Grappling with Comfort & Death as a Humanist

Recently, I heard a story about a man who is in prison and has been denied a request to have doctors help him end his life. (This is in Belgium where there is a right-to-die for the terminally ill.) The reason I bring this up is because of my reaction. My first thought was that I can only hope that, in death, he finds some peace.

But that’s a funny reaction. I’m totally sincere in that sentiment, yet I don’t believe in a soul or in life after death. So what was I talking about—even to myself? It must mean that I believe there is some kind of comfort in oblivion. Is there? I guess that’s the point—paradoxically we can’t know. Not now and not once it’s taken us.

I‘ve never given death much thought before. Not generally, not for myself, and not from a Humanist perspective. I decided that meditation was long overdue.

Recycling My Body

I’ve often heard, and sometimes been directly told, that atheists must fear death. But I don’t fear death. Not for myself anyway. On the contrary, I find comfort in the idea that my body—the bits that make up my body—will become part of a tree and squirrel and star (I can only hope!). Personally, I find these facts about our natural world to be awe inspiring, and even more comforting than the idea of eternity. Ironically, perhaps, this idea inspires a greater connect to the here and now. It reminds me that I am a part of the world, not separate from it.

According to their website (urnabios.com), Bios Urns “changes the way people see death, converting the ‘end of life’ into a transformation and a return to life through nature.”

I don’t want to be put in a box. I don’t want to be embalmed either. I don’t want to be preserved in any way. Preservation feels unnatural—to me. As I grew up preservation—embalming and coffins designed to keep the world out—was a given. I’ve learned of other options. The Jewish tradition is to put bodies in a plain, untreated pine box unembalmed. This is so to not hamper decomposition. In the same vein, Muslim tradition is simply a white sheet. Whatever form of burial I end up with I want to forgo any barriers to decomposition. Alternatively, I want a method that actively returns my body to nature—perhaps the urns that are buried with a tree seed.

Dealing with Death

My own death I find pretty easy to contemplate. But for others, my friends and family especially, death is harder to swallow. The death of loved ones is the one relationship to death that I have contemplated—because it terrifies me. I admit, in this case, I want to believe in life after death. How I want to believe. Because the thought of saying goodbye permanently scares. Not for their sake. It scares me for mine. Even the idea can debilitate me. Selfishly, I want our relationship to continue. The idea that our conversations have all been had, that there will be no more advice, that there are no more opportunities to express my love for them is depressing.

That is the comfort that is missing when you believe that what waits for us after death is the scattering of our atoms to the wind. Life after death is only as part of a flower and a spider and bacteria (I can only hope!). I’m not trying to suggest that there is no comfort to be had when one does not believe in life beyond physical death, but that avenue is blocked off. But what avenue is there?

In a recent conversation with other Humanists we tackled this question. And we grasped for answers. It was not an easy conversation—not an easy topic and one that resulted in few approaches. But one conclusion that came up again and again was to embrace that there is no comfort in death. Death is not comfortable. Death is not comfortable no matter what you believe comes next. We left the conversation asking ourselves whether dealing with death of our loved ones had nothing to do with comfort, but rather figuring out how to incorporate the injury into our lives.

I’m not surprised I don’t have an answer. As with most meditations I end with more questions than I started. That’s okay. I’m certainly not the only one thinking about this. Check out AS writers Paul Chiariello’s or Aaron Gertler’s take. Can there be any comfort around death without the idea that there is life after death? Either way, how do you deal with it?

Wendy Webber (Yale University)

Wendy WebberWendy is a graduate of Yale Divinity School, where she was a founding member of an atheist, agnostic, and multifaith community that continues to foster interbelief dialogues and initiatives. Currently she’s traveling the world with Pathfinders Project, which aims to create a permanent Humanist Service Corps. Wendy writes about religion, atheism, and interbelief primarily for her blog andState of Formation. When she is able, she plays tennis, takes photos, and enjoys offbeat museums.

One response to “Grappling with Comfort & Death as a Humanist

  1. Pingback: Selling All My Indecision (NaPoWriMo, Day 14) | Stories in 5 Minutes·

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