. Those who die most often suffer if they die a natural death and even when death is sudden, and cognizance of death evasive, the culture of suffering is still very much a part of the process for dying is, as I have pointed out, something never done alone; it always involves others who recoil in the face of death. The other may be a family member, a friend, or a complete stranger, it does not matter. The culture of death causes suffering as people recoil in its presence and try to understand that which cannot be understood. Death causes the onlooker to wince, to suffer if only for a moment. While people often seek to avoid the wince,
the culture of suffering, through rationalizing ideals, avoidance or denial, it is still there…it embodies us, making it impossible to avoid. Because we are a part of the culture of suffering, death becomes a part of us. This is transcendence, for through the suffering we are pulled out of ourselves and immersed into the event of death. Through feelings that come with the imaginative framework of memory, we experience the end of the other sometimes with humor, sometimes with anger, sometimes with reverence but always with feelings that easily result in tears. The what was no longer is but the memories can last forever instructing us on how to live more fully, more justly with others before we die.
To embrace the culture of suffering and experience the transcendence that death brings is to live imaginatively in the relationality of being human. This is what Heidegger might have called “authentic living;” it is what Levinas might have called living responsibly in the face of the Other. As such, embracing the culture of suffering brought by death is to find a path to more ethical living on an individual level and a demand for justice on a communal level because death’s transcendence delivers us from egoism and totalizing discourse. If we embrace what death brings, we find it much more difficult to live longing only to fulfill our own desires and are reminded through the presence of the one who no longer is what it means to live for the other. A society predicated upon the denial of death’s culture is one that embraces autocracy, but a culture that faces the culture of death openly is one that strives for justice.
How does this affect my thoughts about my friend, whose funeral I attended. I noted that the husband and the son’s eulogies were quite good. Why? Because they had lived with the suffering of my friend for years and instead of trying to avoid it, they embraced it, learned from it and became better people for it. They transcended the end brought by the death of their loved one and began to move on, trying to live up to the promise that was her life. Will they succeed? Will their lives fully embody the hope given in the promise of my friend’s life? I don’t know. What I do know is that in that moment, the moment of her end, I learned from them that if I am to honor my friend, I too must allow my memories of her to work through me that I might transcend the limitations of my own self-same. I must allow the guidance of that which was lived by her and the transformation her suffering brought to her loved ones to seep deeply into the fabric of my imagination so that the world I seek to build is a world not of me, but of the children, the spirit of the horse, and the strength of character developed by teaching others. These are traits that summarized a life lived by my friend, but whose power does not end with the grave because it transcends her death, continuing to live in those who embrace the culture of death—my friend’s death—allowing them and me to weave a more just tapestry from the relational threads of our shared humanity. This is what I take from my friend’s death. It is what she ,by living and dying, taught me.