What Happens When We Die
By Maria Popova
When my atheist engineer grandfather died, my atheist engineer grandmother leaned over the body in the hospice bed that had contained half a century of shared life and love, cradled the cranium in which his stubborn and sensitive mind had dwelt, and whispered into the halogen-lit ether:
“Where did you go, my darling?”
Whatever our beliefs, these sensemaking playthings of the mind, when the moment of material undoing comes, we — creatures of moment and matter — simply cannot fathom how something as exquisite as the universe of thought and feeling inside us can vanish into nothingness.
Even if we understand that dying is the token of our existential luckiness, even if we understand that we are borrowed stardust, bound to be returned to the universe that made it — a universe itself slouching toward nothingness as its stars are slowly burning out their energy to leave a cold austere darkness of pure spacetime — this understanding blurs into an anxious disembodied abstraction as the body slouches toward dissolution. Animated by electrical impulses and temporal interactions of matter, our finite minds simply cannot grasp a timeless and infinite inanimacy — a void beyond being.
Even Walt Whitman, who could hold such multitudes of contradiction, could not grasp the void. “I will make poems of my body and of mortality,” he vowed as a young man as he reverenced our shared materiality in his timeless declamation that “every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.” It was easy, from the shimmering platform of his prime, to look forward to becoming “the uncut hair of graves” upon returning his own atoms to the grassy ground one day.
But then, when that day loomed near as he grew old and infirm, “the poet of the body and the poet of the soul” suddenly could not fathom the total disbanding of his atomic selfhood, suddenly came to “laugh at what you call dissolution.”
And then he did dissolve, leaving us his immortal verses, verses penned when his particles sang with the electric cohesion of youth and of health, verses that traced with their fleshy finger the faint contour of an elemental truth: “What invigorates life invigorates death.”
I wish I could have given my grandmother, and given the dying Whitman, the infinitely invigorating Mr g: A Novel About the Creation (public library) by the poetic physicist Alan Lightman — a magical-realist serenade to science, coursing with symphonic truth about our search for meaning, our hunger for beauty, and what makes our tender, transient lives worth living.
Toward the end of the novel, Mr g watches, with heartache unknown in the Void predating the existence of universes and of life, an old woman on her deathbed, the film of her long and painful and beautiful life unspooling from the reel of memory, leaving her grief-stricken by its terminus, shuddering with defiant disbelief that this is all.
“How can a creature of substance and mass fathom a thing without substance or mass?” wonders Mr g as he sorrows watching her succumb to the very laws he created. “How can a creature who will certainly die have an understanding of things that will exist forever?”
And then, as a faint smile washes across her face, she does die. Lightman writes:
At that moment, there were 3,147,740,103,497,276,498,750,208,327 atoms in her body. Of her total mass, 63.7 percent was oxygen, 21.0 percent carbon, 10.1 percent hydrogen, 2.6 percent nitrogen, 1.4 percent calcium, 1.1 percent phosphorous, plus a smattering of the ninety-odd other chemical elements created in stars.
In the cremation, her water evaporated. Her carbon and nitrogen combined 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 into a reddish brown residue and scattered in soil and in wind.
But then we see that every atom belonging to her — or, rather, temporarily borrowed by her — truly does belong to everything and everyone, just as you and I are now inhaling the same oxygen atoms that once inflated Walt Whitman’s lungs with the lust for life:
Released from their temporary confinement, her atoms slowly spread out and diffused through the atmosphere. In sixty days’ time, they could be found in every handful of air on the planet. In one hundred days, some of her atoms, the vaporous water, had condensed into liquid and returned to the surface as rain, to be drunk and ingested by animals and plants. Some of her atoms were absorbed by light-utilizing organisms and transformed into tissues and tubules and leaves. Some were breathed in by oxygen creatures, incorporated into organs and bone.
In a passage evocative of the central sentiment in Ursula K. Le Guin’s spare, stunning poem “Kinship,” he adds:
Pregnant women ate animals and plants made of her atoms. A year later, babies contained some of her atoms… Several years after her death, millions of children contained some of her atoms. And their children would contain some of her atoms as well. Their minds contained part of her mind.
Will these millions of children, for generations upon future generations, know that some of their atoms cycled through this woman? It is not likely. Will they feel what she felt in her life, will their memories have flickering strokes of her memories, will they recall that moment long ago when she stood by the window, guilt ridden and confused, and watched as the tadr bird circled the cistern? No, it is not possible. Will they have some faint sense of her glimpse of the Void? No, it is not possible. It is not possible. But I will let them have their own brief glimpse of the Void, just at the moment they pass from living to dead, from animate to inanimate, from consciousness to that which has no consciousness. For a moment, they will understand infinity.
And the individual atoms, cycled through her body and then cycled through wind and water and soil, cycled through generations and generations of living creatures and minds, will repeat and connect and make a whole out of parts. Although without memory, they make a memory. Although impermanent, they make a permanence. Although scattered, they make a totality.
Here we are, you and me, Walt and Alan, my grandmother who is and my grandfather who is no more — each of us a trembling totality, made of particles both absolutely vulnerable and absolutely indestructible, hungering for absolutes in a universe of relatives, hungering for permanence in a universe of ceaseless change, famished for meaning, for beauty, for emblems of existence.
Out of these hungers, out of these contradictions, we make everything that invigorates life with aliveness: our art and our music, our poems and our mathematics, our novels and our loves.
Published January 10, 2022