Dealing with Death on Our Path of Creating
Every religion and every spiritual path provide a way for followers to deal with death – the death of loved ones, and our own eventual deaths. While the Old Religions deal with Death by creating myths of heaven and reincarnation, the Spiritual Path of Continuing Creation does it by rationally explaining how death actually makes life possible, and even makes life more fulfilling.
In this Essay, we show that individual human beings are hardly the most important creations wrought by the processes of Continuing Creation: The Growing, Organizing, Direction of the Cosmos. Continuation of the human species is more important, and continuation of our biosphere is more important still. Synergy of the parts is more important than the parts.
Individuals die so that children will have freedom and room to grow up. Moreover, individual death makes it possible for genes to mutate and evolve new creatures who can try themselves out on Earth (See our Essay, Evolution and Continuing Creation). The purpose of individual lives is to carry and pass on the genes of the species. Individual people are expressions of the human genome. Species live longer than their individual creatures do. Therefore, preservation (and evolution) of the genes is “more important” to Continuing Creation than the individual lives of their members. The Process is more important than its momentary expression. 1
Species, however, also eventually die (as do technologies, languages, religions, and civilizations). Millions of species have gone extinct since life began on Earth. 2. Therefore, Continuing Creation preserves and promotes life itself more than it preserves and promotes any one species.
Before we talk further about death, and about how to deal with it, we need say what death is, and discuss why humans react to it the way we do.
What Is Death?
“Nobody gets out alive.”
— Sydney J. Harris
Death is the cessation of all biological functions that sustain a living organism. These functions include containing and defending the of the body against gravity, disease, injury, and the sun’s radiation; taking in nutrition, water and oxygen; metabolism; eliminating waste; and maintaining the body’s structures and systems. 3
Death is caused by predators, malnutrition, disease, suicide, murder and war, fatal accidents, and by biological aging (senescence). 4
Our self-identity emerges over time from the recorded interaction of our genes, body (especially the brain), experiences and our environment. We know that one’s identity, personality, sense of self, thought, consciousness, memories, and point-of-view – all of which make us one’s “personhood” — these reside in the neurons of the brain. Mind and personality are sustained by the body, and when all bodily functions cease, a person’s mind, including self-identity and consciousness, collapse to oblivion. (See our Essay, The Evolution of Consciousness.)
Brain Death is important for our discussion in this Essay. “Brain death is the complete loss of brain function (including involuntary activity necessary to sustain life)… Brain death is used as an indicator of legal death in many jurisdictions… Patients classified as brain-dead can have their organs surgically removed for organ donation… The diagnosis of brain death is often required to be highly rigorous, in order to be certain that the condition is irreversible.” (Quoted from from “Brain Death,” Wikipedia, retrieved 10-30-18.)
Humans find it difficult to accept the finality of death. The Old Religions have created myths about fictional afterlives which portray visions of life after death. However, there are also a number of rational, evidence-based to deal with death through understanding and acceptance. This Essay will discuss these myths and these ways of rational understanding.
We will all die, assuming there are no further breakthroughs in today’s technology during our lifetimes. However, medical progress (along with adoption of good nutrition, exercise, meditation, and balanced lifestyle) shows no signs of stopping and it could well develop new drugs and technologies that increase the average human life span by decades. We will discuss these at the end of in this Essay.
What is Death Like?
We will “experience” the oblivion of Death as eternal, dreamless sleep. The oblivion will be so complete that we will experience nothing at all.
Question: “What will it be like after I die?”
Answer: “Remember what it was like before you were born? It will be like that.”
— Arthur Schopenhauer
(The irony, of course, is that we can’t remember what it was like before we were born!)
Awareness of Death While We Are Still Alive
Quite a few creatures “understand” the death of other individuals in their group. Blue-jays will congregate and shriek when a member of their flock dies. Whales, elephants, chimpanzees, and porpoises all display grief. Elephants do it by visiting the bones of their deceased family members, and gently touching them with their trunks. 5
However, it is less clear if any animals other than humans understand that they themselves will eventually die; they have no apparent sense of their future death. Although most animals have a clear sense of danger, we don’t know if they can distinguish danger of harm from mortal danger.
If humans are the only animals that understand that they themselves will inevitably die, then only humans are burdened by anxiety over their eventual deaths. Dealing with that anxiety is a major part of dealing with death emotionally and intellectually, a topic which we will take up shortly.
Dealing with the Dead Bodies
Before we look at the ways to handle Death intellectually and emotionally, we should say a few things about what to do with the bodies of folks who die before us.
The bodies of living organisms begin to decompose shortly after death. Decaying flesh often contains deadly botulinum, cholera, and anthrax bacteria. As a result, many animals have evolved a strong aversion to the smell of rotting flesh. The human aversion to “the smell of death” is so strong that nearly all civilizations dispose of the dead by burying, burning, entombing, or burial at sea.
Western Societies Generally Preserve and Keep the Remains of Their Dead
Western societies usually like to treat the dead body with the utmost material respect, with an official embalmer and associated rites. Most families feel it is important to designate and mark a permanent grave or tomb for the deceased’s body or ashes. The U.S. government will go to great lengths and expense to find and exhume the bodies of soldiers fallen in foreign lands, only to re-bury them in a marked grave on U.S. soil.
Embalming and/or mummification greatly delay decay and its odors. These procedures are an attempt to prepare the body for an active afterlife in which the dead person supposedly gets to use his own body again. Coffins and tombs try to protect the body from harm. Servants and courtesans may also be slaughtered (or left alive) and buried alongside the deceased in order to serve him once he has “crossed over to the other side.”
Tribal Cultures & Eastern Societies Often Return their Remains to the Biosphere More Rapidly
A number of spiritual practices encourage a more rapid return of the body into the biosphere. For example, Native American tribes of the Great Plains used to place their dead on wooden above ground platforms located on a sacred area of ground. (See “Burial Customs and Cemeteries in American History,” U.S. Dept. of the Interior. Also see Wikipedia Entry for Burial Tree or Scaffold.)
— “Scaffold” Burial of an American Plains Indian
In Hindu regions of India, the dead are burned to ashes in the open air, and the ashes are scattered across a place important to the deceased. Zoroastrians place their dead in open roof-top tanks to be picked clean by vultures. 6
The Path of Continuing Creation holds that the body should be recycled (Nature’s “resurrection”) into new living things. Alas, while “naked” burial under a tree would accomplish this, cemeteries in the U.S. law often require a coffin and sometimes containment of that coffin in a metal and/or concrete vault, so that nothing leaches into the soil. Burial on private land can require written consent from local government, the filing of maps, etc. In view of these requirements, law, cremation can be a better alternative. Cremation quickly and cleanly gets one’s volatile molecules back into the atmosphere, and one’s ashes can be scattered on the ground, moving from air and ground into new life. Burial at sea and donation of the body to medical science both achieve the same goal. 7
Note: In the United States, it is increasingly common to say in your will or “final directive” how you want your own body to be handled after your death. The Practice of Continuing Creation endorses use of these legal documents.
Dealing with the Absence of the Deceased
Having talked about how the living can deal with the bodies of the dead, we turn to the more difficult issue of how the living handle the absence of the dead, i.e., how to cope with the loss of the personhoods of the departed, grieve, adjust, and then go on living a positive life.
The living remain very attached to the memories they have of their lost loved ones and also to their memories of respected leaders in the many fields of human endeavor. We miss the presence of the loved and respected deceased.
Note: The early stages of dealing with the death of a loved one or friend are devoted to the emotions of grief. This Essay is not meant to help mourners who are grieving over the recent loss of a loved one. Such help should come from family members, close friends, ministers, and professional counselors. However, this Essay can be of later use to people seeking a more removed understanding of death.
We humans have created cultural practices to “retain” the personhood of the deceased. These practices fall into two categories:
- Fanciful fictions we create saying that the deceased live on in an afterlife somewhere else, i.e., in a spirit world, heaven, purgatory, or in some undefined “fifth dimension.”
- Rational ways we use to help us remember the departed. These include obituaries, eulogies, gravestones, and monuments. Such ways also include family photos and videos of the loved one, and objects that he or she loved or created (a watch, a bundle of letters, etc.).
Before we discuss each of categories A and B more fully, let us say this the following about Category B – “Rational Ways” — here at the outset:
The Way of Continuing Creation encourages everyone to interview older loved ones while they are still alive and still have their memories mostly intact, and to record those interviews. The idea is to create a record of their stories about the past, their personal histories, their travels, their advice, and so on. Interviewing guidelines and suggestions are available online. Thanks to the internet and cloud-storage, the day is fast approaching when everyone can have, at low cost, a detailed biography posted online, including photos, family trees, links to friends and family, favorite interests, geographic locations, and to favorite works of art, music and literature.
Four Fanciful Ways and Ten Rational Ways to Deal with Absence Due to Death
We must each deal with loss of personhood from two different instances of death: when we face the passing of loved ones and friends; and when we face the eventuality of our own deaths.
Here are fourteen ways to deal with loss of personhood at death – four that are fanciful and irrational, and ten that are fact-based and rational if we possess sufficient understanding:
A. Handling Death by Imagining Fictitious Afterlives
- Believe that dead people become ghosts.
- Believe that people will be resurrected into heaven or paradise (or condemned to hell).
- Believe that each dead person or animal will be reincarnated into a new life here on Earth.
- Believe that people will “merge with the Mind of God (the Godhead), e.g., attain Nirvana.
B. Handling Death with Rational Understanding & Acceptance
- Understand that the imaginary “afterlives” would not be particularly enjoyable.
- Understand that the dead have no consciousness after death.
- Understand that life goes on for others after we die, as does the process of Life.
- Understand that Life depends on, and is interwoven with, death.
- Understand and accept that humans are not more sacred than other creatures.
- Understand that we should make the most out of this life while we can.
- Understand that death itself is not painful or evil.
- Understand that by leaving a legacy, we each achieve a kind of immortality.
- Understand that technology will reduce aging and lengthen lives.
- Understand both the opportunities and the dangers of Transhumanism.
In this Essay, we will look at all fourteen of these ways to deal with the loss of “personhood” resulting from death.
Why Do We Fear Death So Much?
However, before talking about ways to mentally and emotionally deal with death, we should first ask, “Why do we fear death so much?”
“I’m not afraid of dying. I just don’t want to be there when it happens.”
