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After the End Credits Roll

January 29, 2012

What's After Death?Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve given a lot of thought to what happens after ‘The End’ has scrolled across the screen of a person’s life.  This is probably a common reflective process as we age (we’re getting older every second, and the birthdays just keep coming), and as parents and other important people in our lives pass on.  I suppose, at one time or another, each of us asks that ultimately unanswerable question: ‘What happens after you die?’

You only have to look to various cultures and religions (not to mention groups of like-minded people who like to espouse their own beliefs) to realize that there are dozens of often radically different takes on ‘the afterlife’ (or absence of one).  Faith (religious, cultural, familial, organizational, personal) plays no small part in what we believe happens after death; ultimately, we choose the vision that best suits our own innermost hopes and dreams (and alleviates our deepest fears).

HeavenHellWe learned about Heaven and Hell in Sunday School. Afterwards, whenever I’d do the something ‘bad’ (neglect my homework, tell a ‘little white’ lie, leave my rubber boots under a bush at the corner and walk to school in the snow in my black ballet flats), I’d wonder just how many ‘bad’ things you had to do before you would be banished to Hell for all eternity.  I also wondered if the ‘good’ things I did (taking the bus across town to visit my Grandmother, helping Mom with the grocery shopping, babysitting my little brother without being asked) might offset the ‘bad’ choices I’d made.  Was there some kind of points system? And, if so, could you ‘even the score’ by being ‘good’ at least as often as you were ‘bad’ (although clearly you’d want to ensure that the scales were weighed in your favour by upping the number of items on the ‘good’ side of the equation)? 

Of course, I knew there were some ‘sins’ (like murder, for example) that could never, ever be counterbalanced by doing ‘good’ deeds – that is, until a friend who went to Catholic school told me that you could repent your sins to a priest right before you died and all would be forgiven and you’d be admitted to Heaven.  At that point the whole system seemed sort of pointless, and I didn’t know what to think.

What Dreams May ComeOver the many years that followed, of course, I was exposed to a whole slew of different points of view on the subject – some fascinating, some frightening, some questionable (and some downright silly).  The topic was addressed in a number of movies (from the thought-provoking: Ghost, What Dreams May Come, and Sixth Sense to the [semi] humorous: Defending Your Life, Beetlejuice, and Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life), as well as TV shows (Touched by an Angel, Six Feet Under, Dead Like Me, Afterlife).  Hollywood seems to have quite a varied take on things.

Dozens of books and magazines have offered treatises on the subject, and there have been numerous reports about people who have had ‘near death experiences’ and lived to tell the tale (although those who ‘died’ and were resurrected through medical or ‘miraculous’ intervention all seemed to have different versions of what they saw, heard, and experienced – which, once again, takes us back to the concept of how our beliefs influence our perceptions).  With the overwhelming amount of media attention given to ‘the hereafter’, you’d think that someone out there should actually KNOW what it’s like. But they don’t. And it’s doubtful that anyone ever will.

Two weeks ago (coincidentally, the day after my mother went into the hospital), there was an article in our local paper by Rabbi Bernard Baskin (a semi-regular contributor to the paper, his columns are not always of a secular nature) that I found particularly enlightening.  Titled ’We may go gently into that dark night; Life compels us to let go, to surrender much that is precious to us’ (full text here) he recounted a traditional Anglo Saxon story about a Ethereal Swallowbewildered swallow who flies through an open window into a brightly-lit banquet hall – only to disappear through another window on the opposite side. “This ancient story remains a faithful allegory of human life,” he explains. “Like the swallow, we enter the world out of the darkness of a primordial past, enjoy briefly life’s light and beauty, and then disappear into a dark eternity.”  His words touched me deeply.

Rabbi Baskin goes on to quote the philosopher Lucretius who said that “non-existence after death is merely the mirror image of non-existence before birth”; thus “there is no reason to be more disturbed by the one than the other”, and later tells us: “Because we and those closest to us are mortal, we must love each other while we may and serve each other with added tenderness. Because life is of limited duration, ours is the task to make it of unlimited depth.” 

Mom and Me, 1954I couldn’t agree with him more – rather than dwelling on the negative aspects of our lives and worrying about what is going to happen to us after we die, we would be far better off if we spent our time enjoying the lives we’ve been given and appreciating its wonders – including the time we spend with those we love, and those who will (eventually) leave us. The last few days spent at my mother’s side were given over to a great deal of reminiscing – about her life, and the impact she’s had on so many others.  I can honestly say that she lived a life not only of long duration (she died two weeks shy of her 94th birthday), but also of great depth. She was a remarkable woman and her passing has caused great sadness, and left a giant emptiness in our family.  But the triumph of her spirit lives on in her five children, twelve grandchildren, and nine great-grandchildren; she will certainly never be forgotten.

Beach ParadiseAs for my personal beliefs about what happens after the end credits roll, I like to think that James Cameron got it right in the final scene from the movie Titanic – when the now-aged heroine (Rose) dies in her sleep and is transported back to the most perfect night of her life. We can assume that – in her version of the afterlife – that night never ends, the ship never strikes the iceberg and sinks, and she spends eternity with her one true love.  I believe our essence (what some may call the soul) lives on forever – in a place where the people we loved and lost during our lifetimes are waiting eagerly for us, where we continually relive the best times of our lives, where nothing ‘bad’ ever happens, where Disney World – or a sandy white beach, or a cruise ship to wherever you want to go – is just around the corner, where you get to drink all the wine and eat all the chocolate you want without worrying about your waistline or your cholesterol, and where every day is a celebration of joy and love and the exaltation of each person’s remarkable spirit.

I plan on enjoying many more years of life (based on family history, I’m very likely to live well into my nineties) – and I plan to spend them following the good Rabbi’s advice – to strive for both quality and great depth in the days ahead, here on … the other side of 55.

Diane Ackerman: Width Of Life

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6 Comments
  1. January 31, 2012 5:59 pm

    I’m very sorry for your loss. My mother passed away just over a year ago at the age of 96 and I know the sorrow you must be feeling.

    • February 1, 2012 11:21 am

      Thanks for your kind words. No matter their age, losing a parent is hard!

      Margo

  2. January 30, 2012 8:53 am

    After my dad died I felt an amazing focus. I could see and understand more who he was. No doubt about it, he still lives on.

    • February 1, 2012 11:20 am

      I strongly believe we carry the ‘best of’ our parents and loved ones within us.

      Margo

  3. January 29, 2012 8:33 pm

    I am so sorry to read of your recent loss…my condolences to you and your family.
    And I think you are right that you have to strive for both great quality and depth in the days left to you. I’ve thought a lot about death, especially these last few years since my husband died, and I realize that I know very little about what happens after the body ceases to exist. Sometimes I think I can feel my husband’s presence with me and that brings me comfort even if I am wrong in my thinking.
    Once again, my condolences for your loss.

    • January 29, 2012 10:07 pm

      Thanks for your kind words, Sylvia. At one point or another in our lives we are all faced with the death of a loved one; it seems only then that we stop to think about how we are living our own lives. I just hope I can live up to my mother’s accomplishments! I am certain she will be watching over me.

      Margo

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