In the last week, I’ve watched Velvet Buzzsaw and Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness; both great movies and both interested in death. They got me thinking about death as a concept, and what role religion has in relation to it.
Like everyone, I’ve been confronted with the death of others and have had to come to terms with my own. There were the controlled exposures with ramping intensity; first the death of my fish, then my guinea pig, then my dog. I was blessed with knowing my grandparents on both sides of my family, but they too have all passed. My grandma’s death was relatively quick due to cancer, but the other was drawn out due to dementia. Two grandparents I had only seen as ashes post-mortem, the other two I saw embalmed. All were hard. Finally, my father nearly died in an accident I witnessed, and for a while, it felt as if his spirit had died even if his body hadn’t. He didn’t remember us in the early days of his recovery, and even after he came home, he had difficulty controlling his mind.
In those experiences, God helped. And it was only God, since the theology I was raised in accepted death without a spirit ascending to heaven. Seventh-Day Adventists believe that death did not usher the spirit into the afterlife directly. It is only after the Day of Judgement that a spirit is taken to heaven, and only then in a new body. That unique theology placed me in a strange position. I simultaneously had to accept that my loved one was dead, but also that they would be resurrected. The effect was to exercise patience and diligence. Relief at the loss would come only after my own death or the end times, and only then if I was faithful. I was pushed to find comfort in God, through prayer and study. There was no assurance the spirit of my loved ones lived on and continued to care, so my focus was directed toward God.
What I’ve learned from my experience is that religion is very interested in death. More specifically, religions are interested in the relationship between life and death. How does death change the way we live? How does life contextualize the way we die? How does death pass into life? How does life pass into death? These questions are central.
I’ve heard arguments that simplify these central questions dishonestly. On the fundamentalist side, they will insist that they are totally interested in life. They will fetishize life to the extent that death becomes wrong, that accepting its realities in any capacity is a violation of life. They will argue that religion, structurally, is only interested in life, and that death doesn’t actually exist in any meaningful way for the faithful. They drift into spiritual invincibility, where it doesn’t matter what they do, their souls are eternal. Ironically, this animates them with a death-drive, where they are willing to sacrifice their bodies with the assurance of immortality.
On the anti-theist side, they will argue that religion is totally interested in death. They point to jihads, crusades, and hate crimes, arguing that death is the only thing they care about. They shift the focus of the central questions to frame them as fetishizing death, arguing that religion doesn’t care about your life, only how you die. As a result, they characterize religion as fundamentally destructive, interested in looking at death and determining hateful ways to reach it. Equally ironically, this causes them to ignore all the life-giving work religions do around the world.
Both of these views are wrong, but not because they lack examples. It’s because they don’t seem to understand what the point of death myths are.
Death myths are designed to help accept death. Not desiring it. Not denying it. Accepting it.
Many times, this takes the form of a story. The story usually says one of a few different options. The first is that the person isn’t actually dead and has gone on to continue living in some capacity without their body. Many concepts of the soul are born out of this idea. The second is that the person will live again, whether they are beginning a new life immediately after death or at some point in the future. And then there is the idea that the person has transformed, moving from one form into another.
None of these myths are factually correct, which is an issue. Believing in these stories in the same way you would a fact encourages unhelpful supernatural thinking. But, what these myths do very well is provide opportunities for closure. Telling a clear story about what has happened to the person will smooth over all those messy realities of life. The unfinished business, unsaid words, or lingering feelings can be reconciled with the fact that this person is no longer around anymore. I can say from my own experience that accepting that you will never see a person again is facilitated by a death myth, whether or not you believe it in the moment. It is hard to see a person dead or dying, but being able to say “they are alright now, they are at rest” is incredibly helpful.
But as a syntheist, I am not interested in fostering supernatural beliefs anymore. I don’t want to be burdened by beliefs which make me wonder, “will my grandparents actually make it to heaven since they were Catholic?” or “Does a guinea pig have a soul”? While the reality of death is simple; experiencing it is not and the tools we use for managing it should not make the problem more complicated. My spirituality should provide me with tools to navigate that complexity.
Right now, I don’t really have a complete answer to this problem. I will continue to meditate on it, but in the meantime, go watch Velvet Buzzsaw!