Hey everyone, as part of the Death’s Realm anthology blog tour with Grey Matter Press, here is a short piece about the fear and hope of death.
The End of the Story (or is it?)
I was never particularly interested in death—until I was. I was never an existentialist—until I was. I was never concerned with death and how it affected a story, indeed, my own story—until I was! Maybe this comes with approaching old age? I see the silver strands popping out here and there when I look in the mirror. None of which I had before wife and children, although I’ll begrudgingly admit they’re probably not entirely to blame.
As a child I loved nothing more to sit on my father’s knee and have him read to me. We read The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings. Three Men in a boat by Jerome K Jerome; still the funniest book I’ve ever read.
At this time in my life, dying was just a thing for wrinkly old loved ones. Grandmas and Grandpas. People I didn’t know well, who were there one minute and gone the next. Funerals were places where parents dragged you along in itchy clothes you didn’t like. Everyone stood around looking sad and then went home afterwards and got on with living. Or, incongruously, went to someone’s house for the “Wake” where people talked and ate and drank, often more merrily than would seem appropriate. “Wake” was such a silly name. They were dead; They weren’t going to wake up. In later years, I pondered that it probably had something to do with that which “comes after” the funeral… like the wake of water that follows behind a passing boat or ship. I’ve never bothered to look it up. I like life to retain some mysteries, and find a measure of comfort in knowing some of the things I don’t know.
I was raised on epic and high fantasy and Catholicism. This is a curious blend, to some degree. Aside from the common atheistic snerk that religion is by nature fantasy, there are interesting parallels between what one another teach about death.
David Gemmell said:
“Old age is not as honourable as death, but most people seek it.” (Fall of Kings, David Gemmell)
And this seemed quite fitting and fit well with the cushy upper-middle class world I lived in, where the only people who died were incredibly old first.
Similarly, I was taught in church:
The glory of young men is their strength, but the splendour of old men is their gray hair. (Proverbs 20:29)
Yes, dying wasn’t something to be feared, it was just something splendid old people did. And I wasn’t old, so what did I care?
In later years I’d discover more subtle synergies between the world of the fantastic and the world of fiction. I think the crowning glory was Robert Jordan’s Rand al Thor, with his wounded palms and side, and his crown of swords(thorns), etc. It would seem that the story of Jesus was an enduring one which will continue to influence life and literature ad infinitum.
As a teen, I was about as reckless as they come. A hedonist of the worst kind. The world and universe had opened to me vast vistas of possibility. I hadn’t discovered Lovecraft yet and didn’t know that the vistas were of empty blackness, populated only by that which is hateful and which hates us. I was closer to 30 before I stumbled upon Lovecraft.
“I have seen the dark universe yawning,
Where the black planets roll without aim;
Where they roll in their horror unheeded,
without knowledge or lustre or name.” (Nemesis, Howard Phillips Lovecraft)
“The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.” (The Call of Cthulhu, Howard Phillips Lovecraft)
The excesses of youth lead to, or exacerbated, mental illness. The black dog of depression gripped me in its lockjaw. Panic and anxiety tore at me until every headache was a stroke. Every rush of pulse was the onset of a heart attack. This fueled the search, to understand existence. To understand death.
In the Quran we’re told:
“And every soul shall taste death.” (Quran 3:78)
“Wheresoever you may be, death will overtake you even if you are in fortresses built up strong and high!” (Quran 4:78)
“And no person can ever die except by Allah’s Leave and at an appointed term. And whoever desires a reward in (this) world, We shall give him of it; and whoever desires a reward in the Hereafter, We shall give him thereof. And We shall reward the grateful.” (Quran 3:145)
These verses took on particular meaning for me. At a time in my life where death was an imminent torment, they provided a singular comfort allowing me to let go of fears and anxieties. Death really was something that I had no control over, so why worry about it?
So what happens when we die? None of us really knows. Do we have a soul? Does it or our consciousness go somewhere else? Empirically all we can determine is that that the body falls lifeless, it rots and decays. For the atheist, death is simply unbeing, or going to sleep, or the next step in the circle of life, where we rot into the earth and nourish new plants to grow. The atheist’s beliefs mirror our observable facts regarding death. But when has reality or existence been constrained to the currently observable?
The great Arab theologian as-Sanusii, spoke of the existence of three kinds of knowledge:
1. what absolutely must be true,
2. what absolutely cannot be true, and
3. what may be true.
It would also seem to me that Death’s Realm—paradise, hell, purgatory, etc—falls neatly into the category of the third, for many people. Something that may be true but as there is no empirical evidence for it, it is dismissed.
The first category of knowledge would fit with the theists and what they believe absolutely must be true as revealed by their religious texts.
It would seem to me that very few people actually believe that it *absolutely cannot be true* that there could be life after death/heaven/hell/reincarnation/what have you. After all, that cannot be empirically quantified.
Where does that leave us? Here, together, in this nexus of what might be possible. A whirling maelstrom of belief and disbelief, gnosticism and agnosticism, hope and fear. A vortex that the human race has been circling within since before recorded history; a hopeful and terrifying place, which is the crucible or background for all of our stories. A place where we might all just rot with the worms into nothingness, or ascend onto a higher plane of existence. Or a lower one, for that matter.
What do I think? I desperately hope that death is not just simply unbeing. I *pray* that it is not.
That, after all, would be a pretty shitty ending to the story.
I hope I’ll catch y’all on the flip-side.