— Woody Allen
We fear death because the permanent immobility and decay of the dead runs counter to our basic instinct for survival, an instinct which all creatures appear to have.
We learn to fear death when people near us die and we witness the reality and finality of death – the lack of animation, cessation of all communication, physical decay, and the loss of sentience and personhood. There appears to be no future for the newly dead person, who only yesterday was alive and sentient. If the deceased was close to us, it seems like a whole area of our own reality has been blocked off suddenly. We ask, “Where did their personhood go?” Then, thinking about our own lives, we fear the future and we fear the unknown.
— The Grim Reaper
The oblivion of death actually holds neither pain nor pleasure. In death there is no self, no perception of time, past, or future, no awareness of anything at all. We experience dying, but we do not experience death. This fact prompted the Ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus to say that we should all use reason to dispel fear of Death. He wrote, “Death means nothing to us, because that which has been broken down into atoms has no sensation, and that which has no sensation is no concern of ours.”8
It is quite rational, however, to fear dying, because so many “dyings” involve terrible pain and suffering. There is both physical pain and the pain of leaving our loved ones behind.
A. Handling Death by Imagining Fictitious Afterlives
Human civilization has evolved religious rituals, prayers, and practices that supposedly commend (transfer) the departed’s “soul” to heaven and ask or persuade God to welcome that soul.
People dread death, so they create religious myths that promise them something after death. They make up fictional, wish-fulfilling “afterlives.” Providing people with an imaginary way to seemingly overcome death is one of the four main functions of the Old Religions, according to the social psychologist Jonathan Haidt: 9
- Religions are responses to suffering.
- Religions codify social morality.
- Religions find or create answers to questions about life and death.
- Religions (especially fundamentalists) seek certainty (cognitive closure).
The Old Religions “overcome” death by selling the idea of an afterlife. Different kinds of afterlives have been invented. There are myths of becoming a ghost, myths of living in Heaven, and myths of reincarnation followed by eventual non-physical union of one’s “soul,” “spirit,” or “true-self” with the Mind of God, which in the Western Tradition used to be called the Godhood and is now called the Godhead. Attaining Nirvana in Buddhism is an Eastern-Tradition example of merging with the Godhead.
- Christianity argues that there is a “soul,” or “spirit” inside each of us that survives death and goes on to live in either heaven or hell.
- The Hindu and Buddhist faiths also believe there are souls, but they become sequentially reincarnated until they have earned good karma(i.e. accumulated good behavior) to earn the right to merge, absent a human body and its suffering, with Brahman (the Godhead) in the bliss of Nirvana. (See our Essays on Christianity and Buddhism.)
- Taoism and some varieties of New Age spirituality say that there is a “Qi” (pronounced ‘chee’) or “life-energy” in each of us that returns to the “Pool of Life Energy” or flies up to the “Astral Plane” upon a person’s death. (In New Age, there are endless appellations for this, and they all seem to be taken in stride.)
The Old Religions’ psychological sales efforts to put across a belief in an afterlife have been pretty successful. According to a 2009 Harris poll the following percentages of Americans believe in some form of the afterlife and the soul: 10
However, Albert Einstein was not one of these believers. He once said: “I cannot imagine a God who rewards and punishes the objects of his creation, whose purposes are modeled after our own — a God, in short, who is but a reflection of human frailty. Neither can I believe that the individual survives the death of his body, although feeble souls harbor such thoughts through fear or ridiculous egotisms.” 11
The Book of Continuing Creation rejects All Myths of an Afterlife. None of the outmoded superstitions about an afterlife are truths supported by scientific and historical evidence, and so none of them are held to be true in the spiritual practice of Continuing Creation. Our Spiritual Practice holds that there is no well-supported scientific evidence of:
— Life after death.
— A “soul,” mind, or consciousness living on after death.
— Heaven or Hell after death.
— Reincarnation after death.
— Merging with an Eternal “One.”
We will present our evidence and arguments for these positions later in the Essay, when we take up “Part B — Handling Death with Rational Understanding and Acceptance.”
The Four Types of Imaginary Afterlives
There are four basic types of afterlife, all of them imaginary:
- Becoming a Ghost,
- Going to Heaven (and/or purgatory or hell),
- Reincarnation, and
- Merging with the Godhead (joining the Eternal One; entering Nirvana.)
We will look in turn at each of these four afterlives,
A-1. Imaginary Afterlife Type #1 — Becoming a Ghost
Before the rise of the Old Religions, tribal peoples often little or no concept of a Heaven. The dead did not go to another place. Instead, the dead typically became Ghosts or Spirits, and these ghosts lived, usually with diminished powers, among the living local people who knew them. Even today, in many human groups dead people simply become the spirits of ancestors. 12
It is easy for a recently dead person to be viewed as a ghost or spirit by the living left behind. When a loved one has been part of your day-to-day life for years, the sudden absence of that “personhood” leaves a tremendous hole in the lives of the living. There are multiple ways in which the absence if sharply felt. The survivor group loses the labor, companionship, wisdom and love of the deceased.
So, there is great need to account for the absence. It creates psychological dissonance in the minds of the survivors. The survivors ask, “Look! The body is still here, but the “person” has gone away! How can that be? If the person is not in the body, where did the person go?” Months and years after burial, survivors still ask, “We have memories of the deceased, but the body and the person are gone. Where did the person go? What happens to his or her “essence,” or “soul”?
As we discuss in other Essays, The Weave of Continuing Creation does not support the idea of a “soul.” For us, an individual’s personhood is the most unique and special thing about him or her. The personhood is the Whole that emerges from the interacting sum of the person’s body, health, inherited and learned traits, experiences, education, memories, past influences, instincts and desires. When the person’s body and brain die, that personhood is lost… except for the influences on the living that he or she leaves behind. After the person’s death, only a fraction of his or her personhood lives on — and it lives on in the memory banks of the survivors who knew the deceased.
The dissonance between the dead body and the web of associations living in our memory banks (what religious people call the “soul,”) needs resolution in our minds. Our evolved human thought process (specifically, our inference system) rushes in to resolve the dissonance by imagining an explanation that is familiar to us as highly social, observant, danger-aware animals. We imagine that the person does live on, but somewhere out of sight.
We already know from prior Essays that we humans have are evolved to see patterns all around us, to impute a designer for each observed pattern, and impute a cause for each observed effect (like a close lightning strike). Usually, we quickly infer that the cause but must have been some active living agent. This rush to impute “agency,” stems from our natural defensive alertness (like the human reaction to seeing a snake). Finally, we infer that the agent must have had human-like powers – as would a ghost, or demon – and that the act was likely intended by that agent. (See our Essay, Patterns and Information – How Creation Works.)
In this way, our minds quickly construct an invisible personhood that is sometimes present in our own real world. Lastly, we humans invoke our natural story-telling abilities, honed by thousands of years of entertaining and teaching our young around the campfire. In this way, we come to believe that the departed person invisibly lives on as a ghost or spirit. Perhaps the ghost lives among us, or perhaps it travels back and forth from the spirit world.
“We should not be surprised that the souls of the dead or their ‘shadows’ or ‘presence’ are the most widespread kind of supernatural agent the world over. This equation (the dead as seen by our inference systems = supernatural agents) is the simplest and therefore most successful way in which concepts of supernatural agency are transmitted.” 13
Interestingly, the Ancient Greeks, a post-tribal civilization that lived in city-states and had a pantheon of powerful gods and goddesses, continued the “tribal” practice of regarding the common (non-heroic) dead as ghosts. Professor of Classics Robert Garland, drawing on research of Homer and the tragedians to write The Greek Way of Death, says that dead were regarded as “mere shadows of their former selves.” The dead “lack the strength of the living,” could not exercise “full command of their faculties,” and were “unable to exert any influence over earthly affairs” 14
Of all the types of afterlives, the ghost path is regarded as the most “primitive;” but is it, really?
Tribal people who believe in ghosts are not trying to manage the unjustified fear of death that grips many modern-day Christian communities. To Practitioners of Continuing Creation, “ghosting” seems to us to be more rational than believing in a paradisiacal heaven and a torturous hell. Besides, being a tribal ghost wouldn’t be such a bad gig. You don’t need food, you don’t get diseases, and sometimes you get to visit (haunt) your living relatives.
Fear of death is usually not present in tribal cultures, when the long cultural evolution of religion is just beginning; it evolves with the rise of certain Old Religions. For example, “a serious Christian with a serious belief in predestination” can develop a massive mental fear about going to hell, no matter how he conducts his life. Contrary to popular belief, organized religion seldom “provides a buffer against anxiety.” 15
A-2. Imaginary Afterlife #2 — Going to Heaven, Purgatory, or Hell
Over the centuries, human cultures have imagined two kinds of heaven – one where the residents have human bodies and one where they are disembodied spirits. The “have human bodies” category further splits into heavens where the “saved” residents (a) lead angel-like lives of song and praise, or (b) live normal Earth-like lives, only without any illness or discontent.
In Christian and Muslim theology, a distinction is also made between what happens to the dead right after thy die, and what eventually happens to them at the “end of days,” i.e., after the Last Judgment, when they are supposedly resurrected and get their bodies back. (Theological doctrine about what happens after the Last Judgment is called a religion’s Eschatology.)
Of course, heaven and hell, like all afterlives, do not really exist. They are myths constructed by the imaginations of humankind. Why are these myths constructed and believed? For two reasons: First, heaven gives poor, disease-ridden, oppressed people a soothing afterlife to look forward to. Second, the ever-present threat of going to hell helps keep the population under control and law-abiding while it often endures poverty, disease, war, and dictatorship.
Very poor people with very simple cultures can be happy if they have food, shelter, clothing, security, and companionship. But western society, with its remarkable scientific, economic, and democratic progress, has made life in this world more healthy, pleasant, and rewarding for far more people. The advance of the Growing, Organizing, Direction here on Earth shows us that creation, virtue, love and progress can and do happen in this life. Humans should strive to achieve those things here on Earth, and not imagine being given them after death.
Below is a short dialogue, recorded in 2012, that presents a view of how religion has actually retarded the progress of Continuing Creation for humans here on Earth. The interviewer was Chip Rowe (at that time with Playboy Magazine) and the interviewee was the now late Richard Dawkins (who had recently retired as Professor for the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University): 16
Chip Rowe: You blame 9/11 [the attack on the Twin Towers of the World Trade Centers] on belief in the afterlife.
