In response to a recent post, a reader left me this question: "I do wonder though, with as much as you know about death, what do YOU believe happens to the individual, after death, if anything?"
I'm pleased she asked. This gives me the opportunity to think carefully about how to share my personal thoughts about the post-death situation. Working in end-of-life care, I have often been asked similar questions. What do you believe?
I'll start by saying that I think of beliefs in general as simply strongly held opinions, and that when pushed, I admit to having no strong beliefs whatsoever. How can we really know anything for certain about this life, much less life of any other sort? Added to the reality that contradictory beliefs abound about everything.
Consider medicine, for example. Think for a moment about medical beliefs that underlied medical care in the 18th or 19th century. Do we believe they hold true today? More to the point, some medical practices from last year are out of date today based on research that may be "disproven" tomorrow. That's why in science, we call everything a theory. Until proven otherwise. Which itself is quite a conundrum if not an outright oxymoron. Or think about the range of religious beliefs, all of which are held so strongly that wars explode over these beliefs century after century.
Ok, so putting beliefs aside for a moment, what about the after-death question? I do in fact have a fairly nuanced view about it, but first let's do a miniscule review of beliefs about the question. In list form, so as not to belabor the point: (And who am I to try to list religious beliefs about death- may G-d forgive my impertinence.)
•Christian- there is a Day of Judgment and the afterlife is spent in heaven, hell, purgatory, or some combination there of.
•Buddhist- reincarnation or transmigration of the soul--taking on a new body after bodily death.
•Hinduism- reincarnation with possible escape from the cycle of birth-death-rebirth at some point through karma.
•Muslim- belief in the Last Day, when the world will be destroyed and Allah will raise all the dead for their judgment.
•Jewish- I can't do justice to Jewish beliefs about the afterlife (only because I am Jewish) but there is a Midrashic belief about reincarnation in the body in the Messianic age. Thus, orthodox Jews will have amputated limbs saved until death so they can be buried intact. Cremation is not allowed for this reason, also. However, most non- orthodox Jews believe that we live on in the future generations' memories of us. Heaven and hell are sort of optional.
•Secular and ethical- belief in the importance of creating meaning in the present life rather than having answers to questions about the meaning of death and the afterlife.
Beliefs about death are fascinating, layered, complex, and a pervasive element of human thought and community. They are not going away, folks. So it's good to have one's own thoughts on the subject. It is good, I say, to think about death.
Ok, so what do I think happens after death of the body? I came to the following ideas after reading Carl Jung's writing about the collective unconscious. Jung was far more nuanced in his understanding of our questions, particularly as we age, about the meaning of life and death, than his contemporary Sigmund Freud. (It always slays me that I have chosen a Christian over a Jew in my own path to understanding how to think about this quesion--as opposed to what to think about it-- but please, this is quite an aside.)
Jung distinguished the collective unconscious from the the personal unconscious of Freudian theories, in viewing the presence of a collective repository of unconscious material (below or beneath awake consciousness) in all organisms with a nervous system- i.e., in humans, apes, cats, worms, etc. The collective unconsciousness guides a species in its behaviors and understandings. Jung was particularly interested in dream material, in as much as it added to or drew from this repository.
So I like to think that when I die, my body will decompose and add to the repository of matter. I am still under the impression that the theory stands: matter and energy are neither created nor destroyed, only changed in form. (I can't decide about cremation for myself- but that's another whole post).
And my unconsious material (encompassing the concept of my energy or my soul) will drop into the collective unconsious of humanity. In my fantasy, this repository exists as a location of sorts, a murky river-like tunnel (worm-hole?) throughout the universe. I don't find it credible that the ego or self survives bodily death, it just makes no sense to me, so the lovely (or perhaps frightening) idea of seeing those who have died before us in the afterlife holds no purchase with me. (Although I often envy those who can hold tight to this belief, and derive comfort from it.)
My life assignment, then, is to live in such a manner that my unconsious material will add to the collective unconsious in a positive way rather than a negative way. To strive towards peace and gratefulness and humility and generosity and compassion in my daily life so as to tone my unconsious material in that direction. So that after I die, my material will add to, rather than substract from, a future for those who come after me.
I can't say I have great hope for our future as humans. But that doesn't relieve me of the responsibility, in this life or after my own death, from struggling in the direction of my own life values. While I claim no strong beliefs-- I'm the religious right's worst fantasy of a cultural relativist--I do have strong values.