The Myths of Life and Death

It has been a bit since I have written specifically for the blog. No real excuses, but I have been busy with the holidays and trying to stay away from religious celebrations; with looking for work (I had a job interview on Thursday – Whoohoo); with National Atheist Party’s public communication, and; life in general. One thing I can say – I survived!

Yesterday was a hard one for Kathy. Her former brother-in-law died. I never met him, but from what I have heard, Tommy Teel was one of the nicest persons anyone could know. However, he was not well and his combination of illnesses final won over. Yesterday was his memorial. Lots of crying and kind words.

I am not comfortable when it comes to death. It upsets me when cancer takes someone’s life, or is killed in an accident, or as a victim of someone else’s rage. However, all living must die, it is nature’s course and I accept it; I just am not comfortable with it.

The service was held in a small country church, the New Beginnings Christian Church in Centralia, MO.  The message I heard from the pastor was that Tommy was taken home by God. It is a Christian message I have heard over and over again, first noting it when President Reagan made his initial remarks on January 28, 1986, the day he was scheduled to give his State of the Union speech. He said, “We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for their journey and waved goodbye and ‘slipped the surly bonds of earth’ to ‘touch the face of God.’”

Though many believed these words as biblical, they are not from religious writings, but from John Gillespie Magee, Jr, 1941 poem “High Flight.” Its religious context has been argued, but as a pilot I understand the spiritual nature of solo flight.

The words are repeated in the title of Kendrick Oliver’s upcoming book, “Tough the Face of God” (John Hopkins Press), where he explores that very topic, the spirituality and religiosity of flight, concentrating on man space flight.

In 1986, I was a practicing Jew and did not think too much about it. In fact, I had a copy hanging on my bedroom wall as a kid. It was not until George W. Bush’s televised announcement of the Columbia accident on February 1, 2003 that, as an atheist, I found the idea rather disturbing. 

Bush said in his final paragraph, “The crew of the shuttle Columbia did not return safely to Earth; yet we can pray that all are safely home.”

Maybe it is the need to sow that the end of life as something good. Even the Great Heretic Robert Ingersoll relied on the imagery in his 1882 “Eulogy to a Young Child.” (It appears that Ingersoll never formally named the presentation, so it can be found under several different titles.) In it, Ingersoll said,

“We do not know whether the grave is the end of this life or the door of another, or whether the night here is not somewhere else a dawn.”

Though Ingersoll was not advocating an afterlife, he did acknowledge the mystery and mythology of death.

Rebirth and reincarnation are not unique to Christianity. The idea falls into the beliefs of Jews and Muslims, Hindus and Sheiks, can be found within Pagan and Norse beliefs, and others. The mythologies suggest that if life is not terminal, as Ingersoll noted, “If [the dead] live again their lives will surely be as good as ours.” Somehow the next life will be as good or better than this.

For others, life’s immortality comes from the works we do in the here and now, in the lives we touch and the artifacts we leave behind. For me, that may be students who have traveled through my classes mentioning to their grandkids that they once learned something in a speech class a long time ago. Your legacy may be your journals or contributions to society or to your work, or clients. It may be as simple as touching a stranger in time of need.

I am reminded of a story I heard about the afterlife. A child’s grandparent had died and just before the casket was closed, he threw something in the coffin. When asked about this, the child said it was a fully charged cellphone so grandpa could call when he gets to heaven. The call never came.

The unknown scares us and death certainly is a great unknown. The mythologies surrounding death are meant to comfort those grieving. It tells us that great worriers will meet again in Valhalla, or that one may be reincarnated as to live among those who cared – maybe as an ant, but there. The Christian and Muslim myths speak of a paradise in another world where all, at least those of the same religion, live forever in harmony with their god.

If the myths helped ease the pain of loss, so be it.

I did not know Tommy, so my grieving was the thought of the deep sadness of those who knew him. He was cremated and if his ashes were spread in the fields of the family farm, he would live again as nature intended. My late mother continues her life like that, as I put her ashes in the Manatee River in Florida. When I return to Florida, I can look at the river knowing that my mother is now part of the eco-system and she continues to live through the stories I tell and the memories I keep.

I am sure that my mom’s ashes found their way into the food system. Many refer to Genesis 3:19 in a death celebration; “By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return.”

Interestingly, this was meant as a curse from God for the transgressions of Adam and Eve, yet it is a statement of nature’s life and death cycle. I believe Carl Sagan said it better, “We are star stuff. Harvesting starlight. Our lives, our past and our future are tied to the sun, the moon and the stars.”

“We are a way for the cosmos to know itself.”

About David Rosman

David is the winner of the Missouri Press Foundation's "Best Columnist" in 2013 (First Place) and 2014 (Second Place), the 2016 Harold Riback Award for excellence in writing, and the winner of the 2007 Interactive Media Award for excellence in editing.
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