Not how we think about death
It was a 59-year-old man. A smoker. He died of lung cancer. His lungs were black. I knew his lungs were black because I stuck my hands inside his torso and dug them out. I also dug out his kidneys, liver and every other piece of rotting flesh in the orifice. I was only 10. It was the first time I’d seen a dead person.
I was somehow allowed into this cadaver lab along with nursing students, and I was somehow left alone. And if you leave a 10-year-old alone with a human body, he might pull out every organ — simply out of curiosity. And he might develop some deep, cosmic questions about humanity.
So that’s why I pulled out the brain. It was gray and wrinkly. A woman noticed and came over to ask, “What are you looking for?”
“I’m not sure,” I told her. “I’m just wondering where this man used to be?”
“Well, this is him,” she said. “This is what’s left, anyway.”
“But where is he now?”
She grabbed the brain and pointed to the back portion. “This,” she said, “is what helps us think about ourselves.”
But that was also a rotting piece of flesh. I concluded that, ultimately, the man was gone.
God created the world by saying, “Let there be light,” and that is an accurate metaphor. Light — or waves, to be more accurate — allows us to perceive the universe. Without light, the universe cannot exist. But with light, the universe can exist and so can we.
So the question is: When we die, can we still perceive light?
It’s 2008 and I’m sleeping at my grandmother’s house. She is lying next to me in a hospice bed. It is her final days.
I can see her chest inflating and deflating, but she hasn’t been conscious for days. Scientists say there is no clear line between life and death. I wonder where on that spectrum my grandmother is. I wonder if she is already gone.
The next day, she opens her eyes and talks to us. The day after, she is gone.
At summer camp in third grade, the boys in my room hunted for ghosts. We went into the woods and chanted to lure out the spirits. They didn’t come, though.
Later that night, we agreed that there were no such things as ghosts. Once a human being is dead, we could not access anything beyond their physical body. But then we figured there might be more to humans than just the physical body, which might’ve been why we were hunting for ghosts.
If a machine dies, it’s because the physical parts are broken or out of place. When a human dies, it’s the same. But the timeless debate is whether there is something beyond the what we currently know as the body. This debate exists because we are humans; we often feel the sensation that we are more than just our bodies.
In string theory, there are ideas about multiple dimensions. Currently these worlds exist to us in numbers, and they may never escape that realm. But in theory they are physically real.
In Christian theology, one goes to heaven if he or she believes in Jesus Christ. One would believe in Jesus Christ because he died for our sins. He died for our sins because we are sinners. And because of that, we are not only redeemed; we are made new.
This is a cosmic claim. The story is possibly the world’s biggest metaphor.
When I was a kid, I figured a man could be horrible his entire life but then convert on his deathbed. But our current knowledge of physics says that time is not linear. Just like 3-D space, all time exists at once. The past, present and future are all here, all now. This makes a deathbed conversion a bit more complicated.
Is life an illusion?
The worst thing about time is that, once a moment is gone, it is gone forever. But that’s what makes each moment one-of-a-kind, which is the best thing about time.
My God, that was sappy.
The last three weeks, I’ve been trying to write a piece about death. I couldn’t compose a one coherent piece because that’s not how we think about death. We contradict ourselves; even the most ardent believers and atheists are occasionally inconsistent. We are human.
My grandfather is dying, and it makes me think about all those complicated I wrote about. But that’s only because I want to avoid thinking about the time I drove him to Target and we walked up and down every aisle — for two hours — looking for his favorite sunflower seeds.