Wednesday, December 04, 2013

What Happens When We Die?

(As published in The Dead Beat, 2013, issue 4)

What happens when we die? There probably is no other question that has perplexed the human race as this one has. We know death happens – and those of us in the profession of caring for the dead and the living that survive them, have heard countless philosophies, ideas, doctrines, poems, stories – all that relate the experience that death brings.

There is a strange paradox that death brings – the realization that living means dying. Death is inevitable. Imminent. No person survives life. Death is one of the absolutes.

So what happens when we die? Those of us who experience death intimately and regularly know the regimen that comes when someone dies. We have made our lives about the care that is necessary to make a peaceful passage of the mortal remains of someone who has lived and loved. We know that when death happens a certain something happens to the body – planned or unplanned, natural or unnatural.  We understand that the body is to inhumed, inurned, entombed, interred – and we understand the purpose of having a service to remember those who have experienced life around us.

But what of the soul? What of that life force that animates the flesh? Various faiths and cultures have taught us their ideas of the immortality of the soul: we have been taught that the spirit lives on – and each has an explanation as to how, where and why this happens. Heaven. Valhalla. Elysium. Purgatory. Universe. Hades. Underworld. Call it what you will, these are the utmost explanations of the spirit’s continuous existence.

But what happens when we die? Is death truly the end? I have always been encouraged by something that Gandalf said in the epic Lord of the Rings movie: “End? Oh no. The journey doesn’t end here. Death is only a path – one that we all must take. The grey rain curtain of this life rolls back, and all turns to silver glass – and then you see it: white shores – and beyond – a far green country under a swift sunrise.”

We plead for some tangible existence of proof that life continues after death. Tonight when you lay down to go to sleep, perhaps you will recall reading this column and will be reminded of the effect, good or bad, that it had on you. In that way, the things I have written live on, even though they’ve been written in the past. How much more, then, do our loved ones live on in us? In the ways they experience and touch our lives. In the ways our lives have been part of theirs. The people I have known and loved in this life will always be part of me because my life has been experienced with them.

Perhaps, then, our focus doesn’t only need to be on what may or may not happen when we die and leave this life. Perhaps our focus should be on the living and experience that life brings – and we can be more virtuous in the way our lives touch the lives of others.

What happens when we die? The answer can only be found in dying. So until then… LET’S LIVE!

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