“How can a creature who will definitely die have an understanding of issues that may exist without end?”

What Happens When We Die

When my atheist engineer grandfather died, my atheist engineer grandmother leaned over the physique within the hospice mattress that had contained half a century of shared life and love, cradled the skull by which his cussed and delicate thoughts had dwelt, and whispered into the halogen-lit ether:

“The place did you go, my darling?”

No matter our beliefs, these sensemaking playthings of the thoughts, when the second of fabric undoing comes, we — creatures of second and matter — merely can’t fathom how one thing as beautiful because the universe of thought and feeling inside us can vanish into nothingness.

Even when we perceive that dying is the token of our existential luckiness, even when we perceive that we’re borrowed stardust, certain to be returned to the universe that made it — a universe itself slouching towards nothingness as its stars are slowly burning out their vitality to go away a chilly austere darkness of pure spacetime — this understanding blurs into an anxious disembodied abstraction because the physique slouches towards dissolution. Animated by electrical impulses and temporal interactions of matter, our finite minds merely can’t grasp a timeless and infinite inanimacy — a void past being.

Pillars of Creation, Eagle Nebula, Messier 16. Infrared {photograph}. NASA / Hubble House Telescope. (Obtainable as a print, a face masks, and stationery playing cards.)

Even Walt Whitman, who may maintain such multitudes of contradiction, couldn’t grasp the void. “I’ll make poems of my physique and of mortality,” he vowed as a younger man as he reverenced our shared materiality in his timeless declamation that “each atom belonging to me pretty much as good belongs to you.” It was simple, from the shimmering platform of his prime, to look ahead to changing into “the uncut hair of graves” upon returning his personal atoms to the grassy floor in the future.

However then, when that day loomed close to as he grew outdated and infirm, “the poet of the physique and the poet of the soul” all of a sudden couldn’t fathom the full disbanding of his atomic selfhood, all of a sudden got here to “snort at what you name dissolution.”

After which he did dissolve, leaving us his immortal verses, verses penned when his particles sang with the electrical cohesion of youth and of well being, verses that traced with their fleshy finger the faint contour of an elemental reality: “What invigorates life invigorates demise.”

“Ideas, silent ideas, of Time and House and Demise.” Artwork by Margaret C. Cook dinner from a uncommon English version of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. (Obtainable as a print)

I want I may have given my grandmother, and given the dying Whitman, the infinitely invigorating Mr g: A Novel Concerning the Creation (public library) by the poetic physicist Alan Lightman — a magical-realist serenade to science, coursing with symphonic reality about our seek for which means, our starvation for magnificence, and what makes our tender, transient lives value dwelling.

Towards the top of the novel, Mr g watches, with heartache unknown within the Void predating the existence of universes and of life, an outdated lady on her deathbed, the movie of her lengthy and painful and exquisite life unspooling from the reel of reminiscence, leaving her grief-stricken by its terminus, shuddering with defiant disbelief that that is all.

“How can a creature of substance and mass fathom a factor with out substance or mass?” wonders Mr g as he sorrows watching her succumb to the very legal guidelines he created. “How can a creature who will definitely die have an understanding of issues that may exist without end?”

After which, as a faint smile washes throughout her face, she does die. Lightman writes:

At that second, there have been 3,​147,​740,​103,​497,​276,​498,​750,​208,​327 atoms in her physique. Of her complete mass, 63.7 p.c was oxygen, 21.0 p.c carbon, 10.1 p.c hydrogen, 2.6 p.c nitrogen, 1.4 p.c calcium, 1.1 p.c phosphorous, plus a smattering of the ninety-odd different chemical parts created in stars.

Within the cremation, her water evaporated. Her carbon and nitrogen mixed with oxygen to make gaseous carbon dioxide and nitrogen dioxide, which floated skyward and mingled with the air. Most of her calcium and phosphorous baked right into a reddish brown residue and scattered in soil and in wind.

However then we see that each atom belonging to her — or, slightly, briefly borrowed by her — really does belong to every thing and everybody, simply as you and I at the moment are inhaling the identical oxygen atoms that after inflated Walt Whitman’s lungs with the lust for all times:

Launched from their non permanent confinement, her atoms slowly unfold out and subtle by means of the environment. In sixty days’ time, they might be present in each handful of air on the planet. In 100 days, a few of her atoms, the vaporous water, had condensed into liquid and returned to the floor as rain, to be drunk and ingested by animals and vegetation. A few of her atoms had been absorbed by light-utilizing organisms and reworked into tissues and tubules and leaves. Some had been breathed in by oxygen creatures, integrated into organs and bone.

Pectanthis Asteroides — one of many otherworldly drawings of jellyfish by the Nineteenth-century German marine biologist Ernst Haeckel, who coined the phrase ecology. (Obtainable as a print.)

In a passage evocative of the central sentiment in Ursula Ok. Le Guin’s spare, gorgeous poem “Kinship,” he provides:

Pregnant ladies ate animals and vegetation fabricated from her atoms. A 12 months later, infants contained a few of her atoms… A number of years after her demise, tens of millions of kids contained a few of her atoms. And their kids would include a few of her atoms as nicely. Their minds contained a part of her thoughts.

Will these tens of millions of kids, for generations upon future generations, know that a few of their atoms cycled by means of this lady? It’s not probably. Will they really feel what she felt in her life, will their reminiscences have flickering strokes of her reminiscences, will they recall that second way back when she stood by the window, guilt ridden and confused, and watched because the tadr chook circled the cistern? No, it isn’t doable. Will they’ve some faint sense of her glimpse of the Void? No, it isn’t doable. It’s not doable. However I’ll allow them to have their very own temporary glimpse of the Void, simply in the intervening time they cross from dwelling to lifeless, from animate to inanimate, from consciousness to that which has no consciousness. For a second, they are going to perceive infinity.

And the person atoms, cycled by means of her physique after which cycled by means of wind and water and soil, cycled by means of generations and generations of dwelling creatures and minds, will repeat and join and make an entire out of elements. Though with out reminiscence, they make a reminiscence. Though impermanent, they make a permanence. Though scattered, they make a totality.

Right here we’re, you and me, Walt and Alan, my grandmother who’s and my grandfather who isn’t any extra — every of us a trembling totality, fabricated from particles each completely susceptible and completely indestructible, hungering for absolutes in a universe of family members, hungering for permanence in a universe of ceaseless change, famished for which means, for magnificence, for emblems of existence.

Out of those hungers, out of those contradictions, we make every thing that invigorates life with aliveness: our artwork and our music, our poems and our arithmetic, our novels and our loves.

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