Searching for any scrap of evidence for a human afterlife, I asked my very terminally ill father where he thought he was about to go. “Into that cookie jar,” he whispered. He had decided to have his body cremated, and I had purchased a twelve dollar blue and white ceramic container at Winners to serve as an urn for his ashes. My aunt thought we should splurge on a handmade urn, but my father liked the jar. Seven years later his remains rest within it in the living room next to my mother’s knitting, a few feet from where he died. I don’t know if he found himself in heaven as well, but I doubt it.
Although agnostics, my parents raised my sisters and me as Christmas and Easter Christians in the United Church of Canada, ostensibly to give each of us a solid moral compass. Time passed and I grew up, out of the United Church, and into a Searcher. Whether or not there are deities is a side issue to me. My burning questions are whether we survive our deaths and, if not, how we can find meaning in this life. Attempting to answer these questions has led me to my spiritual home in Universalist Unitarianism and, more loosely, Humanistic Paganism.
As a registered nurse, I am a regular witness to death. To me, the bodily processes of sickening and dying resemble the breakdown of machinery. When a healthy person suddenly falls ill or is catastrophically injured, an observer might imagine that the person’s soul departs his or her body as life slips away. In some deaths it appears that a life force has escaped and the face of the corpse looks vacantly peaceful.
This illusion is shattered when illness takes hold slowly, especially when people lose cognitive function prior to physical decline as occurs in neurological disease such as Alzheimer’s. More often, the dying process takes enough time that grief stricken family members may find themselves guiltily bored at their loved one’s bedside. As the shell of a formerly vibrant person continues to breathe, take fluids, and expel wastes, at what point would an observer think that the person’s soul leaves the body? A simple answer is that it doesn’t because the soul doesn’t exist. No iridescent soul vapour rises in a tendril from the left nostril at the moment of the final breath. We are all, each of us, our bodies. We live to the extent that our cells, tissues and physical systems, including our brains, function. We die when they cease to function.
In the mists of history when I was a novice nurse, I watched for clues suggestive of an afterlife for immortal human souls. I discarded the Christian notion of heaven and hell and Buddhist ideas of reincarnation. I read books claiming that the writers had glimpsed heaven in near death experiences but they seemed false and written to capitalize on readers’ yearning for immortality. I rationalized: perhaps we are like radio sets tuned into a great consciousness, and we, in the form of souls, will abandon our broken equipment and dwell elsewhere after death? Over time I have come to view this hope as unlikely, even preposterous, but I have retained the drive to find spiritual meaning in death.
I still attend church a couple of times a year. Although my heart swells with joy when I sing hymns, the minister’s sermons on the promise of heaven for believers ring hollow to me. On the other hand, the Genesis verse, oft recited on Ash Wednesday, resonates: “for dust you are and unto dust you shall return.” I explored Buddhism while living in East Asia, and still meditate in a sangha. The Buddhist principle of “no soul” is plausible to me, and wins the doctrinal battle against reincarnation handily. However, perhaps most compelling of all spiritual traditions on the subject of death is Humanistic Paganism.
Nothing concentrates the mind more than a looming deadline. For atheists and agnostics, facing the fact that we probably do not have souls that will survive our deaths injects urgency into making our time on this planet count. People who come to Humanistic Paganism, Universalist Universalism and other exploratory religions tend to be curious, adventurous intellectual and spiritual explorers who deeply value their relationships with other people, life in all of its forms and the planet and cosmos. A Naturalist Creed and The UU Seven Principles are thoughtful declarations honouring our humble, awesome place within the order and chaos of the universe.
Free Thinkers of all sorts intuitively share this understanding: we were born of this earth we will return to it upon our deaths. We are Beltane and Samhain, matter and space, purposeful energy and disheveled entropy. After many years of searching I feel that is enough. How lucky we are!
This article was originally published in Humanistic Paganism. The article has been edited for this blog.