I’ve been reading Peter Brown’s Ransom of the Soul: Afterlife and Wealth in Early Christian History. It traces the emergence of the medieval idea that the soul must pass through a long and terrifying journey after death before it has a chance of entering heaven.
Roman pagans could believe that at least the great among them would go to dwell among the immortals, each one becoming a star in the Milky Way. Isn’t it odd how we still sometimes hear the phrase “a new star in heaven” after someone dies? It’s a more appealing notion than the idea of the soul’s long journey, beset by demons and purging fire, that occupied the medieval mind. This idea eventually led Dante to write his Inferno, a foundation of western literature, but a common sense senior in 2015 can think of it only in historical or literary terms. It doesn’t help us clarify our own thinking about preparation for death or what might come after.
A couple of months back, I finished Lawrence Krauss’ A Universe From Nothing: Why Is There Something Rather than Nothing? This brilliant physicist, a profound skeptic of all religion, writes that “One of the most poetic facts I know about the universe is that essentially every atom in your body was once inside a star that exploded. Moreover, the atoms in your left hand probably came from a different star than did those in your right. We are all, literally, star children, and our bodies made of stardust.”
Taking off from this thought, we might draw some comfort from the possibility that our atoms may one day be recycled in another supernova explosion, or perhaps when the Milky Way collides with the Andromeda galaxy in about four billion years. But these fascinating ideas don’t really help us as we think about how to compose ourselves for the grave event that we know lies just ahead of us, in the very short term.
I’m drawn back to Brown’s depiction of the beliefs held by Christians of the late Roman period with respect to death and dying. This was well before the concepts of the torture of the soul and purgatory emerged.
These early Christians sought to remain in a relationship with the dead. They told the stories of those who had died, gave alms to the poor in their memory, remembered them in prayers, and mentioned their names during the eucharist. Ritual meals at the grave site were common.
In short, the dead were remembered, and remembered well. That’s all I ask — to be remembered well by family and friends. It’s not eternal life, but as close to it as I expect to come.