I’ve been thinking about death lately. Not in a morbid, depressed way, but in a more philosophical way. Someone fairly close to me, someone I have liked a great deal and respected even more over the years, died recently. The death was neither unexpected nor was it tragic. Her loved ones are handling things with equanimity. They knew what was coming and were able to tell her how loved and valued she was.
As you all know, my religious beliefs live in the vast space between shaky and inchoate. I now question the casual atheism that once characterized my thinking. There are too many unanswered questions about the world to allow me to negate God. Science may clarify the details but it leaves the biggest questions more boldly exposed and completely unanswered. Yes, there was a Big Bang — but what preceded that cataclysmic event? Reason and humility demand that we accept that science most definitely does not have all the answers.
For example, contrary to the hard-line scientists who would consign us to the dust after we die, I believe in immortality. But as with all my religious beliefs, I do not believe in any specific form of immortality, whether a heavenly paradise, reincarnation, or some sort of earthly resurrection at the end of days. I just know that, because humans are truly greater than the sum of their chemical parts, there is some divine spark in us that transcends, and survives beyond, corporeal death.
There is one aspect of immortality, though, that is provable, never mind the fact that it lives in the realm of the intangible: Memory. My father died almost twenty years ago, but there is a part of my brain that is entirely dedicated to him. I see him vividly in my mind’s eye and I hear his voice. When I act upon the lessons he taught me, I am completely aware of his presence. English was his passion, and every word I write is the living, immortal embodiment of that part of him.
The woman who died recently left behind a great many loved ones. She always felt triumphant about the fact, because each descendant (and there are many) is a great big, fat raspberry blown in Hitler’s direction. Hitler is dead and gone, and was incapable of immortalizing himself through his DNA, but this lady, despite losing her parents to the Holocaust and being herself at risk, founded a dynasty. A vast, vibrant, live-loving dynasty.
That same dynasty that keeps her immortal through shared DNA will also keep her immortal in memory. Every person carries in his or her memory a little piece of her. At first, this little piece can be painful. Every memory is a burning reminder of the recent loss. With time, though, these same memories become very comforting. As I know from my Dad, these memories mean you are never alone. The person is an integral part of you and your relationship to the world around you. More than that, if you have children, you pass down those memories through the stories you tell and the lessons you teach. They may not know the man, but they know his memory.
Whether through genes or our acts alone, those of us who venture out into the world, gathering around us friends and family, are fortunate enough to be assured of immortality.