What Happens When We Die – The Marginalian

When my grandfather the atheist engineer died, my atheistic engineer grandmother leaned on the body in an old man’s bed that contained half a century of shared life and love, paving the skull in which his stubborn and sensitive mind dwelt, and whispered in the ether-lit halogen:

“Where did you go, my love?”

Whatever our beliefs, these sensory games of the mind, when the moment of physical decline comes, we – beings of moment and matter – simply cannot fathom how something as wonderful as the thought and feeling being within us can vanish into nothingness.

Even if we understand that dying is a symbol of our existential luck, even if we understand that we borrowed stardust, we must go back to the universe that made it – the universe itself receding into nothingness as its stars slowly burn their energy to leave a cold, cruel darkness of pure spacetime – this understanding turns into an abstraction of my anxiety The body is removed while the body is dangling towards dissolution. Moved by electrical impulses and the temporal interactions of matter, our finite minds simply cannot comprehend the infinite and timeless emptiness – a void beyond existence.

Pillars of Creation, Eagle Nebula, Messier 16. Infrared image. NASA/Hubble Space Telescope. (Available as print, face mask, and stationery cards.)

Even Walt Whitman, who held such many contradictions, could not accommodate the emptiness. “I will make poems about my body and my mortality,” he vowed as a young man while revering our common material essence in his timeless declaration that “every atom that belongs to me as good belongs to you.” It was easy, from the glittering podium of his day, to aspire to become the “uncut tomb hair” when returning his atoms to the grassy ground one day.

But then, as that day drew near to his old age and infirmity, the “Poet of the Body and the Poet of the Soul” suddenly unable to comprehend the complete disintegration of his atomic self, suddenly “laughs at what you call dissolution . . . ”

Then he vanished, leaving us his immortal verses, written verses as his particles sang with the electrical coherence of youth and health, verses traced by their faint oceanic fleshy finger to elementary truth: “What activates life activates death.”

Thoughts, silent thoughts, about time, place and death. The Art of Margaret C. Cook from a rare English edition by Walt Whitman grass leaves. (available as a copy)

I wish I could give my grandmother, given the dying Whitman, the infinitely tonic Mr. Z: A Novel of Creation (a public library) by poetic physicist Alan Lightman – A magically realistic tune of science, tracing with symphonic truth about our search for meaning, our hunger for beauty, and what makes our tender, fleeting lives worth living.

Towards the end of the novel, Mr. Z watches, with an unknown heartache in the void that precedes the existence of universes and life, an old woman on her deathbed, the film of her long, painful and beautiful life that does not seep out of the reel of memory, leaving her in grief at its end, shivering with disbelief that this everything.

“How can a creature of matter and mass understand something without matter or mass?” Mr. G wonders as he grieves as he watches her succumb to the laws he has set. “How can a creature that will surely die comprehend the things that will exist forever?”

And then, when a faint smile fades on her face, she dies. Lightman writes:

At that moment, there were 3, 147, 740, 103, 497, 276, 498, 750, 208, 327 atoms in her body. Of its total mass, it was 63.7% oxygen, 21.0% carbon, 10.1% hydrogen, 2.6% nitrogen, 1.4% calcium, and 1.1% phosphorous, as well as a dispersion of 90 other chemical elements that originated in stars.

In burning, its water evaporates. Carbon and nitrogen were combined with oxygen to produce carbon dioxide and nitrogen dioxide, which was floating in the sky and mixing with the air. Most of the calcium and phosphorous accounted for in the reddish-brown residues that were scattered in the soil and wind.

But then, we see that every atom belonging to it – or rather, temporarily borrowing it – really belongs to everything and everyone, just as you and I now inhale the same atoms of oxygen that once swelled Walt Whitman’s lungs with a lust for life:

After being freed from its temporary confinement, its atoms slowly dispersed and dispersed into the atmosphere. Within sixty days, it can be found in every handful of air on the planet. In a hundred days, some of its atoms, steam water, condensed into a liquid and returned to the surface as rain, to be drunk and ingested by animals and plants. Some of its atoms have been absorbed by light-using organisms and transformed into tissues, tubules and leaves. Some of the oxygen was inhaled by oxygen creatures, which were incorporated into the organs and bones.

asteroids One of the otherworldly drawings of a jellyfish by 19th century German marine biologist Ernst Haeckel, who coined the word Ecology. (Available as a hard copy.)

He adds in a passage that evokes the central sentiments of Ursula K. Le Guin’s amazing amazing “kinship”:

Pregnant women ate animals and plants made from their atoms. A year later, children contained some of her atoms… Several years after her death, millions of children contained some of her atoms. And their children will contain some of its atoms, too. Their minds contained a portion of hers.

Will these millions of children know, for generations and generations to come, that some of their atoms are spinning in this woman? It is unlikely. Will they feel what she has felt in her life, will their memories remember the throbbing of her memories, will they remember that moment so long ago when she stood by the window, feeling guilt disoriented, and watched a tadpole hovering around the cistern? No, it was not possible. Will they have some faint sense of emptiness? No, it was not possible. It is not possible. But I will let them take a brief glimpse into the void, just at the moment when they pass from living to dead, from living to inanimate, from conscious to unconscious. For a moment, they will understand infinity.

And the individual atoms, circulating through their body and then circulating through wind, water, and soil, circulating through generations and generations of organisms and minds, would repeat and connect and form a whole of parts. Although there is no memory, they make a memory. Although it is not permanent, it makes it permanent. Although it is scattered, it forms a college.

Here we are, you and I, Walt and Alan, my grandmother who is my grandfather who no longer exists – each of us a trembling college, made of utterly weak and utterly indestructible particles, thirsting for absolutes in a world of kin, thirsting for survival in a world of constant change, yearning For meaning, for beauty, for symbols of existence.

From this hunger, and from these contradictions, we make everything that energizes life: our art and music, our poems and mathematics, our novels and our love.

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