By Paul Harrison.
Mar 2, 2015
Judaism, Christianity and Islam all promise the hope of a heaven after death. This belief offers comfort - but at a heavy price. It can devalue life on earth, or inject every deed, thought and emotion with a calculating self-consciousness that undermines our authenticity and spontaneity in the world. [See The Afterlife: promises and problems] And it does not really relieve anxiety about death, because in all three religions the threat of Hell is present.
Returning to nature
Pantheist believe that we do not really die: we return to nature. Our elements dissolve and are re-absorbed in new life forms, and we become part of the natural cycle.
As he was dying, the Taoist Tzu Lai said:
The universe gave me my body so I may be carried, my life so I may work, my old age so I may repose, and my death so I may rest. To regard life as good is the way to regard death as good. . . . If I regard the universe as a great furnace and creation as a master foundryman, why should anywhere I go not be all right? [Chuang Tzu, chapter vi]
The Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius had a similar view of death as part of the continuity of life:
Every part of me will be reduced by change into some part of the universe, and that again will change into another part of the universe. and so on for ever. And by consequence of such a change I too exist, and those who begot me, and so on forever in the other direction. [Meditations, 5.13]
For many people the idea of ending all separation from nature, of being fully re-united with nature, is enough to end all fear of death. If you fully embrace your being as belonging to matter and nature; if you relax into your body like settling into a soft mattress that has taken your shape; if you cease to see your soul as something separate or superior that is somehow threatened by body or matter - then the thought of death can lose all its terror. It can even seem comforting, peaceful, embracing.
Yet some people still feel a desire for their personality, their thoughts, their deeds to persist after they are gone. There are many ways in which this happens naturally anyway. In strengthened form these can offer a real afterlife, a kind of mortal immortality.
- Through descendance,
- Through inheritance,
- Through deeds
- Through remembrance.
The memory of generations.
In children and grandchildren, our genes, fused with those of our partners and their partners, live on. There is nothing quite like seeing the family resemblance in a child's face, for realizing the continuity of the generations and feeling one's embedded involvement in the process of life. As we rear our children we also confer our ideas, attitudes, habits. Of course this privilege has its risks - we can stamp our children with the impress of our worst features. But if we are fully aware and conscious that our children are our most solid afterlife, we will raise them more responsibly.
Human life is like an infinite necklace of gems: often we fail to see the thread that runs through us all, and see ourselves rather as isolated individuals of a single lifetime.
In most Western societies today, the memory of generations is not kept alive. I can trace my own ancestors for a maximum of six generations - and even then only through a single line, female for two generations, then male, to just one great-great-grandfather out of sixteen. I know a great deal more about the pedigree of my Birman cat.
Tracing the links
In ancient and tribal societies people knew their lineages and could recite many generations into the past.
Polybius and Pliny describe how the memory of the dead was carefully kept alive in Rome:
After the burial of the body . . . they place the image of the dead man in the most conspicuous position in the house, where it is enclosed in a wooden shrine. This image consists of a mask, which is fashioned with extraordinary fidelity both in its modelling and its complexion to represent the features of the dead man. On occasions when public sacrifices are offered, these masks are displayed and decorate with great care. And when any distinguished member of the family dies, the masks are taken to the funeral, and are there worn by men who are considered to bear the closest resemblance to the original, both in height and in their general appearance and bearing. [Polybius, Histories, vi.53]
In the times of our ancestors portraits modelled in wax were arranged, each in its own niche, as images to accompany the funeral processions of the family; and always, whenever someone died, every member of the family that had ever existed was present. The pedigree, too, of the individual was traced by lines to each of the painted portraits. Their record rooms were filled with archives and records of what each had done. [Pliny, Natural History, xxxv.2]
In Western societies only nobility, Mormons and a few enthusiasts can trace their lineage for more than a few generations. Yet we should all try to do so. We should keep family record books, tracing lineages, with short biographies and photographs of each person.
Almost everyone who has accumulated any degree of wealth or property likes to pass some or all of it on to their children or relatives.
But even the poorest have some possessions that are unique to them, that embody them as individuals - a school prize, a tool of trade, a medal, a drawing, a diary, a collected object. These too can be passed on to descendants or relatives and kept as mementoes, things that speak something about what that person was or did.
My own mementoes are these: a silver-capped walnut walking stick that was presented to my great grandfather on his retirement as head printer at the Oldham chronicle; an inscribed chisel from my grandfather's patternmaker's tool chest; a still life of fruit painted by my grandmother; a silver trophy won by my father in his school games. These will pass down through the generations, as I hope some of my belongings will - perhaps my marble sphere from Ephesus, my favourite beach pebble from St Agnes island, or my African masks.
Legacies to nature
Inheritance can also spread benefits more widely - legacies to charity, donation of estates to locality or nation.
In ancient Egypt and in medieval Europe, people concerned about their afterlife used to leave land to monasteries and priesthoods, which therefore grew enormously rich and powerful. In future perhaps more and more people will leave legacies to nature, as public parks or wilderness areas, helping to save and restore biodiversity.
3. Survival through works
The third form of real afterlife comes about through our actions and creations whose impact persists after our death.
This is not just a matter for writers and artists trying to leave immortal works behind them, or for politicians aiming for a place in history books. A single act of kindness may be recollected for decades. A life of loving care will be remembered by those it touched for as long as they live. The trees we plant now will provide shade and beauty for generations.
4. Real hell: damnation in memory
Our only afterlife is in the lives and minds of those who survive us. And so our only hell is in their memories, too.
When tyrannical Roman emperors like Nero and Domitian died, the liberated populace would run out and hack the heads off their statues, chisel their names out of inscriptions, and declare them "of damned memory."
If we are unkind or egotistical towards other people, they won't feel sorry when we die. They may even say good riddance. If we hurt them seriously, they will remember us not with love and nostalgia, but with hatred and rancour. Then we will be "of damned memory."
Or they will repress the memory of us utterly, throw out all our mementoes, wipe out all trace of our existence, and like guilty souls swallowed by the Egyptian God Amemait, we will have no afterlife at all.
The afterlife and ethics
Believers in heaven and hell often ask me why pantheists should be ethical.
In fact the institutions of a "real afterlife" - inheritance, works and remembrance - are far more likely than belief in heaven to produce consistent and deeply rooted ethical behaviour. The Jewish, Christian and Moslem God is a merciful and forgiving God. He might plunge us into eternal fire - but then again, if we repent of our sins, we will get into heaven sooner or later.
The pantheist afterlife depends on other humans, and they are less forgiving. If we live wasteful, self-centred lives, damaging nature, damaging those around us, future generations will not forget.
Natural death and natural burial.
The theist afterlife: false promises, real problems.
Poems for funerals.
The Pantheist way of death.
Scientific pantheism: index