Tag Archives: afterlife

Grave Goods

Over on Facebook at the weekend, William Rathouse shared some fascinating content about how we might want to be buried, and what a modern person might choose by way of grave goods, along with some beautiful photographs where people had arranged themselves in this way. It raises some interesting questions.

I’m never really sure what to think about life after death. My working assumption is that this may be all we get. I do have feelings about reincarnation and ghosts and ancestors, but hold it all in a state of don’t-really-know. What you put in a grave depends a lot on why you are putting it there, I think.

If I wanted tools for the afterlife, my priority item would be a sturdy bucket – one of the most useful bits of kit ever. I would also want a small hand axe, a knife and bowl, a saucepan tough enough to go on an open fire, scissors and sewing needles. I’d want coffee and tea – I’d take my chances with everything else I think. Pens and paper would be good.

If I wanted objects that would speak of my life, it would be a really different selection. A musical instrument, colouring pencils, a pen, a laptop, a walking stick and my walking boots, my runes, some of my books, my octopus mug, my oldest toy bear.

There’s also the possibility of being buried with the things the living do not want to keep. I wouldn’t really want to take anything with me that anyone else had an emotional attachment to and might want to hang on to. In many ways I think it makes more sense for whoever is left to dispose of me (probably my son) to make the decisions about what if anything should go with me, and what needs to go to other people. I tend to prefer having things in use, and anything that was important to me might be better employed in someone else’s hands, living on as a memory of me and continuing to be useful.

There’s a part of me quite likes the idea of being buried with little or nothing – just a shroud perhaps, or naked and covered in ochre. Is there a story I need to tell at the end of my life? Perhaps not. Perhaps it will be good just to fade into the soil and leave nothing for anyone to ponder over. Would that read as a choice to some future archaeologist, or would it look like I was very poor and uncared for? So much of how our stories read depend on what we think the context is anyway.

The afterlife of trees

Humans have a strange obsession with tidying up fallen trees. Fair enough if you need to move them off a footpath or out of a road, but a fallen tree is a gift that keeps on giving. Taking fallen wood for fuel or make something can also make sense, but taking it away because it’s deemed untidy is ridiculous.

First up there’s the should-be-obvious point that if you leave a tree to rot down it will slowly return nutrients to the soil, feeding everything else.

A fallen tree provides a home for fungi – sometimes many different kinds. It also provides homes for insects, and as the holes in it get bigger it may provide a refuge for small creatures as well. The insects homed in a dead tree in turn provide a food supply for birds and the aforementioned small creatures, who in turn provide food for predators. Things eating each other is the basis of how the natural world gets things done.

In parks, gardens and managed woodlands, I think the problem is that humans try to impose weird beauty standards on nature. Decay is part of nature. The urge to impose human values is a very human problem. Nature tends not to grow monocultures in straight lines. We train ourselves to tidy up all signs of death and decay and it is an unhealthy and destructive urge. Dead seed heads feed small birds through the winter months. Long, straggly grass provides insects with homes. Dead trees have an amazing afterlife that, even as decay is underway, is full of new life.

Out there in the real world, decay and growth go hand in hand. One thing dies and another thing rises. Beautiful fungi forms emerge from the rotting wood. Dead trees are a key part of the life of the forest. Humans too often treat decay as something to fight and try to control. It offends us. It reminds us that our faces won’t stay smooth and unblemished. It reminds us that we are mortal. We don’t like being reminded that we are mortal, and so we go to great lengths to hide mortality from ourselves. We worry about afterlives we can only imagine, while failing to recognise the beauty and power of the physical afterlife that turns our remains into something new.

Weighing your heart

There’s a concept in Egyptian myth about how, in the afterlife, the heart of the deceased is weighed against a feather. A heart that is too heavy with sin and guilt will sink and is eaten, and thus endeth everything for that person. I have absolutely no certainty about what happens to us when we die, but I have read a few things that interest me around how the consciousness we develop might impact what we get when our bodies pack up.

So, with no assumptions about the literal truth of any of this, what might make our hearts weigh heavy, and what might lighten them?

It would seem obvious to think about the weight of pain we have caused to others as balanced against the love, joy and compassion we have brought into the world. How does that balance up? The odds are we do not really know. We can look at our intentions, and whatever feedback we get, but quite how we affect anyone else remains a mystery. Doing good things is no guarantee, because there are people who take offence at bleeding heart do gooder types. In being nice to people we can reinforce their most destructive behaviours. In insisting on thinking the best, we can become enablers of abuse. If we do not know the consequences of our actions, how does that weigh on our hearts?

‘Sin’ is a word I find difficult. The idea of sin is so often religiously based and doesn’t have as much as it might to do with how we treat each other and the planet. Which leads me round to the thought that prompted all of this. I woke this morning with the idea of a carbon balance in my mind. If there are gods who weigh and measure, what if the current balance is all about our carbon? How big is your carbon footprint? How many trees have you planted? How much carbon is there, weighing on your heart?

Being Judged

Modern Paganism doesn’t do much in terms of imagining post-death judgement. This is one of the things I happen to like. The idea of someone keeping score, and judging me against an unknown set of rules or criteria has never felt like a comfortable thing. There are so many religions that know that one true way to guaranteed passing the end of your life test. Unfortunately many of them are incompatible, and don’t even agree about what the ultimate goal is.

I rather like the ancient Egyptian take on this one. After death, the heart of the dead person is weighed in the underworld, the Gods providing the equipment and seeing the process through, but not actually judging anything. It is the heart of the individual that provides judgment.

