Death: Barbara G. Walker

By Barbara G. Walker

Of the millions of species that have ever lived on this planet, human beings probably are the first to have a clear understanding that death is inevitable for every individual. We know we will die, and we don’t want to. So we are made uncomfortable by those who suggest that we will end. Thus, humans have invented a number of hypotheses to make themselves seem intrinsically different from all other species in regard to the inevitable mortality. We seek ways of recognizing the universality of death yet making ourselves somehow exempt from this law of nature.

According to paleobiologist Richard Leakey, animal species don’t last very long in geological terms. Invertebrate species have an average longevity of five to ten million years. Vertebrates average about two million years. More than 99% of all the creatures that have ever lived on earth are now extinct. Since the last of the dinosaurs, 65 million years ago, there have been about 6,000 species of primates. Of these 6,000, only 183 are alive today. We are one of them.

Leakey postulates that our existence will be disastrous for the rest of the earth’s biota, and will result in what he calls the Sixth Extinction, from which the earth will recover yet again, as always before. “Because we find it impossible, individually and collectively, to imagine a time when we will no longer exist, we naturally equate the future of Homo sapiens with the future of the planet. But the logic of the fossil record, and the logic of a true understanding of Homo sapiens as one species among many, forces us to accept that this is not the case. We are not stewards of the Earth, forever and a day. We are merely short-term tenants, and pretty unruly and destructive ones at that.”1

Every creature tries hard to stay alive, because that is the nature of living creatures. Humans lack the strength, speed, claws, or other natural advantages of most mammals to preserve themselves. Humans’ major advantage is psychological. They have imagination–the capacity to envision a desired result–and language, which enables them to communicate, to work together, to establish a culture.

For every creature, a desired result is not to die. For humans, this result can be conceived and made a part of the culture by means of language. We can envision and carry out practical ways to prolong our existence, and also, through culture, tell each other that our existence will never end at all: in effect, that wishing will make it so. We have envisioned this longed-for perpetuity of our selves in three general ways: one, reincarnation, or transmigration of souls; two, resurrection of the flesh; and three, immortality of the soul alone.

Reincarnation has been the theory of choice in India for thousands of years, with the karmic wheel of rebirths usually in the keeping of Kali Ma, Tara, Prithivi, or some other form of the ancient Mother Goddess. Thinking that the spirit could pass into other forms, not necessarily human, derives from a widespread idea that all living things share the same essence, and that Nature is one vast seething mass of interchangeable life force. This idea prevailed among most Native American tribes and also among pre-Christian Celts and Norsemen with their symbol of the ever-boiling Holy Cauldron. Emma Jung and Marie-Louise von Franz explain in their book on the Grail Legend, “In nearly all mythologies there is a miraculous vessel. Sometimes it dispenses youth and life, at other times it possesses the power of healing. . . .” Often it effects transformations.”2 The old Jewish belief that a woman could become pregnant by bathing in the water used to wash a corpse is a survival of very early ideas concerning reincarnation.3

Tantric Buddhism promised its Enlightened Ones a free choice of future lives, to be made while they were in the Intermediate State between one life and the next.4 The same idea prevailed among cultured Greeks who had been initiated into a mystery religion. Plato’s Republic depicts Greek heroes in the underworld choosing bodies for their next incarnation. Pythagoras wrote: “The spirit wanders, comes now here, now there, and occupies whatever frame it pleases. From beasts it passes into human bodies, and from our bodies into beasts, but never perishes.”5 There is some indication that early Gnostic Christians also believed in reincarnation. The gospel called The First Book of Adam and Eve has Adam offering God a sacrifice of his own blood, and praying, “Be favorable to me every time I die, and bring me to life.”6

The orthodox church, however, soon repudiated the doctrine of reincarnation because it would become impossible to distinguish between saints and sinners if all were of the same essence. In 553, the Second Council of Constantinople decreed that: “Whosoever shall support the mythical doctrine of the pre-existence of the soul and the consequent wonderful opinion of its return, let him be anathema.” Origen, once declared a saint and a father of the church, taught reincarnation. For this offense he was officially excommunicated three centuries after his death.7

The church insisted on the second alternative belief, that of resurrection of the flesh; that is, each person would be raised from the dead at Judgment Day in his/her own original body. This theory was not without problems, one such being St. Paul’s flat denial of it in 1 Corinthians l5:50: “This I say, brethren, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God.” But it was necessary to a church that taught about the agonizing pains of hell, inflicted on real nerves that would last forever, and the doctrine that all humans were born sinful because original sin was transmitted through the flesh, which needed baptism and “churching” in order to earn heaven.

