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What Do You Want to Know About Death?

There are more questions than answers.

Key points

  • We live in uncertain death times, with no clear answers, traditions, or histories to lean on.
  • Death is not a teacher of any specific transcendent wisdom, nor of truth, and the existential lessons are not settled in a fixed curriculum.
  • We die, the body is temporal, and grief is a part of life.
Source: Aron Visuals/Unsplash
Source: Aron Visuals/Unsplash

“Do you believe in life after death?” I was a bit surprised when this question came up while I was being interviewed for a documentary. Even though I have written extensively on the history of death in America, I get a bit thrown off when the conversation turns personal.

The first thought that came to mind, influenced by Bones on "Star Trek," was, I’m an academic, dammit, not a theologian! My second thought, or perhaps it was simultaneous with that first thought, was, Why do I get so unsettled with this line of questioning, and why aren't more of us talking more about death openly and publicly?

Then I calmed myself down, and, with the cameras rolling, I went there.

In truth, I get this line of questioning quite a bit when people hear what I’ve done with my professional scholarly life for the last 40 years or so: study and write about death. I’ve always kept my personal views out of my historical and cultural analyses of death and disposition not only because they are not relevant, but also because they are…unformed. Still, in public settings or the cocoon of the Emory classroom or even in a more combative context as an expert witness in legal cases, when the questions turn to what I believe, my personal hopes and dreams have been strictly off limits, and my go-to defensive mechanism when questions inevitably arise, humor and sarcasm, helped create a comforting buffer:

  • Is there life after death?
    When I was tripping on LSD, I realized there is only death after life.
  • What do I want done with my body when I die?
    Ideally, I'd like to be embalmed and put on display in multiple cities, like Lincoln.
  • Have all my studies given me any wisdom or insights about death?
    Nope, I'd rather avoid the topic altogether.

As I have grown older and more personally familiar with death, those questions now arouse feelings of wonder and a profound, powerful sense of connection with not just the questioner but all of humanity, as well as utter humility in the face of such urgent, consequential concerns. What's the point of human culture if not to prepare the living for dying, offer guidelines and resources for the disposal of the dead, and answer the question, “What happens after death?”

My intimacy with death has moved from the head to the heart. We can talk for hours about the cultural variations in mortuary rituals and mourning practices throughout human history, spend days conversing over the cosmic implications of salvation or karma or judgment, and engage for months exploring the diverse religious prescriptions and guidelines available that purport to prepare one for death. This sort of knowledge can be enriching, if not downright liberating in a person's life, on its own. But it is also only partial knowledge, a knowing that barely scratches the surface of what death has to teach us.

And what does death have to teach us that one can't learn in classes or other kinds of research? There's the rub, perhaps. Death is not a teacher of any specific transcendent wisdom, nor of truth, and the existential lessons are not settled in a fixed curriculum. From the earliest recognition of a physical body without life in human evolution to current scientific efforts to reverse aging, the struggle to live with finitude is both a defining feature of human cultures and at the root of the mystery of existence.

Very few people choose to think about all this on their own, I know. The entire history of religions is based on giving people the symbols and rituals to think about death and live with it. The inherent religious nature of making sense of mortality can be seen in other arenas as well, such as national politics, which places a high value on influencing citizens' thoughts about death, or celebrity culture, which both thrives on the abundant, nearly daily deaths of famous people and teaches the living about certain realities associated with finitude.

To think on your own about death, to mentally move outside the frameworks of what to believe about death, to the vast, if not overwhelming, scholarly framework regarding what have people believed, is jarring. On the other hand, we live in a culture with no center, with no stable conceptual anchors to turn to and draw from when reacting to, or reflecting on, death. The dramatically changing religious landscape is not unimportant here given the spectacular rise in people who claim no specific religious affiliation. In this landscape, attitudes toward death no doubt display a spectrum of possible sacred options and spiritual perspectives.

We live in uncertain death times, with no clear answers, traditions, or histories to lean on. Where do we turn after experiencing the impact of death, or after inner, private soul-searching about its reality only leads to anxiety, uncertainty, or fear? Who among us really knows about death and can do justice to the existential lessons it teaches? Priests, rabbis, imams, and other religious leaders, for some, though other sacred guides, like therapists, psychiatrists, and self-help gurus, may also provide critical support.

As a so-called professor, the truths I glimpse about death are rather opaque, somewhat banal, definitely depressing, and very down to earth. We die, the body is temporal, and grief is a part of life. What more is there to know?

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