By William J. Furney
As my mother lay dying on her hospice bed, I said goodbye, for now, and went to collect my sisters from school, a drive of about two hours, there and back. When we arrived, she was gone. Lost to the visceral ravages of breast cancer she had battled for a decade, my dear mother and friend, just 52, was no more, her soul-light extinguished in a killer-puff by out-of-control cells that, ultimately, killed themselves. It was a deadly act of suicide by a body, once lovely, gone berserk.
My next big loss-of-life shock was when my partner died in an aeroplane crash off Java, the first of two Boeing 737 Max tragedies.
Last year, it was my father’s time, because, fighting cancer, heart and other problems, he was out of time. And then, just months ago, my youngish property agent and neighbour, who was also a friend, had a heart attack while driving; in hospital, he fell into a coma and died. I was in Marrakech when I received the news and was again disconsolate.
We suffer from the delusion that we will live forever but death is an unavoidable clock that starts ticking down from the moment we are born.
Saying Goodbye, with a Smile
Living in Bali provided a different, more open view of death. Dressed in Hindu garb, I attended a cremation, in a field, the burner by the corpse, ready to blast and destroy the remnants of the deceased. (Cremations in Bali are an expensive and often elaborate affair, and it’s common for families to wait until there are several people who have passed away in their area so they can share the cost.)
As mourners gathered and the pyre was lit, it was noticeable that no one was sad or crying and they even appeared happy, if you can believe it. “If the spirit of the departed sees people are upset, it will worry and stay around, instead of leaving us,” I recall someone telling me as we stood there amid the heat, smoke and crackling funeral wood.
The Balinese believe their lost one will soon be back, though, reincarnated as a family member. And so when someone dies and someone is later born, they look for signs that indicate it’s their deceased relative restored to human form once more — some traits that were unique to them. Babies undergo a ngaluwang ritual, to find out what late person has entered the body, and so, for the Balinese, death is an intrinsic part of the soul-recycling process.
My friend Derek, a Chinese ethnic Malaysian who lost his father last year, believes death, conversely, is an essential part of what makes us feel alive.
“Death to me is inevitable. I guess we need death to make us cherish life to understand mortality and to live life to the fullest,” he told me. “Life without death is like happiness without sadness — without one, we become numb and take things for granted.”
The Balinese believe death, the great equaliser, reducing the poor and the rich to the same ultimate fate, is not the end; but what about the rest of us, especially in the West, where, increasingly, religion is becoming an outdated thing of the past? Can we look to science instead, for clues of any afterlife?
In Search of the Reality of Life, and Death
Milan Kundera espouses in The Unbearable Lightness of Being that meaning arises from loss and mourning in a world of instant gratification that fleetingly satiates but gives no real substance or feeling of worth.
His work is an existential rumination that grapples with what it means to be human and suggests that people derive real meaning from suffering and loss — of anything and anyone, including when people die — and that this, in turn, gives everything we do “weight” (as opposed to “lightness”, where we might pursue and prioritise pleasure because we consider life nihilistic).
Ergo, when you lose something, you gain a new appreciation — there was a power cut that lasted all last night; I took it for granted and really appreciate electricity, now that it’s back; my grandfather died recently and I’m starting to find a deeper meaning to life and its transient nature and fragility.
People as Eternal Souls in a Static Universe
If, apart from our bodies, we, as sentient entities with a mind and a soul, are composed of energy, does it vaporise when we decompose? Not according to the first law of thermodynamics, on the conservation of energy, which can neither be created nor destroyed: it exists in some form, or state, in an unfluctuating, static universe whose majority structures (dark matter and dark energy) we are feverishly attempting to comprehend.
We might also like to rely on Einstein’s e=mc2, on the interchangeability of mass and energy and their conversion from one to the other. Simply, each one of us is a slab of energy fashioned into a human body and, perhaps, soul. One way or another, when we die, we are transformed from one state into another, living on, in some form, for eternity.
Other aspects to consider in the life-death paradox include superstring theory — the idea that everything, on the tiniest scale, is a vibrating filament — which posits 10 dimensions instead of what we currently know as four (space, length, width, depth, and also time). Experiments in the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, on the French/Swiss border, show particles losing mass during near-speed-of-light proton collisions — escaping, I asked a Japanese professor working there, on a visit to the facility a few years ago, into another dimension? Perplexed, he was unable to answer, but could we slide into these suggested other realms as we finally slip away from our earthly lives?
Superstring theory (or variations combined into M-theory), and all of quantum mechanics, including “spooky” quantum entanglement, is fundamentally at odds with what we see before us — the huge mass of massive planets — and Einstein’s general relativity. The two are incompatible, but that may be because we’re using the wrong models. Still, M-theory — the so-called theory of everything that attempts to reconcile the differences — may offer a tantalising glimpse into the actual nature of reality, and us: a record 8 billion people locked onto an inconsequential, spinning rock hurtling 107,226 km an hour around a star that’s one of 200 billion trillion.
We are made from the elements in the stars above us — carbon, hydrogen, calcium, nitrogen, sodium and others — and so we are, in essence, star people, an Earth animal obsessed with its feeble might and continuance of life after death, so important does each one deem its existence.
Losing a loved one is a life event that prompts change and questioning; but death is a subject that is not easily discussed, because of its distressing nature and in case it might cause upset. For too long it, like sex, which may result in life, has been taboo, an inescapable aspect of life best not mentioned; but in talking — just like exploring, through science — comes realisation, acceptance and power.
And for those left behind when someone dies, there’s always the comforting option of having a chat with them.