Here’s the hustle of bad religion: The scarier religion makes death (and what comes after it), the more you buy into their message, and the more you’re obedient to their precepts. So much of our death shaming comes from the temples, holy books, and firey teachers of religion that have to heighten your fear to garner your obedience. Death, and what comes after it, has to be horrible to make it all work. On the other hand, once you lose your fear of death (and fear of hell), bad religion loses its power over your mind, and you can gravitate towards healthy religion or none at all.
When the reality of hell comes to a head at funerals, I don’t think we actually think anyone goes to hell. Sure, many religious people believe in hell, but few actually believe THEIR family and THEIR friends and THEIR community go there. I write in my book, that of the thousands of funerals I’ve worked, “I have never once heard a pastor state conclusively that the person they are memorializing was going to hell … pastors have done some fancy preaching for those who have lived less than generous, kind, and loving lives.” Hell may exist as an idea, but — for most — it doesn’t exist as a reality.
Maybe it’s time we jettison the idea too. I mean, have you read some of the ideas of hell? They’re so horrible it’s almost funny. It’s like stuff made up to scare to children …
One. In Dante’s Inferno (a great book that Disney should animate [fingers-crossed]), there are a whole lot of scare-the-disobedience-out-of-you descriptions of hell. My personal favorite? If you were a flatterer in life, you will live in a sea of poop when you die … which means that politicians (who are known to be full of crap) will go to a place as shitty as their promises.
Two. Also of note in Dante’s Inferno: If you commit suicide, you’re turned into a living thorn bush that is constantly eaten by birds. I have not idea if such a punishment is even painful (I mean, maybe I want to be eaten by birds if I’m full of thorns because at least I’m not entirely isolated by my thorniness), but I do know these special types of punishment for suicide helped create the shame culture surrounding suicide. Let’s be clear: suicide (and suicidal attempts) does not deserve punishment from us, or the gods.
Three. Chinese Taoism has a hell funhouse that consists of 19 levels with varying degrees of mutilation. In one such level, you get thrown off a cliff where you’ll eventually land on a ground made of knives. To review: if the impact from falling off a cliff doesn’t kill you, the knives will.
Four. Taoism has another level where you’re continuously dismembered, and THEN crushed by giant rocks, and THEN fed through dismemberment machines, and THEN run over by chariots … just in case the dismemberment, rocks, and machines didn’t hurt enough.
Five. Niflheim in Norse mythology is probably the version that frightens me the most because instead of being hot, it’s VERY, VERY cold. My greatest fear — aside from the existential void of meaninglessness — is not having enough blankets on a cold night. To make Niflheim even more frightening, they added a snake that goes around eating people. Extreme cold. Deadly snakes. Yikes.
Six. Now the Jewish “Gehenna” has some teeth to it. “Gehenna” was a place outside of Jerusalem. At one point in the history of Judaism, some Jewish kings decided to worship the god Moloch, who — didn’t demand wheat, goats, and money like the “nice” gods of the ancients — but babies. They’d heat up a large skillet and threw their children into the skillet in sacrifice to Moloch. When “Gehenna” was mentioned throughout the Bible, the image of hot skillets and burning children is the image that would be conjured in the minds of the Jews.
Seven. Moving on from Gehenna, I present to you Diyu, the Chinese hell with 18 different levels, with each level having a different torture chamber, all of which sound like an S&M dungeon. There’s the chamber of ripping, the chamber of knives, the chamber of ice, the chamber of pounding, and the chamber of uncomfortably tight latex.
Eight. The Babylonians clearly didn’t understand the political value of hell. In fact, it sounds like they were just a bunch of self-loathing Calvinists who believed that all of us deserve it. Because, for the Babylonians, everyone — from the best to the worst — ended up going to the bad place.
Nine. Avici was hell for certain sects of Buddism. It wasn’t eternal like some of the Christian versions, but it still lasted trillions of years. But, unlike most other hells, YOU COULD ACTUALLY DIE IN AVICI. Unfortunately, you’d be reborn in the same place only to suffer torment unto death all over again. It’s basically Bill Murray’s Groundhog Day as a horror movie.
Ten. One of the Hindu ideas of hell is called “Narak”, a place of 23 different levels of torture. One such level consists of constant diarrhea. I’ve been to Mexico. I’ve had Montezuma’s Revenge, and it’s not all that horrible. But have you ever had to do a number three and there was no toilet in sight? That. Is. Living. Hell. And if that’s what Narak consists of, I’m truly frightened and I’ll be a good boy to avoid it.