Such doctrines led inevitably to some very cruel conclusions, hurtful to human feelings. Pope Gregory the Great “infallibly” stated, for example, that unbaptized babies go straight to hell and suffer for all eternity.8

Birthgiving was said to immerse women in the depth of sin, automatically, so that women who died in childbirth were often refused burial in consecrated ground, and were not allowed to be laid out in the church according to custom. After giving birth to a baby, which the church considered demonic until it was baptized, the mother was forced to wait 40 days until she could be “churched” and cleansed of the sin of motherhood. If a new mother died before this was done, then she too was refused consecrated burial and was consigned to an eternity in hell. Sometimes the families of such women buried them in the churchyard secretly, because they couldn’t bear the church’s sentence upon their loved ones.9

Martin Luther viewed this cruelty as a true test of faith, since the true believer would have to refrain from criticizing God’s plan. He said, “This is the acme of faith, to believe that He is merciful, that He is just who at His own pleasure has made us necessarily doomed to damnation; so that, as Erasmus says, He seems to delight in the tortures of the wretched, and to be more deserving of hatred than of love. If by any effort of reason I could conceive how God could be merciful and just Who shows so much anger and iniquity, there would be no need for faith.”10 In such roundabout ways did clergymen find excuses for the sadism that they attributed to God.

The doctrine of resurrection of the flesh was not originally devised so that the flesh could be either tickled or tormented after death. Ancient Egyptians probably were its foremost advocates, which is why they resorted to mummification to preserve the body (nowadays, we call it embalming). The Egyptians just wanted to keep on living. Consider the pathos of this earnest word magic embedded in a prayer to Osiris:

I shall not decay, and I shall not rot, I shall not putrefy, I shall not turn into worms, and I shall not see corruption. . . . I shall have my being, I shall have my being, I shall live, I shall live. . . . I shall wake up in peace; I shall not putrefy, my intestines shall not perish; I shall not suffer injury; mine eye shall not decay. . . . My body shall be stabilized, and it shall neither fall into ruin nor be destroyed.11

John Updike remarks that “we do not want to live as angels in ether; our bodies are us, us; and our craving for immortality is . . . for our ordinary life . . . to go on forever and forever. The only Paradise we can imagine is this Earth. The only life we desire is this one.”12

The Egyptians tried their best to preserve the flesh for resurrection. Still, their mummies do not present a reassuring spectacle, unless one is planning to star in a horror movie.

The Catholic Church insisted on their doctrine of resurrection of the flesh particularly in support of what was entitled the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, which, after centuries of debate, was finally adopted and made an article of faith in the year 1950, when Pope Pius XI1 officially announced that Mary rose and went to “heavenly glory” in her own original material body. Unfortunately, the pope gave none of the details that one would very much like to have about this event, such as precisely how was it ascertained? Also, what was the physical destination of Mary’s physical body and what route did she take toward it?

Even if her physical body could travel at the speed of light–which is not possible–today after 2,000 years Mary would have traveled only one-fiftieth of the distance across her own home galaxy, which is approximately 100,000 light-years in diameter. On the cosmic scale it seems like very little progress. One tends to wonder how many more millennia will she have to spend in transit toward the promised heavenly glory?

Of course, Christian notions of heaven have always been hazy, based as they were on ancient misunderstandings of the scope and nature of the cosmos. There is a sharp contrast with corresponding visions of hell, which were based on clear perceptions of everything painful and horrible to the living body. Our hells have always been minutely detailed and graphic. Dante’s Inferno provides a classic example. It is remarkable that theology evolved such vivid concepts of the after-life torments, inflicted by devils under God’s direction, yet so few and so vague notions of what constitutes the “bliss” of heaven. To the ancients, this was clearly understandable as sexual bliss, a perpetual orgasm, as it were. Muslim men even today propose that dead heroes will have the permanent sexual attentions of beautiful houris, although Muslim women are left in a sort of limbo; certainly they do not have comparable access to angelic lovers. However, sexual ecstasy was mandated out of the Christian heaven; Jesus said there would be no marriage in the after-life (Matt. 22:30). Concerning this ruling, Robert Ingersoll resentfully observed: “The only thing that makes life endurable in this world is human love, and yet, according to Christianity, that is the very thing that we are not to have in the other world.”13

Other than these remarks forbidding marriage, the bible says relatively little about any after-life. Indeed, the skeptical author of Ecclesiastes 9:5 and 9:10 says there is no after-life: “For the living know that they shall die; but the dead know not any thing, neither have they any more a reward . . . there is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom, in the grave, whither thou goest.” Where bible translators inserted the word “hell,” the original Hebrew word was usually Sheol, which didn’t mean a place of torment for sinners in the Christian sense. Sheol was simply a dim sort of pit where all the dead gathered and became sightless, soundless, numb, and forgotten. Conversely, the biblical heaven meant just the sky, the firmament. Stars were often regarded as living angelic beings, like Lucifer the Morning Star. The idea that mortal heroes and blessed souls could ascend and live among them was largely derived from Greek and Egyptian sources.