Richard Dawkins: Yes. Normally when an aircraft is hijacked, there’s an assumption that the hijackers want to go on living. It changes the game if the hijackers look forward to death because it will get them into the best part of paradise.
Chip Rowe: You mean the part with the 72 virgins the Koran says await martyrs.
Richard Dawkins: Right. Young men who are too unattractive to get a woman in the real world go for the ones in paradise. But my point is these people really believe what they say they believe, whereas most Christians don’t. If you talk to dying Christians, they aren’t looking forward to it.
Chip Rowe: You’re not hopeful about peace between Israel and the Palestinians.
Richard Dawkins: There’s not much hope to the extent that the most influential protagonists both base their hostility on 2,000-year-old books that they believe give them title to the land.
Versions of Heaven
In the Abrahamic religions, Heaven is usually pictured as a paradise. In Judaism, paradise was called “The Kingdom of God” and it was to be established here on Earth by the Messiah. In the most traditional Christian paradise, the people admitted to Heaven are at peace, depicted as gently paying harps and singing the praises of the Lord. Islamic paradise is more corporeal, with restored human bodies leading luxurious lives in shady gardens with plenty of water. In fact, all the Desert religions — including Judaism, Christianity, and Islam — envision Heaven as a green paradise, i.e., as the opposite of their mostly harsh desert environment.
In “pagan” Viking culture, warriors who have died in battle get to continually feast and celebrate in Valhalla, a huge, long hall where they consume endless mead, compete in contests, laugh and party, while being served by beautiful and immortal female Valkyries. Viking artisans and farmers would go to a holy mountain called Helgafell or to an underworld called Hel. Little is known about where the non-Valkyrie women went, but most likely it was Helgafell or Hel as well. 17
The Path to Heaven through Righteous Moral Behavior
In the various world religions, how can people get into heaven?
For Jews, Christians, and Hindus the requirement to enter Heaven is an Earthly life of moral living and good deeds. This path is often called “righteousness,” which also implies not just good behavior and good deeds, but also right-belief and membership of good standing in the right religion (or even in the “right” denomination).
Many Christians make things easier, saying that simply believing in Jesus is sufficient to enter Heaven. Jesus will let you in, if you truly believe in Him as your savior. If you have this sincere belief, and if confess all your prior sins with true regret, Jesus’ will admit (by virtue of his own suffering on your behalf when he was on the cross), you will go to Heaven regardless of your sins. (See our Essay, Evaluating Jesus’ Teaching.)
More than any other major religion, Islam is focused on the behaviors required for getting into Heaven. God tells Muslims what to do and when to do it. If you obey, you get into Heaven – which (for men) includes 72 virgins. If not, you go to Hell. Virtuous, obedient, and observant Islamic women also get to go to Heaven, but the Koran makes no mention of them getting 72 boy-toys.
The Path to Heaven through Bravery in Battle
After 9/11, we all learned that a Muslim who dies fighting jihad against the infidels (e.g., a vest-bomber who explodes himself and kills some of the “enemy”) will go straight to Paradise, regardless of his sins in life and without making any stops along the way.
In the world’s many warrior cultures, “living a good life” (for men) is seen as fighting bravely and skillfully. Fighting was by far the most important thing that a free man could possibly do during his life. The house and fields were left to the care of women, serfs, lower-caste men, and slaves.
The military culture of the Spartans of Ancient Greece was similar. Spartan warriors were trained to fight from boyhood. When they left home for war, their wives traditionally said to them: “Come back with your shield or on it;” meaning, “Don’t dare surrender or run, only come back victorious with your shield or else come back dead or wounded and carried on your shield.” (See also Bettany Hughes (currently Visiting Research Fellow at King’s College London), The Spartans, a PBS Home Video documentary.)
The North American Plains Indians (including the Blackfoot, Comanche, Cheyenne, Cree, Apache and a number of other tribes) also believed that a warrior should die in battle. When a warrior decided he was too old to fight the enemy, he would declare that he was going to “stake himself out.” In the company of other braves, the old fighter would ride to the enemy, dismount, and tie his ankle to a stake with a leather thong. Then, braves of the enemy, mounted on their war ponies, would take turns galloping against him, attacking with hand-held spears, until the old warrior was killed. 18
From the viewpoint of the tribe, the old brave was no longer useful to the group. Group survival is more important than individual survival. “Staking yourself out” was a way of showing that lives are not worthy unless they further the sacred life of the tribe as a whole. For a warrior, having worth meant having the ability to fight.
These warrior’s deaths stem from a different world vision of the very nature of Gods (or the Great Spirit) than Christians have. Christians want to keep a person alive as long as he or she can still feel and share emotion — especially love. Even the tiniest amount of love outweighs the suffering and uselessness of old age.
While a Plains warrior’s death seems heroic, back at the Indian camp the warrior’s wife began a far less romantic passage to death. With her warrior gone, the wife lost all her status and purpose. The other women of the tribe would strip her of all her possessions, and turn out into the wilderness to starve.
Versions of Hell and Purgatory
We’ve looked at the most popular versions of heaven in world religions. Now we want to describe the Judeo-Christian versions of hell and purgatory.
“How sad it is to think of the multitudes who have gone to their graves in this beautiful Hawaiian Island and never knew there was a hell.”
— Mark Twain, Lecturing at the Academy of Music, Pine Street, San Francisco, 1866 or 1867.
All the historical visions of Hell and Purgatory were threats of punishment, invented – to keep the faithful on the straight and narrow. They were, and still are, tools of social control.
We could quip that the inspirational reward of heaven is to keep folks working (i.e., to “keep ‘em trucking on”), while the social-control punishment of hell is to “keep ’em trucking on inside their moral traffic lanes.”
The Jewish conceptions of Hell and/or Purgatory are particularly muddled:
- In Judaism there is Gehenna, which, according to one writer, the Kabbalah explains as a “waiting room” (commonly translated as an “entry way”) for all souls (not just the wicked). So, Gehenna (or Gehinnom) sounds most like Catholic Purgatory. However, according to another writer, Gehenna is the destination (final destination?) of the wicked.19
- Judaism also talks about Sheol, described as a place of darkness to which all the dead go, a place of stillness and darkness cut off from life and from God. Sheol sounds a lot like Catholic Hell (or at least like Pope Francis’ 2018 version of hell, see below). However, Other sources say that Sheol is a warehouse for dead until final judgment; and did not involve punishments… which sounds like Purgatory again. 20
By the 14th century, Judaism’s rather vague and philosophical hell strongly contrasted with Dante’s Catholic vision of hell, which he described in Inferno (hell), part of his masterwork The Divine Comedy, published in 1320. For Christians living in Dante’s time, hell was an eternal torment of cruel and sadistic punishments inflicted on dead sinners by Satan’s demons.
One such punishment was immersion of violent sinners (e.g., murderers) in the “River of Boiling Blood and Fire,” described in the “first ring” of Dante’s “Seventh Circle” of Hell. 21
Today, in 2018, Catholic doctrine has “re-humanized” and now comes closer to the original Jewish conceptions of hell. According to the National Catholic Reporter, in 2015 the pope described hell by telling a parable of a very proud angel who was envious of God:
“He wanted God’s place,” said Francis. “And God wanted to forgive him, but he [the angel] said, ‘I don’t need your forgiveness. I am good enough!’ This is hell,” explained the pope. “It is telling God, ‘You take care of yourself because I’ll take care of myself.’ They don’t send you to hell, you go there because you choose to be there. Hell is wanting to be distant from God because I do not want God’s love. This is hell.” 22
Illustration of the “River of Boiling Blood and Fire” in The Divine Comedy —
Here’s what the Book of Continuing Creation says about Heaven and Hell (and Purgatory):
“I have bad news and good news:
- The bad news is: There is no heaven and no reincarnation.
- The good news is: There is no hell and no purgatory.
Clearly, we Humans mix our own cocktails of positive and negative, happy and unhappy, good and evil, wisdom and ignorance, right here on Earth. No need for Heaven and Hell.
A-3. Imaginary Afterlife Type #3 – Reincarnation
The Dharmic faiths of Hinduism and Buddhism also believe there are souls, but the souls are sequentially reincarnated in new bodies until they have accumulated enough good deeds (good karma) to earn the right to merge with the Godhead in the bliss of Nirvana.
So a person (or animal) lives, gaining good or bad karma, dies, and gets his karma counted and weighed. Then, he or she gets a new body and a new life. Depending on the net karma accumulated across all prior lives, the new life can be upscale or downscale. For example, a worthy business woman might be upgraded from India’s merchant caste to the highest Brahmin (priestly, teaching) caste. If she has a large balance of bad karma, she might come back to Earth as a lower cast, e.g. as an “Untouchable.” She could even return in the form of lowly animal, like a beetle.
Getting a new corporeal life might actually be better than merging with Nirvana. At least you would have a body to inhabit and move around in, places to visit, things to do, challenges to meet, and relationships to develop with other people (or other beetles).
Our Spiritual Practice notes that in a metaphorical sense, our bodies actually are “reincarnated” – because every carbon atom in all the molecules in our bodies was almost certainly part of other plant and animals that lived long ago. Going forward, our decomposed bodies will again become parts of new plants and animals in the future. Unfortunately, present health codes in the West often require bodies to be encased in coffins which are further encased in concrete vaults. How should Followers of Continung Creation deal with the body after death? We discussed burial and cremation earlier in the Essay.
A-4. Imaginary Afterlife Type #4 – Merging with the Godhead
The term “Godhead” derives from the older English word “Godhood,” which perhaps better expresses its meaning. The idea has been expressed by many different words and phrases over the centuries, including: attaining Nirvana, joining The Word (Logos) and/or The Light, returning to The Universal Energy, realizing Unity with the Sum of All Wholes of with the Absolute, returning to the Ground of All Being, reaching the Omega Point of Creation, and joining the Atman (true self) with the Brahman (the Cosmic Soul or Ultimate Divine Reality) in Hinduism). Many of these expressions are defined online, and are also discussed elsewhere in The Book Continuing Creation.
On the Hindu ladder of reincarnation, the highest step a person can attain and still be human is the Brahmin caste. From there, one can ascend to attain Moksha, — non-physical spiritual union with Brahman — which is analogous to Nirvana in Buddhism. In Buddhism, attainment of Nirvana depends on both righteous behavior and the serious practice of meditation.
