An atheist’s afterlife 

I’ve been discussing death and the afterlife a lot recently. DH’s grandmother died, then two friends lost their fathers, another friend lost her best mate and someone I used to be pretty close to is in a hospice for end-of-life care. So the idea of what comes next has been playing on my mind quite a lot.

This has partly been in a paranoid “Argh, how would DH and the children cope if something happened to me” sort of way, and partly in a “Explaining death to children is really hard” kind of way. And I think being an atheist makes it even harder when someone you love dies – I don’t have the comfortable idea of heaven, or that my lost loved ones are keeping an eye on me from the great beyond. And to be honest I envy those who do.

I’ve explained death to my children a number of times as it crops up in conversation every now and again. I’ve explained that nobody knows whether there’s a heaven or an afterlife, but that some people believe in one and if they want to believe it too that’s ok. But mostly I’ve explained it as a very simplified, child-friendly version of this wonderful eulogy by Aaron Freeman, because I find this both moving and comforting.

You want a physicist to speak at your funeral. You want the physicist to talk to your grieving family about the conservation of energy, so they will understand that your energy has not died. You want the physicist to remind your sobbing mother about the first law of thermodynamics; that no energy gets created in the universe, and none is destroyed. You want your mother to know that all your energy, every vibration, every bit of heat, every wave of every particle that was her beloved child remains with her in this world. You want the physicist to tell your weeping father that amid energies of the cosmos, you gave as good as you got.

And at one point you’d hope that the physicist would step down from the pulpit and walk to your brokenhearted spouse there in the pew and tell him that all the photons that ever bounced off your face, all the particles whose paths were interrupted by your smile, by the touch of your hair, hundreds of trillions of particles, have raced off like children, their ways forever changed by you. And as your widow rocks in the arms of a loving family, may the physicist let her know that all the photons that bounced from you were gathered in the particle detectors that are her eyes, that those photons created within her constellations of electromagnetically charged neurons whose energy will go on forever.

And the physicist will remind the congregation of how much of all our energy is given off as heat. There may be a few fanning themselves with their programs as he says it. And he will tell them that the warmth that flowed through you in life is still here, still part of all that we are, even as we who mourn continue the heat of our own lives.

And you’ll want the physicist to explain to those who loved you that they need not have faith; indeed, they should not have faith. Let them know that they can measure, that scientists have measured precisely the conservation of energy and found it accurate, verifiable and consistent across space and time. You can hope your family will examine the evidence and satisfy themselves that the science is sound and that they’ll be comforted to know your energy’s still around. According to the law of the conservation of energy, not a bit of you is gone; you’re just less orderly. Amen.

Amen indeed.


One thought on “An atheist’s afterlife 

  1. The self-righteousness of these sentiments are appalling. I’m of an age where those whom I’ve loved and admired are dying with predictable regularity. More often than not those who are eulogized by a religious practitioner have no direct knowledge of the diseased and use a plug and play funeral script. What a comfort.

    This whole scenario is unfortunate. Think about it. Death, even when expected, is a monumental challenge for all involved. We live in a society dominated by tax exempt institutions with the recourses to have multipurpose facilities to accommodate funerals. Good luck finding another facility to accommodate a large group on short notice.

    The whole endeavor is for the living. To reprint such a ludicrous scenario is demeaning.
    To insinuate the Christian death rituals that weigh a life’s value and meaning are predicated on the departed delusions would be cruel in the extreme. Yet, this pathetic dribble contains a thesis grounded in ignorance that seem to resonate with theists. Revealed morality, my ass.


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