Bodies that could do this came to be viewed as “astral” or starry bodies ; that is, they were made of star-stuff, or ether. Gradually the image of the soul was modified to fit this concept, rather than that of the reanimated corpse–especially since it was obvious that dead bodies inevitably deteriorate no matter what steps are taken to preserve them. “Soul” became synonymous with “ghost” as a bodiless spirit separated from its corruptible flesh, and a dying person was said to give up the ghost along with the last exhalation into the air.

There were difficulties with this concept of the immortal soul just as there were difficulties with the concepts of reincarnation and bodily resurrection. Churches insisted on denying souls to animals, and even to women, according to the third canon of the Council of Nantes in 660 C.E. But it could be clearly seen that animals live and die in the same ways that humans do, and nothing particularly distinguishes “soul” in one and not the other. As Voltaire said, “If I deny immortality to whatever it is that animates a dog, a parakeet or a thrush, how can I attribute immortality to human beings just because I would like it to be so?”14 Naturally, the denial of women’s souls was soon rescinded because it would also deny the threat of hell, which has always proved useful to enforce obedience to authority.

As long as a population can be induced to believe in a supernatural hereafter, it can be oppressed and controlled. People will put up with all sorts of tyranny, poverty, and painful treatment if they’re convinced that they’ll eventually escape to some resort in the sky where lifeguards are superfluous and the pool never closes. . . . While the afterlife concept renders the masses manageable, it renders their masters destructive. A world leader who’s convinced that life is merely a trial for the more valuable and authentic afterlife is less hesitant to risk starting a nuclear holocaust. A politician or corporate executive who’s expecting the Rapture to arrive on the next flight from Jerusalem is not going to worry about polluting oceans or destroying forests.15

Another problem with the immaterial soul is that it has always been difficult to explain how, without any sense organs or nervous system, it can suffer in hell or feel the so-called ecstasies of heaven. Voltaire wrote, “I cannot help laughing when I an told that human beings still have ideas after they have lost their sense organs: I would just as readily believe that we could still eat and drink after we have lost our mouth and stomach.”16 It is one of the absurdities of our culture that people often think ghosts or souls can see, hear, and speak without eyes, ears, or vocal cords. So reluctant are we to give up the common functions of mortality.

On the other hand, nowadays some say the soul is music played upon an instrument, and that instrument is the brain and the whole organism that supports it. Theologian Rosemary Radford Ruether writes:

Death is the cessation of the life process that holds our organism together. Consciousness ceases and the organism itself gradually disintegrates. . . . There is no reason to think of the two as separable, in the sense that one can exist without the other. . . . In effect, our existence ceases as individuated ego/organism and dissolves back into the cosmic matrix of matter/energy .17

Robert Ingersoll agreed with this view when he said, “I believe that the atoms that are in me have been in many other people and in many other forms of life, and I suppose that at death the atoms forming my body go back to the earth and are used in countless forms.18 “Shades of the ancient Celtic Cauldron of Regeneration, the Native American view of all things in one universal substance, and the Greek and Roman philosophers’ idea of constant change of forms. In 60 B.C.E., the Roman poet Lucretius wrote a little poem, “On the Nature of Things,” that expresses quite a grand vision:

No single thing abides, but all things flow.
Fragment to fragment clings; the things thus grow
Until we know and name them. By degrees
They melt, and are no more the things we know.
Globed from the atoms, falling slow or swift
I see the suns, I see the systems lift
Their forms; and even the systems and their suns
Shall go back slowly to the eternal drift.

Some theologians today are so afraid of death/nonexistence that they claim only the idea of an after-life can give any meaning to present life. But others object to this view on the ground that it belittles this life and ignores problems that should be solved in the here and now, at times leading to real cruelty. Writing in The American Rationalist, Jan.-Feb. 1997, Marjorie Mignacca says: “I never cease to be amazed by the fervor with which religious fanatics, in particular, fight to deny other people the luxury of a humane death. . . . Those who profess most loudly their belief in resurrection and the life hereafter also fight hardest the desire of those in agony to get on with it. . . . Religion subjugates its followers throughout their lifetimes and frequently oppresses them even more severely at the end.”

The after-life concept is not intrinsically humane, but rather ego-centered and selfish, as if the whole purpose of life is to win a position among the heavenly elite. But if we are unable to make this life worth living, how could we suppose that a post-mortem prolongation would make it better? If, as some have postulated, “eternal bliss” consists of singing eternal praises to a God who never seems to tire of such abject flattery, then “eternal bliss” might even turn out to be eternally boring.