Through meditation (and, in the case of Buddhism, right practice of the Noble Eightfold Path), living persons can experience intervals or glimpses of Moksha or Nirvana – a union with the “One,” the “Absolute,” the Godhead. More precisely, our souls merge with the Godhead, because in this type of afterlife human bodies are not needed. The One is a unity of minds, of souls.
Zen Buddhists and certain New Age spiritual leaders teach that the point of meditation is to realize that each of us is already part of the One. But lodged as we are in human bodies, we can only do this for short times, and even that requires years of practice.
Fully attaining The One, The Absolute, or The Godhead, means that a person has gained a full and complete understanding of the One. This understanding reveals all possible connections, such that all distinctions and differences vanish from our minds. This full attainment takes more than years of practice: it usually takes successive lifetimes of practice.
We only strive for something when we view it as better than what we already have. In Nirvana, however, there are no differences of any kind, no state of existence is different from any other. Therefore, we would be free of all striving, and all the anxiety that accompanies striving. Free of all perception of pleasure versus pain, we are free of all ambition. We have complete serenity.
The Circle of Life and Death
Travelers on Our Spiritual Path understand that we do not “have” lives; rather, life flows – it flows into us, among us, and then ultimately through us. This understanding gives us creative power to change the things we can change, the serenity to accept the things we cannot change, and the wisdom to know the difference between them. 23
Below, we offer Black Elk’s “Circle Poem” as a moving and profound statement of Life’s flow.
— The Circle Poem, by Black Elk, Medicine Man of the Oglala Sioux Nation:
Everything the Power of the World does
Is done in a circle. The sky is round,
And I have heard that the earth is round
Like a ball, and so are all the stars.
The wind, in its greatest power, whirls.
Birds make their nest in circles,
For theirs is the same religion as ours.
The sun comes forth and goes down again
In a circle. The moon does the same
And both are round. Even the seasons
Form a great circle in their changing,
And always come back again to where they were.
The life of a man is a circle from childhood to childhood,
And so it is in everything… where Power moves.
This wise description of the circle of life and death strongly echoes the Hindu metaphor that depicts life and death, creation and destruction, as the Dance of the God Shiva (Nataraja).
However, the dharmic religions, Hinduism and Buddhism, often go a step too far when they claim that the Self is not a flow, but an illusion. We will discuss this idea next.
Believing that Death is An Illusion
Advocates of the Eastern spiritual traditions often make the case that each of us is not a “self.” Instead, they argue that we are each a different performance of the same “song.” The song is the Unity of the One, the Godhead, and we are each mere sequential and temporary expressions of that One song.
Therefore, they say personhood is an illusion, and they argue (incredibly) that death is also as an illusion. The sense of Oneness” that New Age practitioners experience during meditation is thought to be a short-term experience of actual “heaven” – which they think of as merger with the Godhead.
Our Practice maintains that each of us is both an individual and part of the Whole. We do not have to wait until after death to join the Whole, which is the same as Continuing Creation, because we are living active parts of it right now! It is wrong to say that the Whole (or the Buddhist “One”) is the only reality while the parts are transitory illusions, and it is equally wrong to say that the parts are real but the Whole is not. Followers of Our Way clearly see that our individual roles in Creating and maintaining the Whole are important. We must make our lives here on Earth as moral, creative, and as full as we can, and not seek to escape into a miasmic “Dream of No Differences.”
The Book of Continuing Creation says — It is true that the basic tune and rhythm life are on passed to us – in our DNA, which is later passed on to our progeny. But saying “we have no self” is like saying that Black Elk’s circle has no sides, or that there is no variety of movement in Shiva’s dance, or that life and death are not different from each other.
In chapter four of his book Heavens on Earth, Professor Michael Shermer talks about Deepak Chopra and Eckhart Tolle, two popular leaders of the New Age movement, who have updated the idea that the self is an illusion. 24
Is ‘Nirvana,’ the ‘One,’ the ‘Godhead’ Composed of Consciousness?
Dr. Chopra and Mr. Tolle go still further: they argue that the Unity of the One is made of Pure Consciousness. In fact, they say that the real world of things – the trillions of different things all around us — is only an illusion. Each thing, and each person, is only a temporary expression of Cosmic Consciousness.
To support this theory, Chopra and Tolle invoke a concept of modern physics which says that sub-atomic particles are not physical things, not real matter, but just one of several potentialities of a probability distribution at the time that distribution happens to be “collapsed” by observation. However, there is no evidence that this “quantum weirdness” at the subatomic level translates to weirdness at the macro-level. (See our Essay, Physics and Continuing Creation.)
So according to Chopra and Tolle, when a person dies, his or her our soul simply returns to the vast sea of the “Consciousness of the One.” When we are each born, our individuality, our “thing-ness,” is a mere holographic flicker from the One Consciousness.
In his book, Dr. Shermer effectively counters the arguments of Chopra and Tolle gurus. But Dr. Chopra argues right back. For example, Shermer records this exchange between the two men:
“Deepak challenged me to consider that consciousness exists separately from the brain.
“I [Shermer] responded with a question: ‘Where is Aunt Millie’s mind when her brain dies of Alzheimers?’ [Aunt Millie’s mind was destroyed because the plaques and tangles of Alzheimer’s killed the nerve cells of her brain.]
“Chopra rejoined: ‘Aunt Mille was an impermanent pattern of behavior of the universe and returned to the potential she emerged from.’” (p 74)
Our Practice and Dr. Shermer both disagree with Dr. Chopra. We say that matter does not emerge out of mind, but rather that mind emerges out of matter. The Whole, the Pattern, emerges from the self-organization of the physical parts.
Where Is the “World of Ideal Forms” Located?
The whole Consciousness-is-Reality theory is reminiscent of Plato’s philosophy that the only real circle is the perfect circle that resides in the World of Ideal Forms; all the circles we draw and see on Earth are just “holograms” of the One ideal circle. But where is this “World of Ideal Forms?”
The Growing, Organizing, Direction maintains that the imperfect circles of sawn tree trunks are real. It is the perfect circle is a pattern that is either discovered and/or constructed by the very real neurons in our brain. The perfect circle is never real, it is a concept, and that concept is “located” in our individual minds and in the collective mind and literature of human culture.
This argument – pattern versus object – has been with us since the time of Plato and will likely never be resolved. However, we are pretty sure that patterns are not contained in a giant, unified “pool of consciousness” somewhere other than the collective mind and literature of humans. Patterns emerge from the real world and the minds-in-brains that perceive the real world. (See our Essay, Mathematics and Continuing Creation.)
Could you argue that the word “emerge” is just as “spooky” as the phrase “pool of consciousness?” No, because we can explain the steps of the processes that make patterns emerge. For example, circles happen in nature because only circles contain the most area with the shortest perimeter line. Dr. Chopra cannot explain the origin of the “consciousness pool,” which to us sounds more like God than The Growing, Organizing, Direction of the Cosmos.
Besides, consciousness can only exist when there is consciousness of something. If you argue that the Great Pool of Consciousness is aware of everything, then it’s the same as God – and both of them are imaginary.
Dr. Chopra cannot explain where the Great Pool of Consciousness is located. We, on the other hand, can explain where human consciousness is located – in human brains. It emerges from the neurons in the same way that a language emerges from the speech interactions of people. Our sophisticated consciousness emerged from the simpler consciousnesses of our most distant ancestor species. Our sophisticated modern language evolved in the same way from the grunts and gestures of our distant forebears.
In our Essay, Mathematics and Continuing Creation, we discussed the long-running debate about whether mathematics is discovered or invented, and we came down on the side of discovered. We said that the laws of physics, energy, and matter were most likely created (precipitated out) at the moment of the Initial Singularity. We also said that mathematics, like the laws of physics, could likely have been created at the Big Bang. If so, couldn’t mathematics be the same as Chopra’s “pool of consciousness”?
The Book of Continuing Creation says — No, we don’t think so, because the phrase “pool of consciousness” implies that our individual consciousnesses are somehow preserved and maintained in an afterlife, and there is simply no proof of that.
We encourage Followers of Continuing Creation to read Dr. Shermer’s Heavens on Earth, where these topics are discussed more extensively.
However, while the alleged “pool of consciousness” remains (with reincarnation) on our list of imaginary ways to deal with death, there is an analogue for it on our list of rational ways to deal with death. This is the “noosphere,” a concept put forward by Jesuit priest and paleontologist Catholic theologist Teihard de Chardin in his 1955 book The Phenomenon of Man. De Chardin defines the noosphere as the sphere of human thought. It is the sum of all interconnected knowledge that figuratively encircles the globe, a sphere today made ever deeper and faster by the internet and the cloud storage of digital data. The noosphere is the interconnection of what Richard Dawkins called the “memes” of human culture. Thus, there are three spheres around the Earth: the geosphere, the biosphere, and the noosphere.
The noosphere is an artifact of man and a very real part of Continuing Creation. It will continue on as long human beings (and/or their computers) sustain it. As such, the noosphere contains things like technology and medical science. It is a vital tool for humans to use in their dealing with death by the extension of life. We defer further discussion of the noosphere to our Essay, Human Lives and Future Technologies.
B. Handling Death with Rational Understanding & Acceptance
Having described the various imaginary afterlives that people have constructed and believed in (and still believe in) over the ages, we turn to Part B – Handling death with rational understanding and acceptance.
Question: “How can I deal with death?”
Answer: “Just live with it.”
The Growing, Organizing, Direction of the Cosmos offers no promise of an afterlife. Rational thinkers, like the Practitioners of Continuing Creation, use knowledge and understanding to reach a logical and calm acceptance of death.
Understanding and Acceptance help us deal with grief when someone else dies, and they help us overcome fear and anxiety about our own eventual death.
“Just as the swan’s last song is the sweetest of its life, so loss is made endurable by love; and it is love that will echo through eternity.”
— Jennifer Worth, Call the Midwife
B-1. Understand that the Imaginary Afterlives Would Not Be Particularly Enjoyable
Since we’ve already described the various types of religious afterlives, it makes sense to begin Part B by laying the ways in which those afterlives could be bad experiences. After that, we can turn to the considerable number of things that are good about death itself.