We are what we do. We are constantly in the process of becoming the sum and total of our actions. Flawed, striving, learning, we make mistakes, some of them terrible. The weight of the heart will not depend entirely on those mistakes, but also on what we did after them. The person who apologises, makes amends, seeks to redress the wrong done, will have a much lighter heart than the one who carries that guilt and the weight of wrongdoing. In this system, our delusions and fantasies shouldn’t turn out to count for much. The person who is joyfully evil should not come to the final reckoning with a light heart. But then, having been neither joyfully evil, or consciously dead, I can only speculate and there’s no knowing if the Egyptians had it right.

In interesting parallel, I read a book about consciousness back in the summer (title eludes me). It talked about how we construct our own minds, through thoughts, actions, beliefs, until at last we end up with the consciousness we die with. The writer felt that a consciousness in harmony, one that loved, sought truth and lived well, would be better placed to either survive death, and continue in a meaningful way, or voluntarily dissipate and join once more with everything else. A consciousness built of hatred, greed, selfishness and other such negative traits would simply go on to create its own hell. It’s a vision that calls for no external judgement at all, and simply makes our outcome the product of our own actions. Hell is something we may, or may not, choose to make for ourselves, both in this life and, potentially, in whatever comes after.

It brings us back again to the interesting issues of how death shapes life, and how beliefs about death inform what we choose to do. Are you expecting judgement from an eternal source that has the potential simultaneously to bestow meaning and reward?  Do you believe there is nothing beyond life and that you may as well please yourself in every regard? Do you believe that there is nothing else and that the only option is to live well and do the best with what you’ve got? If your heart went on the scales today, how would it weight?

There’s a lovely mediaeval song called Lyke Wake Dirge, about going through purgatory after death. “If ever thou gavest hosen and shoon… sit thee down and put them on… if never thou gavest hosen or shoon… the whinnies shall prick thee to the bare bones’. There’s another pair of verses about meat and drink following on from the shoes and socks. I like the idea that in the afterlife, all that we will have to help us on the journey to the next stage, will be what we gave to others. That’s a judgement I could live with.

Tales of spirit and afterlife

One of my core beliefs is that we cannot know what comes after this life. We can guess, and we can make up stories but the uncertainty is intrinsic to the human condition, and I am sceptical about any claims to knowing. However, ideas about the afterlife shape what many people do in this one, and it’s nice to have some kind of working model to pin current existence to. Up until recently I had a very simple working model – accepting the state of not knowing, I would assume there was nothing beyond my own biology and no afterlife, and live accordingly. So while I’m a spiritual person, I have adopted a more atheistic mindset for how I approach life. It’s a good, pragmatic approach, but it lacked spirit and I’ve never been wholly easy with it.

What I’m going to share today is the new story about the afterlife that I’ve been working on, and have decided to adopt. It owes a bit to Phillip Pullman, there’s nothing especially original here.

If we took my computer apart, we would not find the internet inside it. We would not find the means to create and store the entire internet either. If the internet was an unproven, theoretical idea and we thought maybe it didn’t exist, we might find my computer passably supported this. And at time of writing, I’m not online. The quest for internet, from the boat, is frequently an act of faith and devotion! Now, there is no cluster of cells in the brain that can happily be designated as the soul. We’re not even entirely clear on how consciousness works. Hopefully you see where I’m going with this. What if consciousness and soul are to the body what internet is to the computer? Or the television and radio signals are to those devices? Without getting bogged down in the metaphor, there is room in a rational reality for things that make a thing go, but do not live inside it.

Now, what if soul is not a single, indestructible lump of stuff? What if it has more in common with the rest of physical reality, such that it can disintegrate, and change? So when we get to the end of our lives, our continuation as a coherent spiritual identity might depend on a number of things – strength of soul and personality, having the kind of self that is able to survive (what would than mean?) being happy enough with oneself to want to continue, intact, into another form. A person could choose to merge into the whole, Nirvana style. They could choose to disintegrate from self loathing. They could choose to reincarnate. They could be too weak to do anything but disintegrate.

I like this for a number of reasons. All those people who think they were Napoleon in a former life get to be sort of right, they have a bit of something that once was, and those kinds of famous, high impact spirits are likely to be more visible even if you only get a shard. There is no requirement for an external judge in this story, we do it to ourselves, we get to choose. There is continuation of spirit, but not necessarily continuation of conscious awareness, which would explain why some of us remember bits of past life and some do not. There is room to find more than one person in life for whom you feel deep soul resonance, because there may be many souls with whom you have some sparks in common. There may be scope (I nod to Pullman here) for those who are very close to become part of the same entity after death. This story holds room for change, chaos and uncertainty, but also for continuity, it’s not offering any kind of clear certainty, but lots of possibility. There is scope for inherent justice within it, because to get to choose what happens to you after life, you will need the kind of soul whole enough, aware enough, strong enough to do that. What people will get at the end would depend a great deal on what they have done along the way.

While this story does not require the presence of a judgemental deity, it also doesn’t preclude the idea of deity, and I like that too. After all, what does happen to a really enlightened, really powerful soul that has been through various incarnations? There’s room to birth gods here.

I know it’s a story. I might be right, I might not, and I hold that uncertainty very carefully. I like this story because it has scope to be useful, and it gives me a new way of looking at the world. I’ve spent a decade or so with the ‘no afterlife’ story informing what I do, and that was interesting, but it’s time to experiment with a new perspective and see what I can learn by holding it. No doubt at some point along the way I will feel the urge to fettle it. I may even abandon it entirely in favour of something else. This is an idea I am increasingly comfortable with. Our relationship with reality must grow and change as we do. All good relationships grow and change if we stay in them. Absence of change is not a hallmark of fidelity, it’s a very slow way of smothering something to death.