Obits Optimists

Imbolc                                                                       Waning Bridgit Moon

The most optimistic page in the newspaper?  The obituaries.  Every day and especially on Sundays I see evidence of the hopefulness and optimism of Minnesota citizens.  I imagine it’s the same everywhere.  With no evidence for an afterlife at all, let alone a particular one, person after person greets their mother and father, relaxes in the arms of their Lord and Savior Jesus, are welcomed by God the Father or pass over to their next adventure.  The range of metaphysical perspectives may be narrow, usually encompassing some version of the Christian afterlife or the less well understood world of late 19th century spiritualism, the passing over folks, but the confidence and clarity braces me every time I read it.

I’ve not done a comprehensive study of obituaries, let alone a cross cultural one (though it would be fascinating), but it seems likely each place has its own, culturally specific brand of confidence about the unseen world.  In ancient Rome a favorite epitaph mentioned here before:  I was not.  I was.  I am not.  I don’t care. represents a very different take on the after death experience, one more in tune with my own existentialist one, though I’m not as nihilistic.  I do care, at least now, about my death, though, with my Roman fellow travelers, I’m pretty sure that after death I won’t care either.

This kind of optimism has ancient roots.  Certain Neanderthal remains have been found with ochre painted on the body, indicating some thoughts about life after the grave.  Just what that thought was, of course, we have no idea, but burying a body and decorating it moves well beyond the animal world’s relative disregard for their dead; relative because elephants do have mourning rituals*.

The new atheists like to lampoon all this as magical thinking or evidence that the human race has not yet grown up, but there are ways of looking at it.  To my mind it is a poetic, metaphoric way of declaring that the person’s memory will live on among there descendants and friends.  It also a means of consolation in the face of a forever event, perhaps the first one the family has experienced.  Since there is no evidence, it is possible that one of the many perspectives has got it right.

Long ago I made a pact, a version of Pascal’s wager, with the afterlife.  I will live my life in as straightforward and useful a way as I can, being true to my own understanding of the world.  With Camus I stand with those who would make the trip toward the great river of death easier for all.  If, as I suspect, death is a personal extinction event, then the wager ends.  If there is a supernatural being who cares about living entities and their future, then the minor or even major screw ups in my life will be forgiven since their/its perspective will embrace all things, giving a context to any individual life that even the most forgiving friend cannot.  Either way, I’m ok.

So, I guess you could count me among the optimistic.  I believe all the bardos and hells and underworlds and infernos of the human imagination reveal not a metaphysical reality but a long standing human awareness of the shadow, the parts of us we cannot, for some reason, include in our conscious lives.  We suspect the shadow of great power and often equal  malignity.  That suspicion leads us to demand punishment either for the acts we have stuffed into our shadow or that we blame on that dark pool of energy swirling just below the surface of our individual lives.

It is my judgment, and a considered one given my theological training, that humans do not do unforgivable things.  There are only those who lack sufficient empathy.  This does not mean that certain acts should not be punished.  Rape, murder, pedophilia, theft, abuse and other such crimes require sanction.  But.  They do not make the person unforgivable or even evil.  Just bad.  Bad acts need sanction; people who do bad acts need our forgiveness.  Luther said it best, but he puts it in a theological frame:  hate the sin and love the sinner.  To that I say, blessed be.

However.  There is one alternate view that I do find intriguing.  It takes into account the nature of water and the imaginal cells of butterfly pupae.  Here’s the idea.  Water has three states:  gas, liquid and solid.  In the solid state water is lighter than its liquid state, a characteristic that keeps lakes and even the arctic and antarctic from freezing solid.  This feature of water, that it is less dense than its liquid state, is unusual among earth’s substances.  In fact, it’s not expected from the behavior other substances, which get more dense as they become solid.

Imaginal cells exist in the pupae of butterflies.  They take the form of a caterpillar, bound up in the cocoon and change its form, the message its cells get as it goes through a metamorphosis, to that of a butterfly, a creeping earth-bound creature becomes a winged beauty.

Both of these unexpected events, water becoming less dense in a solid and a caterpillar becoming a butterfly, might serve as a way of understanding an after life of sorts.  That is, consciousness or soul or whatever else you might call the essence of the human, could be like the caterpillar, could be like ice.  It’s possible there is a next state, another phase to living that is unimaginable from our evidence, a phase so different from this bodily existence as to be analogous to a caterpillar’s transformation into a butterfly, as unexpected as the phase change in water from its liquid to its solid state.  Could be, I suppose.  It’s a nice image.  A comforting one.  Might happen.

*Elephant researcher Martin Meredith recalls an occurrence in his book about a typical elephant death ritual that was witnessed by Anthony Martin-Hall, a South African biologist who had studied elephants in Addo, South Africa, for over eight years. The entire family of a dead matriarch, including her young calf, were all gently touching her body with their trunks, trying to lift her. The elephant herd were all rumbling loudly. The calf was observed to be weeping and made sounds that sounded like a scream, but then the entire herd fell incredibly silent. They then began to throw leaves and dirt over the body and broke off tree branches to cover her. They spent the next two days quietly standing over her body. They sometimes had to leave to get water or food, but they would always return.[32]

This entry was posted in Aging, Commentary on Religion, Faith and Spirituality, Humanities, Myth and Story, Woolly Mammoths and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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