I was focused on the menu when the pub server approached our table. A cheery voice said, "Are we all ready to order?". This was a few nights ago.
I looked up. She was young and bright-looking—maybe 23 or 24 . But the tattoo just below her neck revealed something more than cheeriness in her personality. Memento mori, it said. It doesn't translate neatly from Latin. An essentially literal rendition would be "remember dying" (or "death"). But a more accurate (if unavoidably wordy) way of conveying what an ancient Roman would feel and think upon hearing their famous saying is: Remember: sooner or later we all die.
The sight of the server and her tattoo flashed across my mind a few minutes ago, because as we waited to board the plane we're now on as I type this, Dad received an email telling him his brother Tim (my uncle) had passed away.
Uncle Tim's passing followed the recent passing of my Uncle Robbie. And just three years ago, my Uncle Gary was the first of the four Bachman brothers to pass. My dad—the eldest—is now the only son left of Charles and Nancy Bachman, my grandparents. And one day, Dad will pass, too, just as I will, and everyone reading this.
What exactly happens upon our death remains a mystery, at least for some of us. Devout theists and mystics feel certain we have spirits, and that they last forever. Most believe that upon our death, those spirits ascend to heaven (or maybe, descend to hell, or at least to some wait station). By contrast, strict materialists feel certain our death is the end of our consciousness. In their telling, we die and that's it. No more consciousness, and no afterlife. But some of us struggle to feel any certainty at all.
The truth is, I'm not sure where my uncles are right now. Or my grandparents. Or my great friend, Drew, who passed away fall of 2021, or anyone else who's passed on.
I say I'm not sure, and I'm not. At the same time, I find it difficult to believe their unique spirits—their unique selves—have completely ceased to exist. The miracle of life, of consciousness, is so immeasurably infinite and complex, that only the most narrow, arrogant, crabbed mind could dare deny the possibility that transcendent intention brought forth our existence. And if it did, then it seems improbable that death would truly be the end. Our lives seem too brief a time to justify the complex apparatus of creation. It's easy to suspect there's more going on.
A skeptic might respond that the inferences I'm drawing from human life would also apply with equal force to every living creature—snails and earthworms, wildebeests and cheetahs, grizzlies and cougars, minnows and whales. Do they have spirits, too, which live on after death? The implication of this question is: Humans are part of the animal kingdom as much as, say, field mice, so you can't believe in human immortality without believing in field mouse immortality—and that's ridiculous.
But maybe what's ridiculous is for any of us to presume to know what qualifies as "ridiculous" when it comes to this kind of stuff. The odds of life, consciousness, intelligence—let alone their vast variety of interdependent forms—even existing in the first place are so vanishingly minuscule, that I'm not sure how anything could be ruled out.
So my immediate answer to "So might field mice have immortal spirits, too?" is, "Maybe. Who knows?".
Maybe John, the author of Revelation, did see this in vision:
"And every creature which is in heaven, and on the earth, and under the earth, and such as are in the sea, and all that are in them, heard I saying, Blessing, and honour, and glory, and power, be unto him that sitteth upon the throne, and unto the Lamb for ever and ever!"
This reminds me of a strange experience I once had many years ago. I had sheep on my new little hobby farm, and I took a lamb down to Mr. Byron's farm for slaughter. This little lamb was snow white and fleecy. He was right out of William Blake's famous poem, "Little Lamb, Who Made Thee?":
Little Lamb who made thee?
Dost thou know who made thee?
Gave thee life & bid thee feed
By the stream & o'er the mead
Gave thee clothing of delight
Softest clothing, wooly bright
Gave thee such a tender voice,
Making all the vales rejoice!
Once I arrived at Mr. Byron's farm, I carried the lamb out of the back of my pickup. We laid him on his back on the ground. The elderly farmer was an old hand at this—I was a novice. He used the traditional method: sharp knife in at the side of the neck instantly followed by two lighting quick moves: one to make death quick and inevitable, the other to prevent any pain. Within milliseconds, the little lamb lay dying right before me.
And in that moment, to my shock, I saw something. At least I thought I did. I saw a spirit leave the lamb's body. The sight only lasted a moment—half a second maybe. But the spirit was distinctly visible. And then, for a split-second, I saw the whole scene from high above where we were standing. Looking down, I could see Mr. Byron, the dying lamb, me standing next to them on the grass, pickup truck nearby, the farmhouse, everything. In that moment, it felt like the boundary between this realm, and some adjacent realm, began to melt. But just as quickly, all was back to normal. A few moments later, the lamb had died. But maybe, I felt, some part of him—the part I saw—hadn't.
I've had other experiences over the years that make me wonder. Some turned out to be prophetic. In a flash, a vision of an almost impossible-to-believe future unfolded, then vanished. And then, weeks or months later, it came true. How could that be? What those premonitions and glimpses feel like is a wrinkle in time—an accidental skip-ahead. But there's nothing in our body of scientific knowledge which could support such a theory. And yet...it happens at times. So what are we to make of that?
Once again, I am left with far more questions than answers. But underneath those questions, some intuition—some proto-faith—remains. And some of it entails glimpses of a life after our deaths here.
And so, after all the critical thinking and Occamic razors and scientific this and that, I still hope to see my uncles again one day, and my grandparents, and Drew, and all the other people I've known and loved who have passed on. And wherever they all may be, and all your loved ones, too...I hope they are at peace.
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