Death is a subject, an inevitability, that is feared by the majority contemporary human beings. It may well be a primary impetus for the evolution of religious thought. The rise of conscious thought in humans and therefore the consciousness of one’s own impending death have led to this sense of fear. All creatures on this planet have an instinctive drive for survival – a need, an imperative to preserve one’s own life. But with human beings and our capability to hold this imperative in our minds and foresee, and many times obsess on the certainty of our death, we have made death a problem rather than a natural event. Many religions have formulated solutions to that problem — usually some form of afterlife that negates the finality of death. Some religions also used this concept as a utilitarian device to control the behavior of its followers. If the individual obeyed the precepts of the religion they would be allowed to have life beyond death. If they did not follow the rules there would either be no continuation of life or a very unpleasant one, or one in which they would have to make amends for their transgressions to reach the pleasant afterlife. The depth of fear of death that developed in many human beings proved to be an effective tool to shape social behavior.
Death is one of the most natural events to take place in a creature’s lifetime. It is certainly no less natural than birth, growth, reproduction, and decay. Death for many creatures in this world is not the end of a full cycle of life. Death often occurs to further the life cycle of other creatures. Human beings have, for the most part, overcome playing a part in this aspect of nature and expect to live a full cycle of life and do everything possible to extend that cycle as long as possible, making great strides in recent centuries. This effort is once again driven primarily by conscious or unconscious fear. There is a sense of immortality in genetic reality that if we pass on our genes, we are certainly living in future generations. I also believe we live on in future generations by what we do in our lifetime; by our interactions with others, by our interactions with our environment, by the thoughts we place into the world that are carried on by the others. This is also a kind of immorality.
At death we lose what we call life. The immensely complex systems of our body cease to function. The matter of our body begins to change its form – to break down and return to simpler structures some of which will eventually take on more complex forms. In this way the physical matter of us (and everything else) is most certainly “reborn” – nothing wasted, nothing lost. What worries many people is what happens to our consciousness, our spirit, our soul –this unique individual self that many human beings value beyond all else. The thought of this being extinguished with death is too much for some to bear; somehow it needs to survive, to survive in an afterlife or by returning to this life in a new form. This seems to be a final form of egotism – a belief that we are so valuable and unique that we cannot end as does everything else in this universe. The blame for this delusion lies within the level of consciousness that we have developed and as of yet been unable to transcend.
Our consciousness is not “our” consciousness. Our consciousness is a part of a larger consciousness that is the consciousness of the universe. As the particles of our bodies are part of the particles of the universe and can never be separated from that whole, so our consciousness is part of a consciousness that is far, far beyond our present capacity for comprehension. While the abstractness of this belief may leave some people cold, it has the opposite impact on me. For me it is an exhilarating belief. To be an eternal component of the unfolding of the universe in both a physical and spiritual context buoys me and leaves me in a perpetual state of wonder.
copyright 2010 Mark W. McGinnis