Rethinking death

I am areligous, but that doesn’t mean that I am an absolute relativist. It doesn’t mean that I don’t value life and truth and hope and the reality of suffering and the virtue of delivering people from it.  It does mean that I am OK enough with the limits of human knowledge and power to avoid filling in the gaps with stories and magic and all the rest. I also accept the paltry scope of my community, my time, my species, my planet, my solar system, etc. I acknowledge the temporary nature of myself – this particular amalgamation of stuff that came together as a sentient being, but (and here is where I think god-fearing folks sometimes miss what it is like to see it the way I do) I also recognize the way that all of who I am used to be elsewhere and will be elsewhere again. I find it an amazingly wonderful awareness.

“Where was I before I was born?” Jie-jie asked me one time.

“Nowhere. Everywhere,” I said.

“What do you mean?”

“Well, we like to make chocolate chip cookies, right? Where are the cookies before we make them? They are in the flour and sugar in the cupboard, the chocolate chips at the store, the eggs the chickens are building from the food they eat, the flowing water that makes the energy that heats our stove. It’s the same thing with you. You were in me and your dad and the sunshine and the water and rocks and the air.”

Jie-jie didn’t ask about dying that day but Mei-mei came home from school saying that her friends told her our recently departed dog, Rodman, lived up in the sky now. I said that we know that Rodman’s body is gone – in the ashes in the memorial block, in the heat that came out of the smokestack at the crematorium, in the dog hair we brushed off him and put in the compost and then used to fertilize the garden to grow kale – but the energy he was made of is also all around – in our memories, in the wind, and, yes, in the skies.

My mom died 13 years ago this week. I miss her voice and her wisdom. I wish she were here to know and be known by my children and to help me to be a better mother, daughter, sister and spouse. All the same, I know she is not lost to me. I always struggled to find a way to express my thoughts on this subject and then I found Aaron Freeman has done it for me:

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. Amen.

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2 Responses to Rethinking death

  1. I like to think that I am religious but I have to admit that this is one of the most comforting things I have read about death after Saint Augustine. Thanks

  2. Andrea Voyer says:

    And, of course, there is this one:

    Do not stand at my grave and weep.
    I am not there; I do not sleep.
    I am a thousand winds that blow;
    I am the diamond glints on snow.
    I am the sunlight on ripened grain;
    I am the gentle autumn’s rain.
    When you awaken in the morning’s hush,
    I am the swift uplifting rush
    of quiet birds in circling flight.
    I am the soft star that shines at night.
    Do not stand at my grave and cry.
    I am not there; I did not die.

    –Mary Elizabeth Frye

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