Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Here lies an atheist: All dressed up, and nowhere to go.

I've been thinking a lot about death lately.  But for what it's worth, I'm not getting depressed about it or anything, so no need to start planning your intervention, or take away my Swiss army knife, or whatever.

I think the reason is because in the last two months, I've had three people I know die.  One, as I mentioned in a previous post, was my therapist, who died suddenly two days after Christmas.  The other two were long-term long distance friends, distant cousins of mine whom I'd met because of a mutual interest in genealogy, and with whom I had been corresponding for over twenty years.  Both were selfless and funny and kind, and although I'd never met either face-to-face, they were people that I counted amongst my friends.

The whole thing leaves me thinking about connections, and the holes left behind when people die.  I find myself wondering (and I ask honestly, without any feeling of self-pity) who have I touched?  My students, presumably, at least some of them.  My family, obviously.  I've never found it easy to make friends, but I have lots of what I'd call "good acquaintances" -- people who'd probably come to my memorial service, but whose life would roll on more-or-less unchanged in my absence.  It's really struck me in the last couple of years that I hardly ever socialize with anyone unless they're someone my wife knows, so I really have few close friends.  I'm not sure how much this bothers me -- some days yes, some days no -- but I do sometimes wonder why in my five decades I've consistently found it easy to get along with almost everyone, and to have a deep friendship with almost no one.

So what would my memorial service be like?  And why do I care?  If my worldview is correct, I won't be there in any form whatsoever to pass judgment on what my loved ones do to remember me, or what they do with my remains.  If they decide to have a full-blown Catholic funeral, complete with a nun reciting the rosary, I'll be none the wiser.  Part of me, though, just can't bear to think that this could happen.  Maybe it's the last thing we want to have control over -- "just follow my wishes until after the memorial service is over, and after that, do what you please!"

Me, I want to have music.  And food.  I suppose dancing is too much to ask, but honestly, that would be cool.  Bring some instruments.  Have a jam session.  Don't play anything maudlin.  (I swear, if anyone sings "Danny Boy"...)  I can think of one lightning-fast Finnish tune that would be a great sendoff.  Show some photos of travels, dives, gigs.  Break open a bottle of really good Spanish red wine.  Maybe more than one.  Maybe the Irish had the right idea, with their wakes.  Leave 'em laughing -- or at least, smiling.

And afterwards, everyone will go home, and the world will keep spinning, the stars will still shine at night; the only difference is that I won't be there to see it.  It's boggling, really.  I doubt I really fully comprehend what that means.  I doubt anyone does.  How could anyone conceive of being gone -- really gone, really and truly entirely gone?  Strange thought.  Doesn't scare me, honestly, it's more just inconceivable.

Or, maybe I've been wrong all along, and there's an afterlife.  Could be, I suppose.  There are certainly enough traditions which propose such a thing, and enough tales of people's spirits hanging around after the funeral for various reasons.  (If I die before our local pharmacist, and I become a ghost, I'm coming back just to scare the piss out of him.  I can't stand that sonofabitch.  But I digress.)

Either way, I'm not really scared to die.  I was with my father when he died, and mostly what I thought was... how peaceful.  Not really very scary at all.  It was sad, but it was sad for me and my mom -- not sad for him -- wherever he was, if anywhere, he wasn't there anymore.  He was gone, or far, far away, beyond any more pain or anguish or sorrow.

So that's how I look at my own death.  The biggest question mark I will ever face.  I do fear pain, I fear debility, I fear being dependent; but I don't really fear death.  My attitude is that when I die, it will simply be my turn to leap forward into the unknown.


  1. Do make sure to follow Harry Houdini's example and leave a secret message for spiritualists to try to match after you're gone.

  2. You existed. 50 years thus far. Ever wondered what it was like to live in the Dark Ages, the Renaissance? People in the future may look at the time in which you lived with a sense of awe and mystery.
    You own these years of your life. They can never be taken away. This experience, this time and place. Indelibly stamped. We are the only ones that get to know what it was like to exist in the year 2011.
    If the world isn't "better" in the future, it might be conceivable that you have lived in the golden era of man. People in the future may envy your existence over their own.
    These frames of mind give me serenity.