I was very sick when I converted to Mormonism. I like to joke that I wasn’t getting enough oxygen to the brain, but the more mundane truth is that I was confronted with the reality of my mortality, and like many people, I panicked. I couldn’t really die, right? I’m too solid, too complex to disappear completely. What a crime that would be, that someone so unique and essential could be gone forever.
Religion offered me a respite from this fear. Church members answered my questions about death quite satisfactorily. If our bodies must be subject to the humiliating mortification of slippage, we need some sort of consolation prize. Heaven is that consolation prize. Even Hell is its own sort of gift. The promises and threats of Mormonism reinforced my desperate hope that I’d continue on, even if I didn’t.
Now that I’m not a believer, I’m extremely skeptical that there will be an afterlife. Beyond this, however, I don’t think I’d even want one. The only thing I should need to do after I die is decompose properly. My strongest desire for myself after death is to be eaten and digested and turned into soil. I came from the earth, I feed from the earth, and I must feed the earth myself. That is the totality of my life cycle. And that is enough.
Far from being disgusted by the biological processes of decomposition, I feel, instead, awed by the power of the earth to destroy. Every enzyme in our organs will ultimately be the agent of our physical destruction. Every inhalation of oxygen creates compounds intended for ruin. This is awesome to me – worthy of awe. By contrast, the concept of an afterlife is disappointing. That’s not the way I want to go out. Who needs God when we have oxidation?
There’s a dead sheep in the underbrush on one of my favorite hiking trails, and whenever I see her, I think of myself similarly, laid out under the grape vines, slowly disintegrating, feeding the microorganisms and animals and insects. I’m moved to consider this end of myself, and I’m reminded of the need for celebration and authenticity in my daily life. This is all I’ve got: that crumbling sheep is my destiny.
And though it would be a simple thing to consider my spirit divested from this grotesque biology, I don’t believe in an eternal soul. My consciousness arises as a result of my advanced biological systems and when those systems inevitably fail, my personality will collapse as well. My self will leak out of my limbic system and neural memory as surely as my intestines will uncoil into putrefaction. I will be gone, wholly. My body will be recreated into a million things and thoughts.
At one time, I slavishly followed after conceptions of the afterlife that filled me with fear and self-loathing. I lived with the sure knowledge that I would be stripped from my family because of my ethical weaknesses. Some other woman would parent my children while I puttered around in a lower kingdom. God would have no desire to know me. It was this belief that kept me active in the Church long after I’d lost faith. Eventually, though, I realized that living under the thumb of fear, that whorish old slave driver, is no way to live at all.
But what of the remnants of that cruel motivation? Well, this is what I’ve got so far.
How about you? What do you believe about the afterlife?
(I regularly leave outrageously long, tangential comments at MSP, and I also blog at chicken tender. Many thanks to the MSP crew for letting me post today. This is a great community and I’m pleased to be a part of it.)