The Greek poet Euripedes may have said some of the best words about this subject, surpassing those of thousands who lived and wrote long after him:

But if any far-off state there be
Dearer to life than mortality,
The hand of the Dark hath hold thereof,
And mist is under the mist above;
So we are sick for life, and cling
On earth to this nameless and shining thing,
For other life is a fountain sealed,
And the deeps below are unrevealed,
And we drift on legends forever.19

Among many various so-called “proofs” of the life after death, recent decades have put forward the near-death experience, which occurs with remarkable similarity in the visions perceived by people whom modern medicine has brought back from the brink. As the brain seems to be shutting down, losing the memories and the consciousness laid into its synapses over a lifetime, the deepest interior mind registers sensations that include a passage through a dark place, a fading-away of pain and anxiety, an emergence into light and into the presence of a being of infinite kindness and compassion, a being who dwells in the light and will take care of you and comfort you. This personage is not clearly seen but is “known” to be something like an angel, to whom one can utterly trust one’s self.

There is an experience like this in the very deepest, earliest memory of every human being who has ever lived. It is called birth.

And it’s interesting that nearly every one of the world’s creation myths begins with something similar to this: a universe of darkness, chaos, water, and then the coming of light; and then, in the earliest myths, the earth is originally populated by “giants” as even the bible says (Gen. 6:4)–which is surely how an infant would perceive the world of adult caretakers. For each of us, the universe begins with our birth, and ends with our death. It’s also interesting that archetypal visions of doomsday seem to confuse the dissolution of the body with that of the entire external world.

Death, in this philosophy, was understood to be as much a part of life as birth. All things take part in the same cycles; all life lives by the death of other forms; all creatures including humans must go back into the eternal drift as their flesh dissolves and becomes part of air, water, plants, bacteria, worms and other creatures. Remarkably consistent with modern scientific understanding of the processes of nature, these ancient ideas may give us a better symbolism of death than the more artificial Christian theology that replaced them.

Long ago in Rome, tombstones were marked very simply with the traditional phrase, Mater genult, Mater recepit–the Mother bore me, the Mother took me back.20 Apparently this was a thought less frightening than the so-called “comfort” of the Christian idea of death. English philosopher Jeremy Bentham declared that Christian beliefs about death promote more fear than comfort; “People who do not believe in life after death do not fear being dead, but believers fear punishment more than they hope for bliss.”21 Elimination of the fear may be the only true comfort. Perhaps, to eliminate the fear of death, we don’t really need the elusive hope of immortality, still vainly called “sure and certain” by authorities who offer not a particle of evidence for its sureness or certainty. Death itself is the only certainty; and we can live with that.


1. Leakey, Richard, & Roger Lewin. Origins Reconsidered: In Search of What Makes Us Human. New York: Doubleday, 1992,pp. 348, 355, 357

2. Jung, Emma, & Marie-Louise von Franz. The Grail Legend. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1970, p. 114

3. Gaster, Theodor. Myth, Legend and Custom In the Old Testament. New York: Harper & Row, 1969, p. 521

4. Bardo Thodol (Tibetan Book of the Dead), W.Y. Evans-Wentz, trans. London: Oxford University Press, 1927, pp. 53, 188

5. Campbell, Joseph. Primitive Mythology. New York: Viking Press, 1959, pp. 193-194

6. Forgotten Books of Eden. New York: Bell Publishing Co., 1980, p. 17

7. Bardo Thodol, p. 234

8. De Rosa, Peter. Vicars of Christ: The Dark Side of the Papacy. New York: Crown Publishers, 1988, p. 207

9. Ranke-Heinemann, Uta. Eunuchs for the Kingdom of Heaven. Peter Heinegg, trans. New York: Doubleday, 1990, p. 25

10: Flew, Antony. God: A Critical Inquiry. La Salle, IL: Open Court Publishing Co., 1984, p. 101

11. Neumann, Erich. The Great Mother: An Analysis of the Archetype. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1963, p. 166

12. Updike, John. A Month of Sundays. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1975, p. 209

13. Greeley, Roger E. The Best of Robert Ingersoll. Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books, 1977, p. 47

14. Stein, Gordon (ed.) The Encyclopedia of Unbelief. Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books, 1985, p. 728

15. Robbins, Tom. Skinny Legs and All. New York: Bantam Books, 1990, p. 305

16. Stein, op. cit., p. 727

17. Reuther, Rosemary Radford. Sexism and God-Talk: Toward a Feminist Theology. Boston: Beacon Press, 1983, p. 257

18. Greeley, op. cit., p. 48

19. Angus, S. The Mystery-Religions. New York: Dover Publications, 1975, pp.230-231.

20. Lederer, Wolfgang. The Fear of Women. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich Inc., 1968, p. 22

21. Stein, Gordon (ed.). The Encyclopedia of Unbelief. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 1985, p. 56.

Barbara G. Walker is author of the monumental feminist/freethought sourcebook The Woman’s Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets (1983). Her many other books, published by Harper & Row, include The Skeptical Feminist. An atheist, she has also specialized in debunking New Age assertions.

Freedom From Religion Foundation