Of course, in the Christian and Muslim traditions, not everyone gets to go to Heaven. Some denominations say that many sinners go directly to hell, while others wait in a place called Purgatory until Jesus arrives on Earth to resurrect the dead. Then Jesus conducts the final judgment, assigning all the souls in Purgatory to permanent residence in either Heaven or Hell. Some denominations say only the few (“the elect”) end up in heaven, while others say virtually everyone does.
Heaven Would Get Boring
Even the fortunate folks who go to Heaven would experience serious drawbacks.
“Why would I want to go to Heaven? None of my friends will be there.”
— Mark Twain
In addition to the big problem Mark Twain has just pointed out above, Heaven as it’s usually pictured would get pretty boring. It would be an endless circle of sameness, without challenge, without danger. There would be no more learning or teaching, because everyone (including you) would already know everything. No more creating, because Creation (including you and everyone around you) would already be perfect. Surely classic Christian heaven would eventually get humdrum, what with the constant harp music, praise-singing and all.
An unusual kind of “heaven” was portrayed in the classic 1952 science fiction novel City, by Clifford D. Simak. In City, nearly all the humans on Earth decide, one by one, to decamp to Jupiter and turn themselves into creatures called “Jovians.” Jovians spend their lives galumphing across Jupiter in carefree ecstasy, with all their needs abundantly supplied by the atmosphere and surface of Jupiter. They do no work and they experience no violence, no disease, no suffering, no worry.
However, a terrible outcome flows from Human-to-Jovian conversion: The ex-humans no longer create anything – no culture, no knowledge, no science, no technology, nothing. And back on Earth, Human civilization dies out. The Book of Continuing Creation says – This is not the path we humans should choose!
Maybe Heaven would somehow be designed to provide humans with Earth-like lives, including challenge, creative work, a full variety of activities to choose from, and without the endless harp music. Maybe it would be like real life on Earth, but without war, pain, disease, and mosquitos. Well, maybe, but would it be without death? Without evolution?
Can we even sense pleasure without the contrast of pain? Can we have discovery without prior ignorance? Can black be perceived without white? The answer is “no.” (See our Essay, Patterns of Information: How Creation Works.)
In any case, there is simply no scientific evidence of an afterlife of any kind, as we discussed above.
Nirvana Would Be Even More Boring than Heaven
“Eternity is an awfully long time…especially toward the end.”
— attributed to Woody Allen
Merging with the Godhead, or attaining Nirvana – would be even more boring. As in Heaven, “in” Nirvana there is no sin; no striving, struggle or quest; no discovery, invention or adventure.
But unlike being in Heaven, when you are merged with the Godhead you have no human body, because you don’t need one. So, you can’t even experience eating, walking in the woods, or sex with any of the 72 virgins that jihadi martyrs supposedly get in Islamic Heaven.
In Sanskrit, the word “nirvana” means “blowing out,” “extinguishing,” or “quenching.” What is blown out? All differences and all distinctions; and therefore, all dissatisfaction, striving, and suffering. As a result, one is released from the repeating cycle of birth and death. 25
Since both Heaven and Nirvana are eternal perfection, there would never even be any change. Therefore, no past and no future. You would attain what Deepak Chopra thinks is the ultimate: “eternally living in the now” (if such a thing is not a contradiction in terms!). But think about it. If you can’t remember your past, nor imagine your future, if everything is One, then there is no “you.” You can’t even have a self-identity unless you have a memory of your past (and maybe a vision of your future as well).
And consider this: If you merge with the Godhead, you would then see and know everything that God sees and knows. If so, you would see that all the environmental destruction, all the warfare, all the human sadism and child abuse “down below” in the world. Would you (and God) conclude those are all okay, because they are all part of the One? The Book of Continuing Creation says, No Way!
Therefore, We Co-creators in the Growing, Organizing, Direction do not seek to “merge with the Godhead,” unless it is for periods of daily meditation, whose purpose is to re-charge our human bodies and energies so we can resume the work of Continuing Creation — now, tomorrow, next year, and next decade — here on this Earth. When We meditate, We don’t aim for a mental merger with everything around us, We aim for heightened awareness of everything around us.
Note: There is a version of Heaven where occupants exist halfway between (a) having human bodies and (b) being completely incorporated into the Godhead. This heaven is called the Astral Plane, which is part of the World of Celestial Spheres. In the Astral Plane, the human soul takes on a Astral Body, which is described as a “subtle body” or “dreambody.” The Astral Plane idea has a long history and includes alchemy, astrology, and magic crystals. Today, we find New Age writers talking about The Astral Plane (although it’s hard to tell if they’re serious). For more, see our forthcomingh Essay, New Religions and Spiritual Paths; but we can say right here that The Way of Continuing Creation regards Esoteric and New Age ideas as poppycock.
Reincarnation Would Be a Mixed Bag at Best
Hindu and Buddhist doctrines of reincarnation tell us that Nirvana is very difficult to achieve. Their doctrine says it can often take successive reincarnated lifetimes. The vast, vast majority of people have to live many sequential lives during which they attempt to stockpile enough good deeds and right behavior (karma) to warrant merging with the Godhead.
If people stay on track, they will live lives that progress up through Indian caste system, eventually attaining the highest caste of Brahmin. From there, they might make the final jump to Nirvana. However, indulgence in bad karma along the way can send a person down a caste or two, or even cause a person to be reincarnated as a lowly beetle.
All this is another type of fantasy afterlife, but at least the reincarnation parts include real-life work, family-life, creativity, and choice between good and bad. A lifetime as an Indian warrior, merchant, or Brahmin would not be as boring as being a light beam in the radiance of Nirvana. Even if not, there is certainly no “easy way out,” such as Christianity’s offer of free admission to Heaven for anyone who simply (but sincerely) adopts Jesus as their Lord and Savior. (See our Essay, Evaluating Jesus’ Teaching.)
Alas, sooner or later in all religions, entrepreneurs will realize the appeal of a faith variation that does promise an easier way to an afterlife in paradise, a way that takes less time, effort, moral behavior, and good works. As a result, there is a tendency for all religions to become popularized over time by making them easier and more colorful. This is what took place in the Middle East after the death of Jesus when Paul of Tarsus (Saint Paul) and others preached that belief in Jesus (plus true repentance) could get a person to heaven, regardless of his prior behavior in life. (See our Essays, The Evolution of Religion, and Evaluating Jesus’ Teaching.)
An example from the Far East is the invention of Pure Land Buddhism, around 150 CE, which teaches that followers who invoke Amitabha Buddha’s name with sincere devotion can be reincarnated as residents of the Pure Land — a paradise inhabited by many gods, people, flowers, fruits, and adorned with wish-granting trees.26 Entering the Pure Land is perceived as equivalent to the attainment of semi-enlightenment. Once in the Pure Land, the practitioner is instructed by Amitabha Buddha and his numerous helpers until full and complete enlightenment is reached. 27 For obvious reasons, Pure Land Buddhism has become one of the most popular forms of Buddhism in Asia today.
B-2. Accept that the Dead Have No Consciousness After Death.
The oblivion of death actually holds neither pain nor pleasure. In death there is no self, no perception of time, past, or future, no awareness of anything at all. We experience dying, but we do not experience death.
No Scientific Evidence that Near-Death Experiences (“NDE’s”) are Visions of an Actual Afterlife
People who believe in an afterlife most often offer popular accounts of “near-death experiences” as their best evidence.
A near-death experience (NDE) is a dream or vision that some people have when their bodies approach death and then are resuscitated by medical intervention, or by a natural turn toward recovery. NDE’s include sensations such as detachment from the body, feelings of levitation, total serenity, security, warmth, the experience of absolute dissolution, and the presence of a light. 28
There is no scientific evidence that suggests consciousness survives the death of an organism. According to current neuroscience, a near-death experience is a subjective phenomenon resulting from “disturbed bodily multisensory integration” that occurs during life-threatening events. 29. Consciousness fails to survive brain death and, along with all other mental functions, is irrecoverably lost. 30
What We Can Learn from Alzheimer’s Patients
A person’s identity and personhood emerge from the brain the same way that photographs emerge from the 1’s and 0’s on a digital thumb-drive. If the thumb-drive is destroyed, those particular photos no longer emerge and no longer exist. If the brain is destroyed, that particular identity and personhood (soul) no longer exists.
We know that one’s identity, personality, sense of self, thought, consciousness, memories, and point-of-view – all of these reside in the neurons of the brain. We know this because in advanced Alzheimer’s Disease, when the brain’s neurons stop working, all of these things – identity, personality, sense of self, thought, and memories – are completely and forever lost. 31
The Path of Continuing Creation says — If we think about it, having a vision or a dream while we’re unconscious at the edge of death is no more unusual than having dreams and visions while we are on the edge of sleep at night.
Understanding the Good Things About Death
Having covered the bad things about religion’s fictional afterlives and about the oblivion of consciousness for all members of the dead, we can next take up discussion of the good things about death:
B-3. Understand that Life Goes on for Others After We Die, as Does the Process of Life.
As we approach death we know that life goes on for our children, grandchildren, and friends. Life goes on – and hopefully continues to expand and elaborate Continuing Creation – after we die. If we fully understand this, we appreciate that Life (including our genetic heritage and our life experience) does not end with our particular deaths. Life moves through us and into the generations that come after us. Our successors will carry the legacy of our genes and our memes. (We will further discuss legacy later in the Essay.)
B-4. Understand that Life Depends on, and Is Interwoven with, Death
Small Deaths Are Around Us Everywhere, All the Time
It can be argued that the mere passage of time creates death. Every waking and dreaming second of every day “present” thoughts are dying and “next” thoughts are being born. Events are dying and being born. Sensations are dying and being born.
“Sensations and thoughts are being born and dying every second of our lives.”
– Thich Nhat Hanh.
Accept that We Humans Live off the Deaths of Plants and Animals
We animals live off death. Every animal, including humans, lives by consuming the bodies of other creatures. Earth’s many predatory animals kill and eat other animals. Herbivores are animals that kill and eat plants.
Only photosynthesizing plants and blue-green algae can make living cells out of non-living materials – water, minerals, and sunlight. (Plus, creatures living around undersea volcanic vents, which use the heat to perform chemosynthesis.) And as a practical matter, most photosynthesizing plants depend on the decomposed plants and animals (reached with their roots) whom they themselves did not kill.
If we humans live off death, is it not fair and appropriate that each of us also dies?
