On burial rites … and a meaningful life.


And now… a super-cheerful essay to celebrate my 32nd birthday!

If you’re writing about conflicts between religious and scientific worldviews, eventually you get stuck writing about death.

Within many religious frameworks, inevitable death lurking somewhere down the line doesn’t alter the meaning of the life that comes before it.  I’m typing this essay during the gap between the local university’s graduation and K’s high school graduation, so it’s hard for me not to draw an analogy between many religion’s conception of death and graduation.  The fact that schooling eventually ends doesn’t negate the meaning of the time spent there.  You learn something (hopefully!), you work toward building an adult self (hopefully!), then you enter the real world.  Likewise, many religions interpret this current lifetime as preparation toward an afterlife.  Maybe the afterlife will be corporeal, following reincarnation, maybe it’ll be incorporeal in some type of spirit realm, but either way the preceding finite lifetime preserves its meaning because choices made during that life have repercussions that carry on into the afterlife.

(This is my one complaint about Veronica Roth’s Divergent, by the way.  For much of the book, her characters seemed to inhabit a secular world; only after her parents’ sacrifice was a Christian perspective with its promise of eternal life in heaven introduced.  And I think this mutes the implication of the parents’ sacrifice.  It would have seemed more powerful to me for them to give up everything for their daughter; instead, when they save her they merely transition from this world to the next.  But then again, Roth’s book was published as YA.  It’s perhaps unfair to expect a youth book to invoke the same crushing emotions that are fair game with adult readers.)

Within secular perspectives, though, death becomes problematic.  Eventually life ends; if this end is viewed as a negation of meaning, then recursive analysis backward through time would imply that no time, no matter how vivacious a person might feel at any given moment, could have meaning.  And if life has no meaning, why bother?

My favorite secular response to this question is Albert Camus’s The Myth of Sisyphus.  His premise was, if you decide that life has no external source of meaning, should you commit suicide?  He builds toward a line that surely you’ve seen quoted before:

Friedrich_John_nach_Matthäus_Loder_Sisyphus_ubs_G_0825_II“The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart.  One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”  (translated by Justin O’Brien)

Or you could consider the response given in Philip Kitcher’s recent essay Life After Faith.  His rationalization is that life retains its meaning because when we die, not everything we have influenced disappears at once (a generally valid assumption, as long as we don’t all go out from a particle-accelerator-nucleated black hole like Richard Posner speculated about in Catastrophe.  Which, don’t worry, most physicists agree that this scenario is exceptionally unlikely.  Although it is primarily physicists whose work depends upon being able to use particle accelerators who know enough to address this probability, and as ever it is worth remembering that line from Upton Sinclair: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.”  Scientists are, sadly, no less subject to unconscious bias than any other breed of human).  In Kitcher’s view, our actions create ripples in the world, and those ripples will outlive us, at least for a little while:

“The picture of something acquiring meaning through relationship to something else that already has meaning is doomed from the start, especially if the somethings are qualitatively akin.  But we can reject that picture in favor of taking meaning to lie in the relationship itself.  One life may be meaningful through its attempts to affect the lives of others, efforts that contribute to the possibility of the lives affected developing meaningfully, even though contingent factors subvert that development.”

I found myself thinking about this while out for a run, and my own list of possible sources of meaning in a secular life instead includes: pursuit of pleasure, productivity, progeny.  A runner’s rhythmic concussive footfalls push thoughts toward alliterative consonants.  I returned home, slimed the baby (to slime a baby, you go for a run on a hot muggy day, return shirtless and drenched with sweat, then promptly hug the baby to your chest.  She will need a bath.  But N gets oddly giggly every time she is slimed), then described a rough outline of this essay to K.

She immediately complained.  She feels strongly that the act of helping others (but how would I get this to have an alliterative “p” sound?) should have pride of place on the list.  And, based on his quotation above, it seems clear that Kitcher would agree with her.  But I’m a curmudgeon.  In opposition to Kitcher, I feel that aiding others can confer meaning to your life only when paired with the belief that those other lives have intrinsic meaning of their own.

For instance, I think teaching can confer meaning — after you teach people, their triumphs are in part your triumphs.  You contribute to their success.  But I think the meaning derived from teaching depends upon the value of what is taught, not the act itself.  For instance, I don’t think it counts (as far as meaningfulness goes) if you teach someone something that has no utility beyond the potential for your student to then teach that same thing to another.  You could teach huge lists of arbitrary pairings between abstract concepts, and your students could go on to teach those same pairings to future students (this is totally hypothetical, by the way.  I’m drawing no comparisons to actual subjects taught at our nation’s prestigious universities), and so you would have created a ripple of knowledge that would carry on after you die.  But if those pairings have no intrinsic utility, you won’t have brought your students, or your students’ students, any closer to meaningful triumph.

