Nobody knows what happens after we die.
Many people describe their ideas about an Afterlife, but no one knows.
That doesn’t stop us from speculating what might happen. Here are a few thoughts on some possibilities.
Heaven & Hell
Many religions offer visions of Heaven — and Hell. You know the scene: good people rise above the clouds to stand before St. Peter, seeking his approval to pass through the Pearly Gates and get harps & angel wings, eternally blissful. Bad People, on the other hand, will burn forever in the subterranean fires of Hell, tortured by demons & devils beyond any level of suffering we can imagine. Countless cartoons play off these twin images.
Dig into those the various religions’ descriptions of Heaven & Hell, though, and vast differences appear, especially when it comes to who gets in or not. How can they all be true? Given the mutual exclusivity of most religions, many true believers would be appalled to see the adherents of some other religion in the same place where they have arrived. And, yet, as one writer speculating about Heaven theorized, Jesus said:
“In my Father’s mansion, there are many rooms…”
Maybe that means there is a separate Catholic Heaven and Baptist Heaven and Methodist Heaven and Muslim Heaven — and everybody’s happy in their own version of Heaven, blissfully unaware of the other “rooms.” We simply don’t know. Despite what would be generations of ancestors in Heaven (and Hell), we still haven’t received any definitive proof. Believers take it on faith.
Some people say that when you get to Heaven, you’ll be greeted by all the dogs you’ve ever owned.
Personally, that worries me a bit, as Brutus will undoubtedly start scrapping with all the other dogs. Breaking up a dogfight is not my idea of Heaven.
(Haven’t heard much mention about the cats — I assume they will wander wherever they want to. With 9 lives, they’ll have plenty of chances to check it all out.)
A variation of this vision says when you get to Heaven, all the animals you have encountered in this life will act as the gatekeepers of Heaven, since only they can bear true witness to inner soul through how you treated animals. Gives you pause as you look around at the animals in your life.
Life After Life
Reincarnation describes a concept of living life after life in a long series of different beings, creatures, and bodies as we evolve spiritually.
Our bodies deteriorate and die, but our souls keep coming back as ever more complex creatures. We rise through levels of consciousness until we reach humanhood, and eventually, nirvana.
Or something like that. There are almost as many variations on reincarnation as there are on the “traditional” Heaven & Hell. All of them leave me with questions.
If this “me” that I am now is just the latest (and theoretically, greatest) in a string of beings I have been, what comes next? If I’m not careful this time around, will I fall back “down” the upward ladder of reincarnation due to some karmic misdeeds? Okay, I get that. But how do I learn from my mistakes if I start over each time with no memory of my previous incarnation? And how did I get here as a human? As a former worm, for instance, how did I “earn” an upward notch the next time? And how do I gain and retain the knowledge from my prior lives?
Again, so many questions.
Of course, many people believe we simply cease to exist when we die. Unthinkable as it may seem when we try to contemplate, maybe we just die. Nothing afterward. No pearly gates, no fiery pits, no new life as an improved human, no eternaI, unending existence. Lights out.
Logically, this is the only one that makes sense, really. But it is a scary concept: the end of one’s self is hard to even imagine. On the other hand, I read an argument that all our human longing for an Afterlife could be considered fundamentally greedy. Think about it. After we have lived our life and tasted the wonders of the world in this magical and miraculous existence, our response is, “That was great — I want more! No fair stopping! I want to live forever!”
Perhaps, instead of hoping for a better life after this one, we should keep our focus on this life and not insist on any second helpings, much less a bottomless cup of existence.
Final Death: the Forgetting
Some cultures suggest we live after death through the memories of those who knew us. Imagine death occuring as a series of changes. The “first” death is the departure of the soul from the body, they say. A “second” death, then, comes with the destruction of the body, whether it is buried, cremated, or otherwise disposed of.
A third and final death occurs when the last person who remembers you also dies and your name is never spoken or remembered again. As long as someone alive still remembers you, you are alive in their minds. When the time does finally come — as it will to us all — when the very memory of you fades from all human memory, then you have reached that final death of being forever forgotten.
For me as a young man coming of age, thoughts of life and death and any existence after life required a rational examination. Given my understanding that the Laws of Thermodynamics stipulate that neither matter nor energy can be created or destroyed, that means a person cannot simply “cease to exist.”
The matter that is me — my body — is either buried (embalmed, usually, a weird ritual in itself), or cremated, or disposed of in other ways that I know nothing about. In each process, the physical body is transformed, not destroyed. Even in cremation, heat is released and ashes remain. The energy that is me, though, must also be preserved, even if transformed. Where does that go?
I believe that our life energy is something we constantly share with everyone around us. Even before death, we have given friends, family, and passing strangers some of our energy as a person through conversation and interactions. Any passing thought or feeling that lingers long enough to become a memory represents a residual part of the energy that is us. When we die, those memories remain, distributed among the people who knew us. Whenever they tell stories about us or show pictures of us, we once again live, not just in their minds, but in the active sharing of the life energy still embodied in that memory. That energy, that sharing is what remains of us and that seems to be a form of life after death to me.
Mind you, when I explained this belief with exquisite logic over brunch to my brother, our wives, and Lucas, Scott asked:
“Are you sure that’s not just one of your leftover acid hallucinations, Alan?”
(laughter all around the table)
“That doesn’t mean it’s not true!”
Maybe I am hallucinating. Maybe I’m right. Maybe I’m wrong. No one knows. Me, I will continue to keep my loved ones alive in my memory and share stories of them to spread the love from the energy they shared with me.
Meanwhile, though, before we worry too much about life after death, let’s work on more fully appreciating our life before death. That doesn’t mean we can’t have fun wondering about what comes next, though. On an upbeat note, I like thinking maybe John Prine’s right about what’s available in the Afterlife:
‘Cause then I’m gonna get a cocktailJohn Prine, “When I Get to Heaven”
Vodka and ginger ale
Yeah I’m gonna smoke a cigarette that’s nine miles long
I’m gonna kiss that pretty girl on the tilt-a-whirl
Yeah this old man is goin’ to town