September 09, 2014

Dear Christians: Let's talk about death and going on afterwards

Dear Christians is a recurring column that deals with my intersection between belief and nonbelief. It looks at my personal views of belief and deals with the myths of nonbelief that I was taught growing up. All opinions are, of course, my own. To see more Dear Christians columns, click here.

Dear Christians,

The idea of life after death is probably one of the concepts that most divides theists and non-theists. It's  a question that is on my mind this week: How does an atheist deal with the idea of death?

There is no afterlife, in this worldview. There is no glad reunion in a heavenly beyond.

So how can one adjust to death knowing that it is, well and truly, the end?

That's a really good question.

It starts by accepting the inevitable: every single living being will die. None of us are immortal.

When we die, our bodies will decompose. They will return to the earth, back to cycle of continual chaos and conservation. Our atoms will become parts of other things--perhaps stars, perhaps rocks, perhaps other living things. Matter and energy are neither created nor destroyed, after all.

It's the memories that are important.

In each of us, the one we love carries on. In this way, we are not so different, you and I. We are all touched by the love we received, and the love that we gave, and by what we learned from the person we have lost.

Our lives forever bear that mark from them.

It's through us that their legacies continue. My father's mother died when he was a teenager, after a long battle with cancer. My father has her smile. I have his. And so that bit of her survives--a genetic lineage. Her caring nature survives in my father, who has the biggest heart I've ever known--and so she touches a generation she will never know.

That mark is permanent. There is no erasing it. It is both the comfort for and the pain of loss, all wrapped up together.

Death strives to devour and destroy--these are characteristics that are assigned to it in so many cultures. And yet, in the end, it fails in a way--it can never erase that mark, it can never undo a life lived or love loved or memories made. In the end, it cannot stop the potential of a person's legacy--because all of that continues on.

When I was a Christian, I clung to I Corinthians 15:55:

O Death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?

So what has changed since I became an atheist?

In a way, that verse still rings true to me. What is the sting or the victory, if it can't erase that my loved one lived? It's a partial triumph, at best, because the life lived inspires, it leads us on.

I find myself more committed to upholding the legacy of those that have passed into nonexistence. I will revisit their memories, revisit what I have learned, find what attributes most remind me of them, and make the commitment to live by those values.

It's not hopeless. Not empty.

It's an active way of dealing with grief, every single day.

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