To me, the idea that relationships in and of themselves confer meaning falls into this same recursive trap.

(Although I think it’d be fair to argue that this problem is avoided if the original teacher sincerely believes that the arbitrary pairings are useful, even if they aren’t.  Similarly, helping others with their lives could add meaning to your own if you believe their lives to be enriched by pleasure, productivity, or progeny, even if you’re wrong.  Because it would be silly to think that we can only know whether our lives have been meaningful if we’ve tracked the consequences of all our actions forward through time.  Even the idea that consensus reality is more important than your own perception seems off to me, since it is you, a single potentially mistaken consciousness, that will die, so the most important thing is whether life seems meaningful from within the perspective of that consciousness.)

I suppose it’s a bit sad that my own list of potential avenues of meaning sounds a bit hedonistic (utilitarian, if you’re feeling charitable), but it’s the best I can come up with to reconcile my ethical beliefs with the sense that most (all, hopefully) people can have meaningful lives, in a wide variety of circumstances.  Even as people grow older, I think there is a reason to go on living (with some caveats, of course; I hope to have all my DNR paperwork in order before it’s time for me to go).

Because a major theme of my novel is the conflict between religious and scientific viewpoints, death looms large.  The most important issues are all related to mind and spirit — in most religions, it’s only the soul that lives on after death, and in the few I know with corporeal persistence that’s generally seen as a bad thing.  With my belief system, the entity I think of as “me” resides primarily in the pattern of connections and signals between neurons in my brain.  And yet, even when dealing with the inanimate shell that had once contained a soul, religious and scientific perspectives diverge.

I think I’ve slapped up one old piece of writing (and accompanying cartoon!) dealing with the body after death.  And for myself, I don’t want much.  I’m an organ donor; after I go, I hope people have a chance to take from former-me anything they might need.  After that, I just want for my bones to be kept in a burlap sack and ferried from place to place by my daughter, wherever she might go.  I’ve wanted this even before I had a daughter to saddle with the responsibility, ever since I read Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon.

“Pilate, your father’s body floated up out of the grave you all dug for him.  One month later it floated up.  The Butlers, somebody, put his body in the cave.  Wolves didn’t drag the white man to the front of the cave and prop him on a rock.  That was your father you found.  You’ve been carrying your father’s bones–all this time.”

Some others prefer the idea of interment within a coffin, although Bertram Puckle, who authored a surprisingly humorous volume titled Funeral Customs: Their Origin and Development , strongly opposes this practice: “The placing of antiseptic carbolic sawdust, etc., in the coffin greatly tends to preservation, whilst the use of india-rubber and other such expedients is the outcome of foolish sentiment which seeks to delay the reasonable and inevitable courses of Nature in reclaiming what she has lent us.”

(I’m not sure if this quotation gives you an accurate representation of how jovial his book is.  Here, let me include a passage from the first page:

“Has Nature, then, her undertaker?  Certainly she has.  He is appropriately known as the Necrophorus mortuorum, or more popularly as the sexton beetle, for he is equipped with spade and all that is necessary for “undertaking.”

There is much that the human variety might learn from this humble and industrious insect.  Whilst he is dressed in a conventional garb of black, he seeks to enliven matters by means of two broad bands of yellow on his back.  He is cheery, and when his duties are over for the day he indulges in a little music, not perhaps entirely a matter of art for art’s sake, but like most joyous notes of nature, his immediate object is to attract the attention of the opposite sex.

In praising the Necrophorus mortuorum, we must admit that in his work he is not actuated by motives of disinterested philanthropy any more than is the case with the human undertaker.

Nature is indeed far too wise to entrust any important work to the spasmodic efforts of the well-intentioned.  If she wants a job done thoroughly, she does not grudge a reasonable wage for services rendered.”)

But my vote for the most ecologically-sound funeral custom goes to the Parsis.  In Mumbai, their corpses are left atop the Tower of Silence for vultures.  When we were traveling through India, a friend and I attempted to visit.  We were, perhaps reasonably, denied admittance.  The woman who first came out to greet us was about to let us in (after interrogating my friend as to whether she was on her period, explaining “If it was your temple, you would not allow someone with blood to walk inside.  It would profane.”), but then a young gentleman with an AK-47 stepped forward and said “No, no outsiders.”

CapturePerhaps there is a chance that they would have let us see the aviaries, though.  There were no accompanying aviaries when we visited, back in 2005, but I believe there now are.  And there is a striking pair of sentences in Gardiner Harris’s New York Times article:

The cost of building the aviaries and maintaining the vultures is estimated at $5 million spread over 15 years, much less expensive than it would have been without the ready supply of food.

“Most vulture aviaries have to spend huge sums to buy meat, but for us that’s free because the vultures will be feeding on human bodies — on us,” Mr. Mehta said.