Understand that Death Makes Room and Allows Old Materials to be Re-used
Earth is only so big, and many of its regions (seas, deserts, polar regions) are not hospitable to humans. The death of existing humans makes room for the lives of new humans.
New creatures need materials as well as space. To create a new form, an old form is often destroyed, especially when the materials are needed. Earth has a fixed amount of resources. Many of these are recycled over and over – from one living creature to another, down through the generations. (See our Essay, Complexity and Continuing Creation.)
Death is nature’s birth control. Death is the way in which Mother Earth, or Gaia, tries to throw over-populations off her back so that the biosphere as a whole can survive. This knowledge can help us accept death.
If humans reproduced but never died, Earth’s biosphere would long ago have been smothered to death by overpopulation. If we want to eliminate death (or even just to extend life), we must have strict birth control. (See our Essay, Overpopulation Threatens Continuing Creation.)
Understand that Death Creates Opportunity for Evolution and Progress
At present, everyone ages and dies. Death is Creative Evolution’s way of clearing a path for progress, of taking out the old to make way for the new, for change achieved through biologic, cultural, and technological evolution. Knowing this good thing about death makes dying easier to anticipate and endure.
Species live longer than their individual member creatures, but species usually die out as well. If every species now living had continued to live forever, there would be no room and no food for new species.
Like individuals, species are also born and also die. The birth of a species, called speciation, happens when genetic mutations produce new individuals who have features and abilities that allow them to survive, reproduce and flourish by successfully getting food and countering predators and diseases. When the environment changes such that a species can no longer do these things very well, it “goes extinct.” Extinction is death for a species.
All life began with a single single-celled creature. Between them and us humans, long chains of species have been born, bred, mutated, and died out. If any one of them had reproduced but never mutated, humans as we know ourselves today would not exist.
Scientists estimate that 99% of all species that ever lived have since gone extinct. 32
Unless a new species has mutated a way to eat rocks, crude oil, or seawater, (as some species of bacteria, archaea, and fungi actually do)33 it must take some or all of the food already being consumed by one or more existing species. To do that, it must have mutated a physical feature that gives it a competitive advantage over existing creatures. When the new creature does take the food source, it can drive an old species to extinction.
Change causes species extinction, but conversely species extinction “permits” change, evolution, and progression — progressions like the refinement of the eagle’s eye or the development of human consciousness and language — by freeing up space and resources.
It is very hard to see how Evolution (which is part of the Growing, Organizing, Direction of the Cosmos) could have achieved increasing complexity and progress without the death of species. With no genetic mutation, no natural selection, there would be no adaptation – so there would never be any change.
Ask yourself, what is expendable and what lives on?
I die, but my lineage may live on, perhaps indefinitely.
My lineage may die out, but my species lives on.
My species may die out, but mammals may live on.
Mammals and even all animals may die out, but Continuing Creation can still live on.
Understand the Reality of Creative Destruction
There are many examples of Creation first requiring destruction. It is also true that destruction requires Creation, because forces can only destroy things that were previously created:
- Life on Earth (a creation) was made possible only by the death (destruction) of the older, unnamed stars that went nova and supernova, spewing out the 94 natural elements that the gravity of our own star, the sun, gathered into the seven planets orbiting it, including planet Earth.
- The young families (litters) of grizzly bears are broken up (destroyed) when the male cubs wander off to seek and mate with females of more distant blood lines. But their mating creates new grizzly bear families.
- Molecules of food are broken apart (destroyed) in our human digestive systems, and further destroyed in our bodies’ individual cells, in order to generate bodily energy for the people who ate the food. That energy is used to create a brick wall or create a garment. Meanwhile, many other molecules from the food are used to create new cells.
Plants get most of their nutrition from the mulched bodies of other plants and animals. And all of our hydrocarbon energy – wood, coal, oil, natural gas — comes from the bodies of dead plants and animals.
As we mentioned earlier, in Hinduism, the god Shiva is simultaneously Destroyer and Creator. He is portrayed as Shiva Nataraja (Lord of the Dance). His “Dance of Shiva” is proposed to be the source of the Western notion of “creative destruction.” Understanding the principle of Creating Destruction helps us deal with death.
Understand that In the Non-living World, Destruction Is the Equivalent of Death
There is a kind of Death even outside the realm of life. Non-living but still dynamic systems, like tornadoes, have a “birth, life, growth, old age, and death.” Only we usually call those things “forming, growing, being active, peaking, losing strength, and dissipating or collapsing.”
Destruction (including slow collapse) is the death of non-living things. Destruction can be caused by a sudden (and possibly agented) event, or by the slower decay of Entropy. (See our forthcoming Essay, Concepts from Physics.)
The Second Law of Thermodynamics, also called the Law of Entropy, says that eventually, everything runs down. All machines break down; all buildings eventually erode, collapse, and disappear – even the Egyptian pyramids. Complete Entropy means complete disorder, lack of all pattern and structure, and lack of energy to create or repair pattern and structure.
Continuing Creation of G>O>D> happens here on Earth only as long as the sun shines and our fossil fuels last. When all hydrocarbons are burned and our sun dies out, hopefully we humans (and/or our computer-machine surrogates) will have moved on to occupy a few other planets in other solar systems, where Continuing Creation can continue.
Understanding the fact of physical destruction helps us accept the fact of our own biological death.
The Practice of Continuing Creation says — Time is a clear feature of the universe, at least as we human beings experience it. We should remember that without time, there would be no death and no entropy. But without time there would also be no birth and no Continuing Creation! Without the flow of time, we would not be able to move, compare, remember, or think. Perhaps we could not even exist. Perhaps birth and death do not require time, but it is time that requires birth and death. If so, then perhaps we cannot have birth without also having death.
Understand that Destruction is the Destruction of Pattern & Organization
Even geologic formations are destroyed by forces such as wind, water flow, quakes, volcanic activity, and by life (especially by human life!).
Even open plains must be destroyed in order for a canyon to be formed.
However, the underlying building blocks – the atoms – of the plains are not destroyed. They are recycled into the ground, riverbed, and seashore, where they can be used to form new canyons, river-bottoms, and beaches. (Similarly, in the biological world, a tree must die in order for insects, fungi, and bacteria to emerge from consuming the tree’s roots, branches, and leaves.) The Dance of Shiva
So really, it is not the underlying matter but the pattern, the organization, the structure that is destroyed… so that it can be changed. In other words, “The land used to be patterned flat, and now it has the pattern of a deep groove in it.” Changing pattern is the principle of Creative Destruction, symbolized by the Dance of Shiva.
B-5. Understand and Accept that Humans Are Not More Sacred than Other Creatures
People who fear and resent death often believe that humans should live on because we are specially privileged animals. Usually, these people argue that humans are smarter, more loving, more creative, and more moral than other animals.
It is easier to accept death if we understand that humans are not more sacred or anointed than other creatures. Eagles can see better, dogs can smell better, we cannot convert sunlight into food, can’t echo-locate, can’t sense magnetic fields, cannot fly. But we alone pollute the Earth.
The Bible is wrong to say that we humans have “dominion” over the other creatures of the Earth. We may have physical and intellectual power over the other creatures, but we don’t have moral dominion. It is doubtful that humans are more loving or moral than, say, elephants or porpoises. Humans are not sacred creatures. Today, if anything, we infest the Earth. (See our Essay, Overpopulation Threatens Continuing Creation.) It follows that the Bible is wrong to say “Man” was “created in God’s image.” It would be more accurate to say that “all creatures were created in God’s image.” It would be most accurate to say that “all creatures were evolved, and continue to be evolved, by the processes of The Growing, Organizing Direction of the Cosmos.”
The Way of Continuing Creation says that our human species does not have the right to use Earth’s resources beyond Earth’s ability to sustain and renew those resources. With the exception of certain microbes that seriously threaten our well-being or our own extinction, we do not have the right to drive other species to extinction, nor even to treat them cruelly. (We might make some exceptions, and also wipe out creatures like the Aedes Aegypti mosquito, which carries the Zika virus.) 34
Death exists because Continuing Creation: The Growing, Organizing, Direction of the Cosmos is not placing all its bets on the human race, nor on any species. Death makes room for new life, and new mutations within that life. Some of those mutations will achieve success within the Evolutionary Processes of the Cosmos, just as mammals did over the dinosaurs; just as our human race did over our cousins the Neanderthals.
Ninety-nine percent of all previous species have eventually died out. The individuals of a species (called phenotypes in biology) are not the most important thing in the Process of Evolution. They are just momentary expressions of the species itself (the genotype). Similarly, on an even higher level, the process of Continuing Creation is more important than its “temporary” incarnations in any particular species. 35
B-6. Understand that We Should Make the Most out of This Life… While We Can
Thich Nhat Hanh and Deepak Chopra advocate living in the now, because they argue that only the present moment is really alive.
The Way of Continuing Creation counters with this thought: If only the present “now” is really alive, then we humans have no self-identities, because our personhood, our consciousness, depends on our having memories.
In his new book, Heavens on Earth: The Scientific Search for the Afterlife, Immortality, and Utopia, Michael Shermer writes that he attended one of Chopra’s seminars for a weekend. “There I managed to live in the now from Friday afternoon through Sunday evening. But then I had to go back to work on Monday morning because my mortgage payment’s now was coming up soon.” 36
While it is impossible to fully “live in the now,” which studies show lasts only three seconds, the prospect of our eventual death does encourage us to “seize the day,” to “stop and smell the roses,” and to “pay attention to your work.” These sentiments are encompassed by today’s Mindfulness Movement.
Seizing the day, or mindfulness, includes enjoying the now and loving in the now. It also includes working in the now — creating and contributing to the Growing, Organizing, Direction of the Cosmos as it evolves and grows. For most of us, this means our contributions through raising our children, influencing our friends, and doing our work.
Mindfulness also includes remembering and reminiscing (living in the past) and planning (living in the future. The keys are: (a) when you do those two things, give them your full, “mindful” attention, and (b) don’t do too much living in the past or the future. (For more on mindfulness, see our Essays, Leading a Fulfilled and Happy Life, and Meditations for Co-Creators.)
Our Practice says — If we were immortal, we might not appreciate life at all. If we never saw death anywhere around us, we would not have it to contrast with and give meaning to life. After a few hundred years of living, we might have the negative attitude that says, “Been there, seen it, done it.”