I don’t believe that afterlife hell exists. If you do believe in it, I hope you’ve grown out of it. In other words, I hope that hell doesn’t have a hold on you because this is literally the control system of immature children, or disobedient dogs. It’s the most base form of human motivation: fear. And as long as we fear death, and what (doesn’t) come after it, we’ll never be able to enjoy life, nor will we ever be able to have a good relationship with death.
Some of this content comes from my book, “Confessions of a Funeral Director.” Click the picture below to read more:
I remember the first time I used the brown, one foot wide by two feet long, wood, velvet lined box.
No need for the pomp of a hearse. I used my own car to drive to the hospital.
It looks like an inconspicuous tool box, with dings and dents and stains.
No one knows what I’m doing when I carry the box into the hospital. Nobody is supposed to know.
Nobody wants to know.
On my way back from the hospital I thought about that little brown box.
I thought about how it contained all the greatest hopes and fears of humanity.
I thought how it contained the heights of humanity’s passions,
the height of our joys,
the hope of our future,
and the very miracle of God.
At the same time, this brown box contained the impetus to the deepest questions our soul can ask,
the hardest tears we can cry and the profoundest pain we can feel.
All in this little box.
Usually, when we go to the hospital to pick up a body we bring a stretcher to carry the dead weight of a deceased adult, but on these occasions we bring the brown box to pick up the dead infants.
I’ve been seeing status updates like the one below floating around social media by those claiming to be apart of the religious community.
As someone who considers himself a part of the faith community, I’m going to hope that this type of rhetoric represents a fringe opinion of a small segment of the faith community that (unfortunately) would rather extend judgment than grace and is more satisfied in self-righteousness than empathy and compassion. And while I’d be presumptuous to assume that the majority within the faith community AGREE with Brittany’s decision, I AM going to assume that the majority of the faith community have NOT looked upon Brittany Maynard and deemed her a “coward”. My hope is that the majority have attempted to understand her situation and have embraced the tension that “death with dignity” may place upon your faith system.
I know the tension. We want to respect the traditions of our faith and the held certainties of our scripture and yet we also — to some degree or another — want to extend compassion, understanding and mercy. This is the tension of the faith community: we have one foot planted in tradition and another foot planted in the present.
Is Choosing “Death with Dignity” Actually Suicide?
Monsignor Ignacio Carrasco de Paula, a Vatican official and head of the Pontifical Academy for Life condemned the death of Maynard, calling her death “an absurdity.”
“This woman [took her own life] thinking she would die with dignity, but this is the error ….
Suicide is not a good thing. It is a bad thing because it is saying no to life and to everything it means with respect to our mission in the world and towards those around us …
Brittany Maynard’s gesture is in itself to be condemned, but what happened in her conscience is not for us to know.”
The assumption that Brittany Maynard and those who would choose “Death with Dignity” are committing suicide and saying “no to life” isn’t as bullet proof as we’d like to think. It’s important to remember that — by law — those who choose “death with dignity” (such as Maynard) must have two medical doctors confirm that the patient is indeed terminal and will die within six months.
Unlike suicide, the terminal patient isn’t making a choice between death and life, it’s a choice between two kinds of death. Ethan Remmel PH.D wrote about his terminal illness for Psychology Today back in 2011. He writes:
“I have received some feedback on my thoughts about the Death with Dignity Act. As I said, I have not decided whether to use this option, but I feel strongly that it should be legally available to mentally competent and terminally ill people such as myself. As I also said, I do not view it as “suicide” (although that is a convenient term), because I would not really be choosing between living and dying. I would be choosing between different ways of dying. If someone wishes to deny me that choice, it sounds to me like they are saying: I am willing to risk that your death will not be slow and painful. Well, thanks a lot, that’s brave of you.”
Perhaps Richard Drew’s “The Falling Man”, a picture of a man who jumped from the World Trade Center on 9/11 drives home Remmel’s point:
Is “The God Argument” Really Helpful?
Another element – and a VERY strong element – is the belief that God and ONLY God should choose when a person dies.
