It’s possibly one of the biggest existential questions. That question we ask ourselves in the middle of the night when we can’t sleep, the one we try to ignore, the one that some days we convince ourselves isn’t relevant. That one question that never goes away! “What happens when I die”? Is there something beyond this life? An afterlife? Eternal life? Will I be OK?
It’s a question that we’re often not good at finding a place or time to discuss, although that said I read in the news this week of a ‘Coffin club’ in Hastings where people meet to assemble and decorate their own flat pack coffins, it seems it’s not only a money saving enterprise but also an opportunity to ‘break down taboos’ about death and allow conversation! I like that!
Some countries and cultures do seem to more naturally embrace death. They allow death in rather than keep it at a distance. Relatives embalm the body themselves or family and close friends dig the grave or the body is kept in the house for a few days, somehow it’s less removed from life, more a part of life, an embracing of the rhythm of the universe. Alongside the embracing, the remembering and celebrating are invited in too; rather just left to funerals or anniversaries, lives are commemorated with annual celebrations. Communities and individuals celebrating and remembering those who are gone.
I’ve been watching a series on Netflix about Jack Whitehall travelling with his father across Europe. They visited the Merry Cemetery in Romania where all the gravestones were hand carved with cartoon portraits of how the deceased met their fate! There are pictures of trains, cars, decapitation, drowning…death is not seen as a sad or solemn occasion but as a gateway to something better, death is celebrated as a joyous moment in the transition to the afterlife.
In the previous series Jack and his dad toured Southeast Asia, visiting a temple in Vietnam to take part in a Buddhist ceremony. They purchased items made from paper, anything from paper money to mobile phones or laptops to motorbikes, tea sets, bath tubs…anything their loved one would of enjoyed whilst on earth or anything thought to be interesting or useful to the deceased now! The items were then burnt as a way of sending them to the deceased. There was something about the conversation that occurred whilst choosing the appropriate items, something about remembering what people enjoyed and imagining what they’d think to life now that created an energy, a kind of joy.
If you’ve ever watched the film ‘Coco’ you’ll know that in Mexico they celebrate Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead. National Geographic describes the annual festival:
Day of the Dead festivities unfold over two days in an explosion of color and life-affirming joy. Sure, the theme is death, but the point is to demonstrate love and respect for deceased family members. In towns and cities throughout Mexico, revelers don funky makeup and costumes, hold parades and parties, sing and dance, and make offerings to lost loved ones. The rituals are rife with symbolic meaning.
The centerpiece of the celebration is an altar, or ofrenda, built in private homes and cemeteries. These aren’t altars for worshipping; rather, they’re meant to welcome spirits back to the realm of the living. As such, they’re loaded with offerings—water to quench thirst after the long journey, food, family photos, and a candle for each dead relative
There’s so much to the festival it’s worth reading up on. I have friends in the UK who are considering adopting some of the customs instead of celebrating Halloween, are start of a new tradtion maybe, that’s really quite beautiful!
It seems that in all these festivals, in all the tradtions and rituals that are created, that there’s something about providing a way to remember and celebrate life while at the same time there’s a recognition that there’s an afterlife, that those being remembered are, well, somewhere!
So what do people believe about life after death?
Wikipedia offers a simplistic overview!
I know that there’s so much to unpack in that, so much that could be said. But here’s the thing, Richard Rohr, one of the people who inspires me most, said
When we speak of God and things transcendent, all we can do is use metaphors, approximations, and pointers. No language is adequate to describe the Holy.
Any language we try to give to the afterlife, words like ‘heaven’, ‘hell’, ‘soul’, and all the stories, explanations or imagery that goes with those words can only be a pointer, or a metaphor, because no-one has the definitive answer. We’re all trying to understand, trying to give meaning to something we may have witnessed but have not fully experienced.
When I think about death, about leaving those I love and about those I’ve loved leaving me, for me it only makes sense if this life is part of bigger story told by the universe; the on-going story of creation where we have our part to play in the care and creation of the world. Where the story is a meta-narrative with love as the main theme. Christianity talks of the ‘Kingdom of God’, a realm beyond, yet within, the one we experience where love does reign and life can be fully lived. What if there’s something in that? What if somehow we transition from this life into eternity in a similar way to the way we transition from the womb to what we’ve come to know as life. What if being born again isn’t some random Christian terminology but actually a helpful way of understanding death? What if we find in death the fullness of love and life? What if in death those we’ve loved are held by this love? What if we can trust that when our time comes, we will be too?
I don’t know, they’re only words…and sometimes words aren’t enough!😉