The content of Radio Lab’s podcast rarely fails to interest or entertain and, while it was slow to grip me, the recent ‘Afterlife’ episode contained some absolute gems. It was comprised of eleven different ideas, views and suppositions around the concept of an afterlife and included a number of contributions by neuroscientist David Eagleman taken from his collection of short fiction pieces Sum: Forty Tales From the Afterlife.
‘Ineffable’ is one of these and, as someone currently involved in winding up a large proportion of a business and facing redundancy, it certainly struck a chord as I drove to work this morning. I found myself nodding in recognition as I heard the metaphors in the first paragraph, the assertion that death is for everything and the observation that things have a past. Elsewhere, I liked the notion that we might be grieved by the atoms from which we are made and the fancy that they might mourn the time they spend together as part of us.
When soldiers part ways at war’s end, the breakup of the platoon triggers the same emotion as the death of a person–it is the final bloodless death of the war. This same mood haunts actors on the drop of the final curtain: after months of working together, something greater than themselves has just died. After a store closes its doors on its final evening, or a congress wraps its final session, the participants amble away, feeling that they were part of something larger than themselves, something they intuit had a life even though they can’t quite put a finger on it.
In this way, death is not only for humans but for everything that existed.
And it turns out that anything which enjoys life enjoys an afterlife. Platoons and plays and stores and congresses do not end–they simply move on to a different dimension. They are things that were created and existed for a time, and therefore by the cosmic rules they continue to exist in a different realm.
Although it is difficult for us to imagine how these beings interact, they enjoy a delicious afterlife together, exchanging stories of their adventures. They laugh about good times and often, just like humans, lament the brevity of life. The people who constituted them are not included in their stories. In truth, they have as little understanding of you as you have of them; they generally have no idea you existed.
It may seem mysterious to you that these organizations can live on without the people who composed them. but the underlying principle is simple: the afterlife is made of spirits. After all, you do not bring your kidney and liver and heart to the afterlife with you–instead, you gain independence from the pieces that make you up.
A consequence of this cosmic scheme may surprise you: when you die, you are grieved by all the atoms of which you were composed. They hung together for years, whether in sheets of skin or communities of spleen. With your death they do not die. Instead, they part ways, moving off in their separate directions, mourning the loss of a special time they shared together, haunted by the feeling that they were once playing parts in something larger than themselves, something that had its own life, something they can hardly put a finger on.
Ineffable by David Eagleman
It is intriguing to note that the book has received critical acclaim from people of faith and atheists alike, so I have requested the book through my local library and look forward to reading more of Eagleman’s forty tales.