I can understand the passion that resides in the hearts of believers. And while the God element is the center of the believer’s life — we need to understand that – on a national and state level — this discussion is not being held in a church forum, it’s being held in a public sphere. And so the “let God decide when we die” arguments wouldn’t work outside the walls of our houses of worship. If you are a believer and you disagree with “death with dignity”, it’s certainly okay to voice your opinion — in fact you should — but realize this America isn’t the America of a couple decades ago and “the God argument” won’t suffice.
Furthermore, the conversation is simply too complex for the “let God decide when we die” answer. With modern technology, the situation is often the case that humans do indeed have some say in the matter. Whether it be passive euthanasia, like taking off life support and forms of palliative care (i.e. hospice), we often have to make the decision whether or not to continue to pursue medical support.
In fact, now more than any other time in human history, humans are presented with this choice: Do we want quality of life or quantity of life? Do we want to extend life through artificial means, or do we forego medical aid and die on our own terms? We are being asked to make decisions that were previously “left up to God.” We are, as we grow and expand our knowledge of the human body, determining more and more of our fate. And as medicine has created “miracle” after “miracle” there has to be a point when we say, “I’m tired of the miracles. I’m ready to die.”
When the Faith Community Embraces End-of-Life Care
When community is at the center of death, the end stage of life becomes not an embarrassment of dependence, but a beautiful display of love … a time when the community shines forth its compassion, care and giving. When you have good community and you’re terminal, there are few things that display the beauty of community more than the end stage of life.
I‘ve seen it and let me say that while death is always somehow painful (even for those who choose “death with dignity”), it’s not always ugly. There’s few things that move me more than seeing the loving care of a family who have utterly surrounded their loved one in both the dying and in the death.
So here’s my main point: the “good death” isn’t ultimately defined by one’s lack of pain, but by one’s family and friends … or by one’s faith community. The good, terminal sickness is defined by having family over 24/7, sharing the experience, sharing your words of love through actions.
And actions — our orthopraxy — is where the faith community has something to say in the end-of-life discussion. In a time when we major on apologetics and words of orthodoxy, it’s important to remember that “I was sick and you looked after me” is the call of believers. When the aged are becoming the marginalized of society, being sent away to nursing homes and retirement communities where they can be hidden from the rest of us; when the sick are sent to cold, sterile hospitals; it does us well to remember that whether or not we agree with Brittany’s decision, it’s our mandate to speak words with our actions by providing love, gifts and — perhaps most importantly — community for the sick and dying.
WHY CAN’T HUMANS BE IMMORTAL?
There are some animals that don’t show signs of aging. These animals don’t have a decline in functionality nor do they lack virility. This characteristic is called “negligible senescence (or negligible aging)” and is seen in the Rougheye rockfish (which can live up to 205 years), the Ocean Quahog clam (405 years), the Aldabra Giant Tortoise (255 years) and lobsters, which some scientists believe can live the longest of the above list.
Then there are creatures that are biologically immortal. These creatures are not immortal in the “can never die” sense, they simply have no cellular senescence and would live “forever” barring disease or injury. Although, theoretically, there is an aging plateau for these creatures that occurs from exterior damage, not from internal dying.
Biologically immortal creatures include the Turritopsis nutricula Jellyfish, Hydra, some lobsters, and planarian flatworms.
If the lobster can have eternal cell reproduction, and the Giant Tortoise has negligible senescence, why can’t humanity?
This question is being asked by fringe think tanks like the American Academy of Anti-Aging Medicine, the Methuselah Foundation and the Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence. It’s being asked because scientists like Marios Kyriazis are suggesting that negligible senescence is inevitable and biological immortality is likely in humans.
OUR FIGHT WITH NATURE
The history of humanity has been defined by our relationship with nature. For the majority of our history, nature played lead character in our drama, determining how we lived and how long we lived. Whether it was drought, deluges, famine, earthquakes, prosperity, fertility, such was the force of nature that humanity sought for ways to bargain with the capricious Mother of life and death. We invented gods. Gods that we believed controlled weather. Gods who controlled fertility. And we sought to offer sacrifices of livestock and obedience if only to move the gods in our favor.
The dawn of our Enlightenment came when we realized that gods weren’t the puppeteers behind the workings of the world, but that world’s workings were made of realities that we could manipulate through science, technology and medicine. This epic discover in the history of humanity began to level the playing field with nature. No longer did we need our gods; today, we bow to science, and science responds to our sacrifices.