The existence of death motivates us to appreciate and to use our time on Earth productively.
B-7. Understand that Death Itself Is Not Painful or Evil
As we discussed earlier, death is not painful or evil, because without living bodies we don’t even perceive death – it is simply oblivion. Understanding that makes death easier to accept.
But dying can be painful and even evil, and so can fearing death and dying.
- Dying often entails acute pain and/or chronic suffering.
- Dying can be evil if the death is perpetrated on a victim by another person, or if scientifically rational medical treatment is deliberately or negligently denied.
- Dying relatively painlessly from advanced old age is surely not evil. But a painless death, even at a very advanced age, can be evil if it is caused by someone else through action or negligence.
- Murderous death and death by gross negligence are evil, but not a death by physical accident or act of nature (e.g. lightning strike.)
- Fear of Death, anxiety about death and dying, can be very psychologically painful. If another person deliberately or negligently exacerbates the fear and anxiety, it can even be evil.
These bulleted distinctions illustrate how moral questions become very complex when they are applied to real-life situations. As a direct consequence, the law is very complex and case-based. (See our Essay, Leading a Moral Life.)
At Death’s Door, Prolonging Life Can Be Evil
Conversely, when a sick person’s life becomes filled with irreversible pain and chronic suffering, it can become evil to prolong his or her life by the “heroic” use of high tech and high-cost technology.
The Way of Continuing Creation says that every rational person has the right to end their own life. This includes the naming of specific other people to handle this process in the event that the suffering person has become incapacitated.
It is increasingly common to prepare a “Medical Directive,” “Advance Healthcare Directive,” or “Living Will” in which you state whether or not you want to receive “extreme medical interventions” (such as the use of ventilators, feeding tubes, or cardiopulmonary resuscitation) that you feel will inappropriately prolong your life to no good end. Our Spiritual Path endorses the right of competent individuals to choose the time and method of their own death. (See also our earlier remarks in this Essay about wills and final directives.)
Warfare and Violent Crime Can Be Evil
Death by human violence (crime and warfare) is widespread across the Earth and across history. Attacking for conquest and subjugation are evil; defending for life and liberty are most likely not.
It is often difficult to discern who is the attacker and who is the defender when rivals repeatedly fight over decades or centuries. On the other hand, there is no doubt that the Allies of World War II were morally righteous to take up arms and defeat Adolf Hitler.
Warfare has been part of the natural history of Continuing Creation. Different species of ants make war on each other. Tribes of chimpanzees also go to war against each other. Humans make war against other tribes, nations, and religions.
Individuals compete for food sources, and so do entire species. Entire species are often wiped out by new creatures who have a significant competitive advantage, e.g., buffalo hunters, killer bees, commercial whalers, and invasive plants.
For example, plant species have been at war with insect species for 400 million years, according to geo-biologist and Professor Hope Jahren writes in her best-selling memoir Lab Girl. Dr. Jahren goes on to describe the battle between trees and tent caterpillars in Washington State that threatened entire groves of trees in 1977. But by 1979, scientists discovered that the sick trees were emitting VOCs (Volatile Organic Compounds) into the air that were received by other groves of trees some distance away. Alerted or perhaps vaccinated in this way, the distant trees were able to manufacture poisons in their leaves that sickened the caterpillars, saving those trees from death all through the 1980’s. 37
The human body’s immune system makes war against “foreign agents,” including microbes, blood cells and tissue from other humans, toxins from insects, etc.
Clearly, war is inherent in Nature. Components of Continuing Creation fight, compete, and kill. There are winners and losers. Nevertheless, Continuing Creation has advanced for millennia as a result of (and in spite of) this deadly competition.
Similarly, in technological evolution old technologies also die when they are out-competed by new technologies. This is the principle of Creative Destruction, which we discuss further below.
In the future, will human idealism and cooperation succeed in eliminating human warfare? Can we tame conflict down to the level of non-lethal business and political competition? Possibly. In 2011 Harvard Professor of Psychology Steven Pinker published his highly-praised 700-page book called The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined,38 which document how nearly all forms of human violence – including war and crime – have declined over the centuries. (See our Essays on Human Evolution and Suffering and Evil.)
Still, your author’s opinion is that we are unlikely, anytime soon, to eliminate our warfare against old and new diseases. In addition, we now face a whole new war against the destructive warming of Earth itself. The first of our new warriors – brave wildfire fighters – appear on the news almost weekly.
Is Disease Evil?
We humans have been making war on the plague and hundreds of other diseases for centuries. Disease would be evil, except that it is usually perpetrated by microscopic organisms and genetic errors that have no conscious intent. Still, although there is no intent behind such disease, it is often very painful, debilitating, and personal. The microorganisms that cause disease are at least rightly seen as our enemies. (See our Essay on Suffering and Evil.)
At the same time, a virus that is a lethal enemy to humans may not be an enemy to Continuing Creation as a whole. We cannot foresee all the effects and paths of a system as complex as Life-on-Earth. A plague that horribly eliminates a third of the human population (thereby reducing global warming) might be a good thing for Earth’s overall ecosystem. It could be seen as Mother Nature saving the planet through population reduction, because we humans didn’t have the sense and or the will to curtail our dumping of carbon dioxide into our atmosphere and thereby halt global warming. (See our Essay, Overpopulation Threatens Continuing Creation.)
Is Aging Evil?
We’ve already said that dying can be painful and even evil. So can aging (or ageing), because for most creatures, including humans, aging is usually part of dying.
We could also argue that aging can be evil because it is counter-productive both to the individuals that are aging and to everyone around them. While aging people provide society with invaluable wisdom and childcare, they often eventually lose their physical and mental abilities and must be cared for by others.
If everyone died a sudden and nearly painless death at an advanced age, but while still possessing nearly all their mental and physical abilities, the world would be a better place. If the process of evolution had been designed by “a loving God,” aging would be a major “design flaw.”
In the science of Biology, aging is called senescence (although scientists do argue over small distinctions between the two terms).
“Senescence or biological ageing is the gradual deterioration of function characteristic of most complex lifeforms, arguably found in all biological kingdoms, that on the level of the organism increases mortality after maturation. The word senescence can refer either to cellular senescence or to senescence of the whole organism. It is commonly believed that cellular senescence underlies organismal senescence.” – From Wikipedia.
As we will discuss later in this Essay, senescence can be delayed. Also, there are a number of living creatures that do not age at all. They only die by accident or predation. Science is looking at ways to slow down or even eliminate aging in humans.
B-8. Understand that by Leaving a Legacy, We Achieve a Kind of Immortality.
Although we each die, we each leave behind a legacy. That legacy is a continuation of our life’s influence. If our legacy is a good one, knowing this can greatly lessen our fear of death and dying. Legacy can even be a kind of “immortality by proxy.”
The are several kinds of legacy:
- If we have one or more biological children, we leave behind genetic information. It is thrilling for a parent to suddenly see some trait or mannerism of their parents suddenly appear in their children.
- If we raise one or more children, we leave behind the most important lessons a human being can teach. We may do child-raising well or poorly, but whatever “teaching legacy” we leave behind has a strong influence on the future.
- Our legacies include memories of us in the minds of family, friends, neighbors and co-corkers. We also leave behind photos, journals and letters. Our legacies include gardens we planted, novels and music we wrote, art we made, buildings we designed, stones we laid, computer systems we programmed, sweaters we knit, lumber we sawed and nailed, and jewelry we fashioned or bought.
- Legacy includes money and property we accumulated and bequeathed, the educations our tuition payments funded, charities we helped, elections we campaigned in, and the achievements of committees we served on.
- We leave behind the example of our behavior, morality, and character. Our legacy includes the example of our honor, creativity, industry, kindness, and love.
“At the end, our most valued possessions are our memories.”
For most of us, our legacy initially reaches only the people near to us, but in the longer term its effects may echo down through generations. Today, millions of people have increased this kind of immortality by simply by leaving behind all our photos and videos on Facebook, in the giant memory “cloud.” Millions of other people have increased their immortality by researching and saving their family trees and their DNA analyses.
Mothers have long kept scrapbooks of their children’s early schoolwork. Today, large numbers of people carry “scrapbooking” into their adult lives. Scrapbooking not only records their lives, it also enriches their lives as they are being lived. So can making daily “Gratitude Lists,” or keeping a daily journal.
If we do want to leave a larger personal legacy, we should each record a story of our own lives. A good way is to be interviewed by children and/or grandchildren. There are written lists of good questions to ask. (google “record your grandparents, or ‘Interview your grandparents”.)
Legacies of Fame
Some of us leave behind powerful and famous legacies. These people achieve and leave behind Nobel prizes, scientific discoveries, famous works of art, charitable foundations, university endowments, and world records of many kinds.
Many of these people may have had an abundance of ambition, drive, and even selfishness in the pursuit of wealth, fame and glory, but the good done by their legacies can outweigh most (or some) of their lives’ defects and transgressions.
Some people (like Abraham Lincoln and Jonas Salk) gain fame during their lives, while others (like Vincent Van Gogh for painting and Hollywood actress Hedy Lamarr for invention of frequency-hopping signal technology now widely used in telecommunications) achieve fame only after they have passed away.
— Hedy Lamarr, Hollywood actress and inventor of “frequency-hopping signal technology”
One of us can do or say something seemingly small that turns out to be like the proverbial “flap of a butterfly’s wing” that triggers the formation of a hurricane; or like the nudge that starts a chain reaction among a whole field of standing dominoes. (See our Essay, Complexity and Continuing Creation.)
Many people have written books, composed music, and created art partly out of a desire to achieve a kind of immortality. The Egyptians built tombs, inscribed with hieroglyphic stories of their own lives, for that exact reason.
It was believed that the sun, Ra, could not rise in the morning unless accompanied by the “ghost” of the departed Pharaoh. Each night, he had to rise from the tomb, and with the aid of the images and implements around him, journey across the “river” so he could then help Ra rise the next morning. (this is from the Morgan Freeman TV series, Story of God, April, 2016). Ramses lived 3000 years ago; and is still remembered and studied today.
Some legacies are built with the intent to impress subsequent generations – fame after death. Other people create and build things for the here and now, and then those things become legacies after the creator’s death. Some legacies (particularly money and property) accrue privately to the deceased’s heirs; other legacies are intended for the wider public and even for civilization as a whole (e.g. the great charitable foundations, including The Ford Foundation, The Howard Hughes Medical Institute, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.)
Information Can Be Nearly Immortal
In many cases, the important part of a legacy – both large and small — is the information it contains and conveys. Information can easily live longer than human beings, and knowing this helps us understand how our legacy can ease the fear of death and dying.
The plays that originated in Shakespeare’s mind have lived on, on stage and in printed and digital form, for centuries after Shakespeare’s death. They are quite likely to live on for many centuries more. Information can even be nearly immortal if it is “reincarnated” from generation to generation, like successive performances of Shakespeare’s plays.
Only in the world of information can new things be created without destroying the old. Geometry can be created without the destruction of Algebra, and vice versa. A new symphony can be written without having to destroy an old symphony.
The Ford Foundation, NYC
However, all those new things are conceptual items, not physical items. Those conceptual things live in minds and culture, and they require brains, books, and digital files to hold them. (Brains, books and files can hold them, but only brains can “live” them.)
The cultural information we share lives on after us. If I die, my personal knowledge of English dies with me. But the English language itself lives on after me, having been changed in ways both big and small by each generation of English speakers. English has a life longer than my own. My mind is only a temporary container for English, and one of many. I think we can say that the continuation of the English language (and American art, music, etc.) provides me with a kind of immortality; although languages can go extinct just as species can.
The renowned biologist Richard Dawkins coined the word meme to represent a unit of transmitted culture. A “‘meme” in cultural evolution is analogous to a “gene” in biological evolution. Both arise from the mutation of existing units, and both are then subject to natural selection in their environments. Some memes (like the word “okay)” become permanent parts of the English language, while others (like the expression “far out,” meaning “unconventional” or “excellent”) fade away from disuse because fewer and fewer speakers find them useful.
B-9. Understand that Technology Will Reduce Aging and Lengthen Lives
B-10. Understand the Opportunities & Dangers of Transhumanism
“I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work; I want to achieve it through not dying.
— Woody Allen
“I don’t want to live on in the hearts of my countrymen; I want to live on in my apartment.”
— Woody Allen
Many of us would agree with Woody Allen — leaving a legacy may not suffice.
Our last two rational methods for dealing with death on the Path of Growing Direction (methods we have numbered “B-9” and “B-10” in this Essay on Death) involve the ways in which technology, including medical science, can prolong life and put off death.
These two technological paths include the better nutrition, treatment of disease, surgical repairs, the hospice movement, artificial organs, implants and appliances, cryonics, cloning, and uploading personhood into a computer simulation. Closely related topics are “the technological singularity” and “transhumanism.”
However, our discussion of these technologies and topics is contained in a separate Essay called, Cyborgs, Transhumanism, and Immortality (CTI).
The CTI Essay stands (or will stand) as a capstone for three other Essays:
- CTI caps our “Dealing with Death” Essay by explaining how we can rationally extend our lives through medicine and technology.
- CTI will cap our “Human Evolution” Essay by describing how humans may increasingly enhance their bodies by implanting electronics and appending mechanical devices; or even by implanting entire personhoods into a digital medium.
- CTI will cap our “Evolution of Technology” Essay by explaining how computers, robots, and/or networks of them could “wake up” and achieve independent consciousness in a watershed transition called the “technological singularity.”
From the vantage points of all three technological arenas, we can envision ourselves moving toward utopia… and we can also envision ourselves moving toward dystopia.
- Stuart Kauffman, At Home in the Universe: The Search for the Laws of Self-Organization and Complexity,1995, Oxford University Press, pp. 180-183.
- Michael McKinney, 1997, “How do rare species avoid extinction? A paleontological view”, In Kunin, W. E.; Gaston, K. J. (eds.). The Biology of Rarity. pp. 110–129. doi:10.1007/978-94-011-5874-9_7. ISBN 978-94-010-6483-5.
- “the definition of death,” Dictionary.com. Retrieved 2018-04-13.
- Leda Zimmerman, Leda (19 October 2010). “Must all Organisms Age and Die?” 10/19/2010, Massachusetts Institute of Technology School of Engineering. Archived from the original on 11/1/2100. Retrieved 2/9/2018.
- Marc Bekoff, The Emotional Lives of Animals: A Leading Scientist Explores Animal Joy, Sorrow, and Empathy–and Why They Matter, 2010, New World Library, ISBN 9781577313489. See also “The Depths of Animal Grief — NOVA Next | PBS”. NOVA Next. 7/8/2015. Retrieved 8/4/2017.
- Elliot Hannon, “Vanishing Vultures a Grave Matter for India’s Parsis,” All Things Considered, 9/5/2012. https://www.npr.org/2012/09/05/160401322/vanishing-vultures-a-grave-matter-for-indias-parsis
- See “Burial and Cremation Laws in ______” (fill in name of a state), https://www.nolo.com/legal-encyclopedia/burial-cremation-laws-oregon.html.
- Epicurus, as reported by Cicero, Marcus Tullius. “II.82”. De finibus bonorum et malorum. ISBN 3-519-01219-7. See also “Epicurus (c 341-270 BC)”. British Humanist Association. https://humanism.org.uk/humanism/the-humanist-tradition/the-ancient-world/epicurus/.
- Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, 2012, Pantheon / Random House, pp. 248-273.
- Michael Shermer, The Believing Brain, 2011, St. Martin’s Griffin.
- Albert Einstein, obituary in New York Times, April 19, 1955. See also Albert Einstein, The World As I See It, 2014, Snowball Publishing.
- Pascal Boyer, Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought, 2001, Basic Books (Perseus Group), p. 207.
- Pascal Boyer, Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought, 2001, Basic Books (Perseus Group), p. 227. See also Boyer’s book, Mexico’s Day of the Dead).
- Robert Garland, The Greek Way of Death, 1985, Second edition 2001, Cornell University Press, pgs. 1 and 12.
- Pascal Boyer, Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought, 2001, Basic Books (Perseus Group), p. 207.
- Chip Rowe, “Richard Dawkins: Interview (2012),” online at Scraps from the Left, Accessed 8/31/2018. https://scrapsfromtheloft.com/2018/01/02/richard-dawkins-playboy-interview-chip-rowe/.
- G. Steinsland & P. Meulengracht Sørensen, 1998, Människor och Makter i Vikingarnas Värld. ISBN 91-7324-591-7. Referenced in “Death in Norse Paganism,” Wikipedia, Accessed 8-31-2018.
- James A. Michener, Centennial, a novel, 1974, Penguin Random House.
- Michael Shermer, Heavens on Earth: The Scientific Search for the Afterlife, Immortality, and Utopia, 2018, Henry Holt (Macmillan) p. 52.
- W. E. Bedore, ThD., “What Does the Old Testament Say about Hell and Why is it Mentioned? Quora, 2-14-17.
- The illustration of the “River of Blood (Phlegethon), in Hell: Florentine, ca. 1390-1400. Vatican, Biblioteca Apostolica, MS lat. 4776. Dante and Virgil observe the centaurs shooting the tyrants in Phlegethon. Charles S. Singleton (Inferno XII)
- “Pope Francis and Hell,” National Catholic Reporter, April 3, 2018.
- Reinhold Niebuhr, “The Serenity Prayer.” See Fred R. Shapiro, “Who Wrote the Serenity Prayer,” 4/28/2014, The Chronicle Review.
- Michael Shermer, Heavens on Earth: The Scientific Search for the Afterlife, Immortality, and Utopia, 2018, Henry Holt (Macmillan).
- Damien Keown, A Dictionary of Buddhism, Oxford University Press, 2004. See also Huston Smith, The World’s Religions: Our Great Wisdom Traditions, 1991, Harper Collins, p. 113.
- “Pure Land Buddhism,” Encyclopedia Britannica. www.britannica.com/topic/Pure-Land-Buddhism.
- Birmingham Museum of Art (2010). Birmingham Museum of Art: Guide to the Collection. London, UK: GILES. pp. 30–31. ISBN 978-1-904832-77-5. Archived from the original on 2011-09-10. Retrieved 2011-07-08.
- A. Sleutjes; A. Moreira-Almeida, B. Greyson, B (2014). “Almost 40 years investigating near-death experiences: an overview of mainstream scientific journals”. J. Nerv. Ment., Dis. 202: pp.833–6. doi:10.1097/NMD.0000000000000205. PMID 25357254.
- Olaf Blanke, The Neurology of Consciousness, 2009, Academic Publishers, London, pp. 303–324. ISBN 978-0-12-374168-4. See also Christopher C. French, “Near-death experiences in cardiac arrest survivors,” 1/1/2005, Progress in Brain Research. 150: 351–367. doi:10.1016/S0079-6123(05)50025-6. PMID 16186035.
- Steven Laureys, Giulio Tononi, The Neurology of Consciousness: Cognitive Neuroscience and Neuropathology, 2009, Academic Press. p. 20. ISBN 978-0-12-374168-419. See also A. Vanhaudenhuyse, M. Thonnard, and S. Laureys, “Towards a Neuro-scientific Explanation of Near-death Experiences,” in Jean-Louis Vincent, Yearbook of Intensive Care and Emergency Medicine (PDF), 2009, Springer Berlin Heidelberg. ISBN 978-3-540-92276-6.
- Michael Shermer, Heavens on Earth: the Scientific Search for the Afterlife, Immortality, and Utopia, 2018, Henry Holt, pp. 73-74.
- Beverly P. Stearns and S.C. Stearns, and Stephen C. Stearns, Watching, from the Edge of Extinction, Yale University Press, 2000, p. preface. ISBN 978-0-300-08469-6. See also Michael J. Novacek, “Prehistory’s Brilliant Future,” New York Times, 11/8/2104.
- “Microbes Eat Rocks and Leave Carbon Dioxide,” Science, 4/13/2018.
- Ari Shapiro interviewing Nora Besansky, “Mosquitoes: What Are The Good For,”? All Things Considered on NPR, 2-19-16.
- Stuart Kauffman, At Home in the Universe: The Search for the Laws of Self-Organization and Complexity,1995, Oxford University Press, p.181.
- Michael Shermer, Heavens on Earth: The Scientific Search for the Afterlife, Immortality, and Utopia, 2018, Henry Holt and Company, p. 70.
- , Hope Jahren, Lab Girl, Vintage Books, 2016, p. 166.
- Steven Pinker, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, 2011, Penguin Books.