It is quite common to think of life and death as two completely opposite realities; one revered and the other dreaded. However, if we thoroughly examine what is really going on, a different picture emerges. Life and death are more related than they first appear. These two realities actually co-exist in complex ways.
The chemistry necessary for life has its origins inside the core of stars, and the eventual death of stars is fundamental to life. The early universe consisted of atoms of hydrogen, helium and trace amounts of lithium. All other heavier elements were forged by stars. For about 90% of a star’s life it generates its energy by fusing hydrogen to make helium. Eventually it runs out of hydrogen, and begins to fuse its stocks of helium, making yet heavier elements. The fusion process continues producing heavier and heavier elements until the star has nothing left to burn. Of course all this takes anywhere from about a million to hundreds of billions of years, depending on the size of the star. The larger the star the faster it burns, resulting in a shorter life span. When a large star runs out of fuel a delicate balance is lost between gravity, which wants to keep material in, and the outward pressure generated by thermonuclear fusion in the core of the star. It collapses in on itself and then recoils outward in a gigantic explosion called a supernova.
A supernova explosion releases the elements created within the star, and the extreme heat and energy of the explosion creates the remaining elements in the periodic table. Each generation of stars adds to the concentration of elements in the universe, until there are enough to support life like we have here on earth—essentially we are all made of star dust. If it were not for the death of stars, life as we know it could not be.
When life began on earth so did the evolutionary process, where death also plays a significant role. The complex and intricate web of life was made possible by about 3.8 billion years of evolution. The powerful forces of natural selection have shaped life according to its environment. Death is the means by which natural selection removes individuals within species and eventually entire species. Throughout the process of evolution death is there every step of the way. For species to evolve and diverge into more and more complex life, each generation must die, giving way for the next to live. Evolution is a multi-generational process. Without death, complex life—like human beings—could not have evolved from simpler life, and life as we know it could not be.
Death is also present within living organisms, in the form of cell death. Cells are the basic unit of all life. Some organisms consist of only one cell, however, plants and animals are made of numerous cells. For instance, the human body is composed of about 100 trillion cells. A cell is alive as you and me; it breathes, takes in food and gets rid of waste. It also grows and reproduces by dividing. Each new cell is created by a pre-existing cell, and like all other life, it dies. Each day several billion cells in the human body die and they are replaced by new cells. The life span of cells varies widely. White blood cells live about 13 days, red blood cells about 120 days. On the other hand, liver cells live about 18 months and nerve cells can live approximately 100 years. Even in a healthy living human body death is always present.
Contrary to conflicting emotions caused by life and death, they are clearly not opposites, but actually co-creators. All living things carry death with them, and eventually, they will all die. As much as death is dreaded, it is necessary for life and a completely natural process. Instead of thinking about death as some kind of cosmic accident—something that shouldn’t be—perhaps we can view death as something that is compatible with life. There are no free rides in life and regrettably, the price for life is death. If it were not for the reality of death, we could not have the experience of life. It’s that simple.
If one considers the universe as the source of all life, then what do we make of its parts? By labeling the parts we create individual forms that are not completely individual. Every part is related to other parts. The relationships amongst the parts are so intricate that they depend on each other for their very existence. The circle of life is relational between living and non-living things—non-living things such as sunlight, water, oxygen and living things like microorganisms, plants, animals and humans. We are humans, so it stands to reason that we are partial to our own kind. However, our affinity for the human species does not change the reality of life and death, which is natural to all living components of the whole. Why would nature make an exception for human possibilities after death, which is not granted to other species? All life comes into being from life and in the end, goes back into life—there are no exceptions.
From everything we can see it appears that the momentum of life sustains the whole and that individual life is expendable. The natural cycle of birth, growth, decline and death repeats indefinitely, all the while preserving the whole. Living organisms are necessary for a living planet, but no one organism is essential. You could think of individual life forms as leaves from the same tree. A living tree needs leaves, but no single leaf is crucial. As long as the falling leaves are replaced with new healthy leaves, then the tree is sustained. This does not mean that any given leaf is not valuable to the tree. Each leaf contributes to the well-being of the tree. It serves the tree (the whole), and then dies in order to allow other leaves to take its place. Keep in mind that it doesn’t stop there. The tree has a life span of its own. The tree serves the forest as the leaves serve the tree.