BIOLOGICAL IMMORALITY: THE HOPE OF MANY
The last enemy remains untouched. For 1,000s of years, we’ve dreamed of not just living healthy lives, but lives that continue indefinitely, in this world or another. From the Tree of Life to the Fountain of Youth, men and women – for reasons greedy and benevolent – have sought some form of life eternal. And what the gods could not give to our physical bodies, we now, once again fix our hopes on science.
Who wouldn’t want immortality? Isn’t this the end that ALL of us are seeking? Isn’t it an innate desire planted within each of us?
Heaven and its various forms have motivated thousands of souls towards acts of glory and acts of … well … acts like the Crusades. Many of us are on a search to rediscover Eden.
What will happen if we get what we want?
What will happen if/when we engineer a pill/a medication/a five calorie juice drink that creates negligible senescence?
What happens when we produce Methuselahs on a regular basis?
What if Jesus’ view of heaven … of eternal life … happened … here … on earth?
MORTALITY DEFINES OUR HUMANITY
While biological immortality is certainly tempting, it is our morality that creates our humanity. While greed and wars can be attributed to the violent fulfillment of our needy and fragile state, it’s also our empathy, our desire to create and reproduce and charity that is undergirded by the fact that we are mortal. Remove our mortality, and our humanity is likewise removed.
I do not know whether the advancement in bionics, medicine and artificial intelligence will fulfill our quest for immortality. I don’t know what such immortality would look like. And I don’t know if will be positive or negative. But, I DO know that if a kind of immortality takes place, those who become “eternal” will cease to be the species of human that we know today. Mortality is such a defining characteristic of humanity that to remove it makes “us” into something entirely different. It is that next evolutionary step.
If ever such a “Methuselah Pill” is manufactured, it will probably also be marketed. It will be bought and sold by the powerful few who will amass their wealth and power over hundreds of years, creating a race of legitimate superhumans.
Such a race could/will rule the world.
Death as we know it is humanity’s accountability. You can only become so powerful in one lifetime. Your hatred can only last so long. Death, in many ways, is humanity’s greatest grace.
Yes, the world as we know it exists because of death. Death defines our way of life. And while I’m sure that if we’d have the ability to create a “Methuselah Pill” that we’d have the tech to solve overpopulation and the other sundry problems. A whole new world would come into existence. A world where the prevalence of immortality could only be rivaled by the lack of immorality.
A world with human immortality is a world we can’t fully comprehend. It would be a world of gods. A new race … a new stage in the evolution of mankind.
And all this begs the question: Do we REALLY want biological immortality?
Today’s guest post is written by PreetamDas Kirtana
It always seems to be assumed that if we knew, actually knew when we were going to die or if we could get in touch in a visceral way of how short our time is that we would suddenly be, if not more productive, definitely more generous, more forgiving, and more loving. There’s a dozen or so modern little refrigerator magnet adages meant, I think, to inspire. There’s the classic: “Today is the first day of the rest of your life,” which, frankly, always just made me feel exhausted every time that I heard it, not inspired.
Sometimes I’m not sure that all of the Hallmark presents-Touched by an Angel-lives miraculously transformed after near death experiences aren’t the spiritual equivalent of high fructose corn syrup; a great high and a completely malevolent diet. Another classic handicap meant to inspire, of course, is “Live each day like it’s your last.” This assumption that this knowledge of our death would suddenly compel everyone to finally feed the hungry, not cut off other drivers in traffic, and tip their server takes too much for granted I’m afraid; namely assuming our innate goodwill and integrity.
At the risk of admitting even a little bit of my humanity and a fraction of my capacity for inhumanity, I’m not totally convinced that if I Knew that this was the last day of my life that that would necessarily inspire me to act with the um, higher good in mind. Maybe I’m the only asshole here, I don’t know, but assure me that this day is the last day of my life and feeding the hungry may not even cross my mind, but eating more of whatever I want is virtually guaranteed. I would probably not only be tempted to cut off whoever I wanted to in traffic, but there’s also the chance that I’d give in to the previously only fleeting flirtation to exact revenge on someone who cut me off by just going ahead and ramming their car. Tipping the server could possibly depend not on their fine dining serving skills and not even on just how cute they were, but possibly, on how graciously they lied after I slept with them. Hey, I know; it takes a big man to admit he’s at least a good quarter pig.
