A Polite Chat with Dying

Do you ever think about dying? I mean, genuinely think about not existing anymore: not breathing, living in the past tense forever—a nothing?

Spare me from the discussions of the immortal soul: in the absence of actual evidence (the concept of immortality is mostly founded on overly confident proclamations, often from cult leaders out to bait you with the promise of eternal life in exchange for your money in this world), I will assume that there’s none. But I’m willing to consider the idea of eternal recurrence, that we’re actors playing out a script in this particular timeline which we’re doomed to repeat over and over for the rest of eternity.

Death has been like a bee constantly buzzing around my head. There’s always news of death within my immediate circles. I’m not sure if it’s frequency illusion (the way our minds would fixate on something when we realize that something exists, like when I suddenly noticed Suzuki APVs were everywhere in Gibraltar when I noticed one that looked like our old car), but for some reason I’ve been seeing a lot of Facebook profile pictures changing into black, or a deluge of condolences on acquaintances’ accounts.

Tombstones at Bow Cemetery, London

Or is it that I’ve naturally been curious about the nature of death to begin with?

When my mentor and good friend Brian died last year, I tried hard to find the metaphors to aptly describe the feeling. It felt like a fist punching through my insides. It felt like a limb being severed from my body. There is a gaping hole, a vacuum, a darkness.

I’ve stopped trying to describe it and have started to sit down with the loss, inviting it instead for a nice chat over a cup of coffee. What do we actually lose when someone dies? How can you lose a potential, anyway? All the good memories will remain, and the future is just you imagining something that doesn’t even exist, yet. The tragedy then is not in the actual loss (you can’t lose what you still don’t have), but in the imagined unrealized gain.

Last week, I went to Highgate Cemetery (a popular spot, as the resting place of figures such as writer Douglas Adams and political philosopher Karl Marx, to name a few), where I spent quite some time reading the messages on the tombstones of the dead: In loving memory—Always in our hearts—Will never be forgotten. What is remembered? Eventually the joy and pain and sadness disappear, and you only have the numbers and brief notes: date of birth, date of death, where they lived, what they did, important achievements. The further the dead from the present timeline, the more unemotional the details become, as if everything that should happen had happened, a straight unbroken line from the past to the current moment. (How reductive.)

Faced with the possibility of dying, you can’t help but circle back: what makes life worth living, anyway? What does it mean to have a good life, really? Some will say that it is a life lived in the service of others, some will argue it’s living your life as happily as you can. Everyone will have different answers. It’s as if life is a tree that we take something out of, depending on what we need: most will take the fruits, some will take the branches, others will take the leaves, and a few the whole trunk. All of us will try to convince the rest that we made the better decision, and there are a few extremists in the group who will try to beat those who don’t agree into submission. For some reason, people go nuts with the concept that there can be an alternative to their way to meaning and happiness…shocker.

A marker at Seaford Head, overlooking the Seven Sisters Cliffs in East Sussex

We all die every day, little by little. We shed our cells regularly, parts get replaced, we retire and reject old versions of ourselves. Who we are—this concept of the self—is a myth we tell ourselves over and over, believing that there is something that is constant and consistent that persists throughout the years.

I like how Aaron Freeman talks about dying, in his “Eulogy from a Physicist”:

You want a physicist to speak at your funeral. You want the physicist to talk to your grieving family about the conservation of energy, so they will understand that your energy has not died.

You want the physicist to remind your sobbing mother about the first law of thermodynamics; that no energy gets created in the universe, and none is destroyed.

You want your mother to know that all your energy, every vibration, every Btu of heat, every wave of every particle that was her beloved child remains with her in this world. You want the physicist to tell your weeping father that amid energies of the cosmos, you gave as good as you got.

And at one point you’d hope that the physicist would step down from the pulpit and walk to your brokenhearted spouse there in the pew and tell him that all the photons that ever bounced off your face, all the particles whose paths were interrupted by your smile, by the touch of your hair, hundreds of trillions of particles, have raced off like children, their ways forever changed by you.

And as your widow rocks in the arms of a loving family, may the physicist let her know that all the photons that bounced from you were gathered in the particle detectors that are her eyes, that those photons created within her constellations of electromagnetically charged neurons whose energy will go on forever.

And the physicist will remind the congregation of how much of all our energy is given off as heat. There may be a few fanning themselves with their programs as he says it. And he will tell them that the warmth that flowed through you in life is still here, still part of all that we are, even as we who mourn continue the heat of our own lives.

And you’ll want the physicist to explain to those who loved you that they need not have faith; indeed, they should not have faith.

Let them know that they can measure, that scientists have measured precisely the conservation of energy and found it accurate, verifiable and consistent across space and time. You can hope your family will examine the evidence and satisfy themselves that the science is sound and that they’ll be comforted to know your energy’s still around.

According to the law of the conservation of energy, not a bit of you is gone; you’re just less orderly. Amen.

“Eulogy from a Physicist”, Alan Freeman

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: