Ever since a very close, very dear friend of ours suddenly passed away, I find myself wondering about my own death and what follows. “Death” is the only word in any language and any society for which there are numerous, almost endless theories. Every religion, every philosopher and in fact, every individual has his/her own version of death and its consequences.
So here is my interpretation of death.
We’re made up of body and soul. Soul is the essence of who we are: our emotions, behavior, thoughts and actions are ultimately defined by our soul. Unlike our bodies, soul is pure energy and energy never dies. Those who have seen a loved one lying in an open casket usually say, “It didn’t even look like her/him at all.”
Well no, it probably didn’t. That’s because the soul of the deceased, which is everything that made him/her the person you cherished, is gone. What’s left is an empty box or shell. I like to think that the soul, once released from its body, seeks out a newborn in which to thrive. This is my interpretation.
In Buddhism, my interpretation is the worst-case scenario. My soul settling in a newborn is viewed as an unwanted state, because the significance of such a move is that I haven’t reached Nirvana, the highest position in the afterlife. Nirvana literally means extinction, and refers to liberation from any cravings, wants or desires. It means achieving total nothingness, nothing to reincarnate. At that point, I’d be emotionless, careless, hurtles, painless and fearless. (Strange…I’ve met living people who have obtained a sort of Nirvana). The result of Nirvana is my soul disintegrating. For some reason, my mortal sensibility is not able to consider this a desirable outcome. And neither does Judaism.
In Judaism, there is no reincarnation, but there is an afterlife. It’s called HaOlam Aba (or HaOlam HaEmet) and it’s no piece of cake. My soul has to watch its earthly life from beginning to end including the skeletons in my closet (no shortage there) with all the other souls present. Then, we all get to see what my life would have been like if I had done things according to Jewish law; a sort of It’s A Wonderful Life moment.
That’s the Jewish version of real punishment, and hell. The good news is, I can still learn and grow from my mistakes. I’ve always liked that about Judaism; no law is absolute. There are degrees of awareness, the highest being the one closest to God. My soul would surely end up in the nosebleed section. I’ve sat in the nosebleed section at basketball games, and I remember wishing I were in the first, second or third row. No different in the afterlife. I’m guessing, souls from other faiths are sitting in the nosebleed section times ten. At least there is room for betterment in Judaism. Which is not the case in Christianity.
I just have to turn on the television to know that if I don’t accept Jesus Christ as my Lord and savior I’m going to hell and will be tortured for all eternity. No ifs, ands, or buts about it. Oddly enough, whether I go to heaven or hell isn’t based on my earthly conduct, but rather on how ardently I embraced Jesus and his teachings. If I were a murderer, but became a born-again Christian, I’d be guaranteed a place in heaven. However, there are so many different variations of Christianity that this conditional generosity might not be universal. Should my commitment to Jesus Christ still be debated, I’ll land in purgatory or judgment. Purgatory, I guess, has to be annoying. Who likes waiting around for millennia on end? However, I do like the Catholic faith practice, which allows me to confess while I’m still breathing. If I die right after confessing, my slate will be wiped clean and off to heaven I’ll go.
None of that in the Quran. No wiping the slate clean. In fact, the only way to attain Allah's mercy is if I suffer for him in this life. Anything and everything I do must be with and for Allah. My day-to-day behavior above ground is final and binding once judgment day arrives (I guess that train has left the station…). If I lead a secular, worldly, open-minded and freethinking lifestyle, and “abuse” Allah’s riches (you know, the one I’ve accumulated) chances are I’ll stray from Allah, and probably end up in hell. For this reason, the Quran says it’s better to be poor; if I’m poor, I won’t get distracted from my adulation for Allah. The threat in the Quran is clear. This is a bit scary to me, and far too rigid for my taste.
After thinking things over, I’m now convinced that I won’t involve religion in my death. And I‘m revising my initial interpretation of it. The Greek philosopher, Epicurus, said it best. He wrote, “…death, therefore, the most awful of evils, is nothing to us, seeing that, when we are, death is not come, and, when death is come, we are not.”
He’s right. I’m going to stop wondering about my death. By the time I’ll experience it, I’ll be…dead. So far, no one has risen and said, “such and such is going to happen after you die.” Therefore, anything beyond the knowledge of it being “the end of life, as we know it” is purely speculative.
I’m going to think of life, which is the best gift that I know of, and one to honor and savor like a good wine. My religious doctrine is to treat my fellow man/woman as I wish to be treated, to be ready to help others and to recycle. Death will take care of itself.