We are often told that in earlier times all cultures had a concept of the afterlife – that “everybody” believed in some form of life after death, be it a journey over a river to a dark land, an eternity of hellfire and torment, a paradise with angels and ambrosia, or a reunion with loved ones. We have created many metaphors to carry us across the Styx. Some cultures believed, and believe, in rebirth and the migration of souls. In 21st-century Christian countries, orthodox religious services still routinely profess faith in the resurrection of the body. Painting and poetry and mythology offer us visions of heaven and hell, some horrific, and some, like Stanley Spencer’s, reassuring and comforting. But I’ve always suspected that most of us, even in the pious, priest-dominated Middle Ages, didn’t really believe what we said we believed. Most of us knew that when we were dead, we were gone. We went nowhere. We ceased to be. That’s what we didn’t like about death – not fear of hell, but fear of nothingness.
This is, historically, anthropologically, a heretical position to hold, and when I try to argue it I am usually shouted down. I’ve got no historical imagination, I am told. Things were different then, scholars insist. Human nature was different then.
And maybe it was. Even in my lifetime, I have known a few people of faith, true believers, who would certainly have gone to heaven, if there were one. More than a century ago, Robert Browning may well have expected to meet his wife Elizabeth Barrett Browning in the hereafter, as he wrote in his great death-defying poem “Prospice”, one of the first works I ever learnt by heart. “O thou soul of my soul! I shall clasp thee again, and with God be the rest!” Their lives together on Earth had been so miraculous that one miracle more would not have been surprising.
The delusion of an afterlife also seems to have a grim hold on modern-day martyrs, if we can believe all that we are told. But that’s another story, another subject, and so alien to most of us that it is hard to contemplate.
I would contend that in the largely secular west we now live in a post-religious era, where true faith in survival after death, pleasant or unpleasant, is restricted to a small minority. That’s not a contentious position, but it leaves the rest of us to struggle with the meaning of death, as we can no longer see it as a staging post to somewhere else, or as a great adventure, or even, in the alleged last words of Henry James, as “the distinguished thing”. Death is becoming less and less distinguished.
One of the problems with death in our time is that it becomes increasingly avoidable, or at least postponable. We are materialists, and we don’t believe in the soul. There is no ghost in the machine. We find medical solutions to medical problems, we dutifully take our statins, and our financial advisers and their actuaries declare that our life expectancy is increasing day by day, hour by hour. This is meant to be a good thing, like the ever-rising price of property, but on one level we all know it is not. When more good news about longevity is proclaimed on radio bulletins, there is usually a curiously sombre note of foreboding in the announcer’s voice. For it is not a sustainable trajector.
Popular science and even academic conferences discuss the possibilities of human beings living for hundreds of years or longer, but some of us remember the terrible fate of Jonathan Swift’s immortal struldbrugs on the island of Luggnagg, in Gulliver’s Travels, condemned to live on with diminished faculties into extreme old age. Swift does not mince his words: his immortals (of whom the women are of course more “horrible” than the men) “had not only the follies and infirmities of other old men, but many more which arose from the dreadful prospect of never dying. They were not only opinionative, peevish, covetous, morose, vain, talkative, but incapable of friendship, and dead to all natural affection, which never descended below their grand-children. Envy and impotent desires are their prevailing passions … they forget the common appellation of things, and the names of persons, even of those who are their nearest friends and relations. For the same reason, they never can amuse themselves with reading, because their memory will not serve to carry them from the beginning of a sentence to the end …” He might have been describing the inmates of a 21st-century care home for the elderly.
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