In the face of the observable facts of life and death, why then do we ask, what happens after death? Is it because the thought of nonexistence (for eternity) is just about unthinkable? How does one handle the possibility that “what we see is what we get”—that all individual life may be a “one shot deal.” Perhaps a change of perspective can be helpful. We need not dwell on nonexistence, but can be comforted by considering the improbability of us being here in the first place. Richard Dawkins, in the first lines of Unweaving the Rainbow, clearly points out that we have won the lottery of life. He writes:
“We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born. The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of Arabia. Certainly those unborn ghosts include greater poets than Keats, scientists greater than Newton. We know this because the set of possible people allowed by our DNA so massively exceeds the set of actual people. In the teeth of these stupefying odds it is you and I, in our ordinariness, that are here.”
Then there is the approach taken by Mark Twain as he dismisses the fear of death altogether: “I do not fear death. I had been dead for billions and billions of years before I was born, and had not suffered the slightest inconvenience from it.” Obviously Twain was not expecting much after death. If one takes that view, there is no reason to be traumatized by the second stage of non-existence if the first stage caused us no harm.
However logically fitting, I am aware that for many people Twain’s perspective will not be emotionally satisfactory. If hope for an afterlife is not found in the empirical evidence, then where does one find it? Despite mankind’s tremendous strides of knowledge, we still don’t know what we don’t know. Mystery will always be part of life. The unknown can be an uncomfortable place to be, however, when it comes to the afterlife; the unknown could provide a ray of hope. Nature may open the door just a bit to an otherwise seemingly bleak outcome. If we are to have any experiences after what we consider our life, then a transformation completely unknown to us (or science) must be in store.
If one looks to nature, amazing transformations happen all the time. I will highlight a few of them, but I am certain that you can think of many more. 1) There is perhaps no greater transformation than the life cycle of stars I described earlier. The fact that all life is made possible by exploding stars is astounding to say the least. 2) Imagine if an unborn child could be completely aware in the mother’s womb. There would be nothing in its surroundings that could possibly prepare it for the world to come. 3) If we did not have the experience of butterflies, we could never imagine the potential in a slow and grounded caterpillar. The transformation from caterpillar to a butterfly could not be predicted from everything we see in a caterpillar. 4) If we had no experience of spring, the falling leaves of autumn would be interpreted much differently. There would be no way of knowing that the trees would sprout fresh leaves after a long cold winter.
The belief in an afterlife is nothing new and it is still quite widespread today. Although I wonder how many people have actually thought it through, that is, what life after death might entail. Does it mean eternal life? If so, how do we account for the time before we were born—that period of time is also part of eternity. Where will we go? And what will we do if we get there? What are we going to do with all that time? There are some people that don’t know what to do with themselves on a rainy day; how will they handle eternity? After a few thousand years, might it get a little tedious? Also, I wonder what kind of experience we would have without a physical body—without a brain to think, eyes to see and hands to touch.
We all accept that life is a natural process, yet many people believe that something spooky takes over in the afterlife. They view life as natural, and the afterlife as supernatural. But is this a rational way of thinking about life and death? Life and death are both natural processes. So it stands to reason that a natural process will determine what happens after death. Regardless of our hopes or fears, our fate lies in what the universe has and will allow—how could it be otherwise? Acceptance of the mystery of death appears to be the only reasonable approach to the question of life after death.
I will conclude with a fitting gardening analogy. In the late fall, when the gardening season is winding down, it’s the time to plant tulip bulbs. From experience I know what the bulbs will bring to the gardens the following spring. Yet there is nothing in the dull brown bulbs that would indicate that colorful tulips are in the offing for next year’s gardens. The brown bulbs will transform into bright flowers after a long winter in the frozen ground. This transformation happens not because of any hope, belief or wish on my part, it happens as a result of a natural process. The bulbs will grow into the only thing they can become—tulips. On the other hand, if I were to bury a few small stones into the ground, they will remain lifeless, regardless of any wishes on my part.
References: Richard Dawkins, Unweaving the Rainbow (New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1998), 1.
Goodreads, http://www.goodreads.com/quotes/show/25647, August 27, 2011, October 29, 2011.