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After Life: Ways We Think About Death

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For my mother, Wendy, whose love and courage will always inspire me.
And in memory of Joy, whose love of life lives on.

Introduction

From the beginning of our history, humans have sung, danced, painted and written about death. But these days we don’t talk much about death, especially around kids. Why is that? All human beings die, after all—and with almost eight billion of us on the planet, there’s a lot of dying going on.

Death has always been mysterious. Just as babies can’t look back and tell us anything about where they were before they were born, no one who dies can come back to tell us where they went and what it was like. So we’ve always tried to understand and explain not only what happens to us when we are no longer living, but also how we should live our lives to make sure that what happens after we die is good.

In the last century, though, the way we deal with death has changed. Especially in places where advances in medicine and public health have helped people live much longer, most people die in hospital now rather than at home. Undertakers at funeral homes, rather than our families, take care of our bodies when we die. Because we rarely see and experience it up close, death seems more mysterious than ever.

A boy visits a grave in a Muslim cemetery. ZURIJETA/SHUTTERSTOCK.COM

When I was growing up, death was around—my baby sister died days after she was born, my friend’s father died suddenly, and my twelve-year-old classmate died when he was hit by a car. But I didn’t attend a funeral or see a dead body until my grandmother died, when I was in my early twenties.

Much later I was with my sister-in-law when she died, surrounded by her family. Joy’s death was tragic and terribly sad, but being with her and her extended family at that moment was one of the most important experiences in my life. Not long afterward, I became involved in my community’s hospice, a place where people who are dying receive special care, so I got to think a lot about death and dying. That’s how I came to write this book.

In a military cemetery, a family gathers to remember someone—a father, husband and son—who has died. WHL/GETTY IMAGES

Why do we die? Why don’t we live forever? What happens when we die? Even the earliest human beings, hundreds of thousands of years ago, grappled with these questions. This book looks at some of the answers modern science provides, as well as what a few of the world’s cultures and religions, past and present, tell us about this greatest of mysteries. Each chapter includes a story or history from an ancient or Indigenous culture. Some of these might seem familiar to you, because there are so many different versions of the same story in different cultures. In the last chapter, we also look at grief, the process we go through after someone close to us has died.

Since death is something we don’t talk about very much, some of the facts and ideas in After Life might surprise you. I hope the book will interest you and answer some of your questions. But if you find anything upsetting or worrying, please don’t keep it to yourself. Talk to an adult you trust. May After Life be the beginning of many good conversations.

CHAPTER ONE

We Are Stardust

The atoms in the stardust and gases that came together to form Earth are the same ones that we are made from. YUSUF YILMAZ/SHUTTERSTOCK.COM

Earth was formed around five billion years ago, when gases and dust from the explosions of giant stars came together. Today everything on and in our beautiful blue planet is made from that same stardust. Every rock and every living thing contains those first atoms, which have been recycled over and over and over since our planet was formed. And, yes, every living thing includes you and me.

The human body contains about seven octillion (that’s seven followed by twenty-seven zeros!) atoms, almost all of them hydrogen, oxygen, carbon or nitrogen atoms. Since all of those atoms have been endlessly recycled since Earth’s formation, it’s quite possible that some of the atoms in your body were once in a dinosaur or a strange creature at the bottom of the sea, a giant sequoia tree or a tiny alpine flower near the top of a mountain.

Like all other living things, humans die. And when we die, those zillions of atoms we contain will be recycled once again and returned to the great pool of matter and energy from which all of life flows. We are simply part of a giant cycle of life and death.

Thanatology is the study of death and all the ways in which people today and throughout history think about and deal with it. The word comes from the ancient Greek word for death, thanatos.

THE AFTERLIFE

It’s natural for us to fear death. Like most other living things on earth, even plants, we are “hardwired” to protect ourselves and fight for our lives. But human beings can also think about life and death, and create stories to explain them and rituals to mark them, as every human culture has done since human culture began. And in every culture, both in history and today, we can see evidence of our desire for an afterlife—some kind of continuation of ourselves after death.

Ideas about the afterlife are almost as varied as human beings are. But there are some patterns. For example, people in most cultures believe there is something other than our physical body, a spirit or soul that joins our body before we are born and leaves it when we die.

Some people believe that, like the atoms that make up the human body, the human spirit or soul is part of a giant cycle, coming back to life after death over and over again. This is called reincarnation. Others believe the soul doesn’t come back but carries on forever in some other realm that can’t be seen by the living.

In most versions of the afterlife, though, how people live their lives here on earth will determine what happens after they die.

RECYCLING SOULS

The idea of the human soul or spirit being recycled has been around for thousands of years. The belief that the soul of a person who dies will be reborn in another body is found in religions and cultures all over the world, again with ...

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