All of these messages frequently appear to be predicated on the presumed present-time benefits of life after death. The thinking seems to be that if we just absolutely knew that we’re eternal beings and that we are just one flattening by a city bus away from suddenly leaving here and rocketing to wherever “there” is, that we’d shape up. We’d be like Ebeneezer Scrooge and let the spirits do it all in one night. We’d be changed people; people changed for the better.
But what if?
What if maybe there are some benefits in believing that you’re Not eternal. Maybe this is sometimes where atheists may arguably, have a perspective worth considering, as they focus so much on the present. It’s a great day-to-day, practical, relational theology, well, belief system; sorry. It’s worth considering, if at least, a true, present time, real life living out of “doing unto others”, rather than a constant focus on hell avoidance, heaven entry, and sin management, isn’t one of the better ideologies no matter where it’s lived out, in addition to The Beatitudes, of course; but clearly no one wants to really even talk about them.
Of course, I don’t think that I could personally be an atheist again as I’ve witnessed too much grace and mercy in my own life and first hand in the lives of others to believe otherwise. While my evolving answers may not ever exactly match anyone else’s theology profile, I do believe. As I told a friend last Easter who asked if I really believed in resurrection, “I do believe in resurrection, and not only because Jesus rose from the tomb, but because I left the house today; because I got out of bed today. Because I’m standing here, now, with my head up talking about resurrection is enough reason to continue to believe in resurrection.”
While atheists may deny the Source of Grace that believers proclaim, it’s undeniable that, too often, atheists may do a better job of living grace while making no profession at all. It’s worth noting that they don’t seem to eat their own so consistently and with such relish. I wonder if “faith without works is dead, what, then, are works without faith? Maybe not a ticket to Heaven City with it’s golden streets and virgins, if that’s your belief system, but it sure does make this place, this day-to-day, this day with your coworker, with your neighbor, your spouse, your children, even your ex-, a lot more pleasant. Perhaps, it could even be a mustard seed beginning for the prophesied New heaven and New earth; a return to the garden with the banquet table where confession and compassion are more important than what we profess.
But, for some of us, maybe the very real pressure of believing “This is It. Period.” is as motivational for us as the religionist’s fear of eternal hellfire is for them. Hindus and Christians, among other religious traditions, believe in some kind of life again later. Personally, I find this belief motivational. I mean I think there’s a real element of the kick in the hindquarters that I often need to go ahead and make that apology; maybe resolve that situation now since there’s the risk or guarantee, depending on your tradition, of running in to them Again! Now, I understand that forgiveness, and reconciliation, or any act of ours is not a ticket to heaven. That’s not how grace works. And I would not be treating it as a ticket to heaven, but instead I’d be trying to use it as an assurance that when we did see each other again, that we’d speak.
I admit to laughing when comedian, Daniel Tosh jokes, “It’s like when I meet a girl and she says ‘I’m not reeaaligious, I’m just spirit-chill.’ and he jokes that he would like to say, ‘ I’m not honest, but that’s really interesting.” Brutal? Maybe, but pretty funny and I think, may have a point. Goodness knows I’ve explored at least a few traditions in some depth, even becoming somewhat immersed occasionally. But, it does feel important to pick a path, if only because in following that path we smooth the path, we prepare the way. Author William Paul Young addresses the question of whether all roads lead to God by saying something to the effect of “I don’t know if all roads lead to God. I know that God will use any road to get to us.” I like that. That has been my experience: the experience of how this idea of radical grace and the God that has a furious longing for a relationship with us slowly, incrementally, steadily growing from a shocking idea to tiny moments of getting It in our real life.
Maybe there is more later, something after this;
something better, something divine even.
I hope so.
I believe so.
But just maybe, this is one more situation that isn’t an “either/or” equation.
Even if, or when “heaven”, or the afterlife, or that part of eternity is cued for us,
it doesn’t negate the fact that this exact, particular moment will not happen again,
no matter the truth of eternity.
This moment, that person,
this circumstance, this opportunity,
not like this.
Maybe we can still “be here now”, even if, after this, we will always be somewhere relishing the “out of time” that eternity provides without regrets of being “out of time” in the moment.
No more ideas of time to be “out of”, no more ideas that grace and Love could ever be conditional.
I’ll take That heaven.
– PreetamDas Kirtana 12/17/13