Being dead is not as awful as you might think, all things considered.
The thought of being buried alive was my second-worst nightmare. I saw a thriller once, with the protagonist pounding fruitlessly on the inside of his casket as the serial killer walked away with a satisfied grin on his face and a shovel over his shoulder. Now that I am here (dead alright, but still conscious), it is not so bad.
Nevertheless, the first few months in the grave were disorienting. I woke up in complete darkness. Not the pitch dark of a starless night, or of a windowless room; rather, the absence of any visual input. I listened keenly but my ears were missing. I tried to move, but I couldn’t feel even the slightest tingle in my arthritis-stiffened fingers. I wanted to scream, but I lacked a mouth. I waited, I know not for what. The only thing in my awareness was what I would later call the Stillness: vast, impassive, and stern, it was an impenetrable dome that surrounded me and separated me from everything else.
Do you know what it’s like to have your worst nightmare come true?
It happened to me when my daughter Clara suddenly died forty-seven years ago. Septic shock, the doctors told us. She went to sleep the evening before with a light fever, full of giggles after I read her from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. I could hear her sing “beautiful sooooup!” as I softly closed her bedroom door. I went to look in on her the next morning at eight o’ clock, believing she must still be unwell and could not go to school that day. She never stirred. In spite of the grief that overwhelmed us, in bouts and waves, we made it through. We planted an elm tree in her honor. We kept her clothes, forever size 5-7 years, in our chest of drawers.
And yet, when my wife Sara and I divorced, I could not help but think that Clara’s death had caused it. The blow of losing her had fatally wounded our marriage. But, like a brave broken Energizer bunny that marches on, purely on the strength of its battery, we kept on going. We soldiered on until we had no big life changes left, and finally found we had nothing left to say to each other.
My second-worst nightmare (the one that remained with me in the decades to come) was my intermittent—at the time I thought irrational—fear of being buried alive. As my illness progressed, I reluctantly had the conversation with my daughter Lucia about final wishes and funeral arrangements. I insisted on cremation. Lucia promised me she’d take care of it. I don’t know why she didn’t keep her promise.
Though my body must be rotting away, I still sleep for what seems like a solid six hours daily, like clockwork, as when I was alive. In my sweet, cruel dreams, I am still alive. I eat breakfast with Sara. Still happily married, we go fishing in the creek near our house. Sometimes, we’re sitting at the table, all four of us, our family still intact, Lucia and Clara bickering over the Nutella jar.
I was a philosophy professor until the day I died, clinging on to my position long past the age of respectable retirement. My colleagues disapproved of me, shaking their heads at their aging colleague doddering in the hallways, wondering when I, Ugo Carini (who hadn’t published in over a decade), would finally take the hints and just leave. But they couldn’t complain. My lack of research productivity was more than amply compensated by how much the students loved my courses. The last course I taught was Death and the Meaning of Life. I lectured in a giant theater, filled up with hundreds of freshmen. In my dreams, I await them in the quiet, spacious building as the sun pours through narrow neo-Gothic windows and dust motes fall onto the black and white marble floor. Then, the quiet shatters as the students stream in by the dozens, laptops and pens at the ready.
“Death is literally unimaginable,” I would extemporize (I had no notes, didn’t use the whiteboard, never brought PowerPoint slides), “As Merleau-Ponty said, you can’t be aware of being the true subject of your own death. You’d need to imagine outliving yourself. And per definition, if you’re dead, you don’t outlive yourself, do you? So, you can only know that people are born and die, but you can’t know what it’s like to die. And yet (dramatic pause) …the fact of our death is the most certain thing in our entire lives. We live toward death the very moment we are born! So why aren’t we obsessing over this fact every single moment of our waking hours? Why is this awareness not more stultifying? As Heidegger said, the most certain possibility of existence is death, and this forces us to consider the meaning of our lives…” I used to pontificate like that, as if I had any more insight into the nature of death than the eighteen-year-olds I taught.
When I wake up, I am once again trapped within the Stillness.
I am in a low-key, quiet state of despair. According to Kierkegaard, this despair over the self is the purest form of despair, reduced to its very essence. To despair is to deny yourself possibilities. But what possibilities do I still have?
Let’s see… if you’re dead you can still do many things, think about it!
You can be an inspiration to others, to family, to former students. You can be a source of comfort and of fond memories. Your words, which have long since died away on your lips, can still influence what people think and do. But I don’t like to dwell on the past, and it’s hard to keep track of days when you can’t even make etch marks on the inside of your coffin. So, I attach my waking and sleeping cycle to the words of Shakespeare’s sonnets, one word per cycle. The Sonnets are the only things I can recite from memory apart from some old Italian pop songs and Beatles tunes, or nursery rhymes stuck in my mind even after my grandchildren had outgrown them.
It will soon be four months that I lie underground. I envy Bilal Ibrahim, my colleague from Religious Studies, who managed to memorize the entire Qur’an in both Arabic and English. To have those words as companions with you in the Stillness! But I was never one for scriptures, or religion for that matter.
Lately, I’ve noticed a change. It crept on to me so slowly that it took weeks to ascertain my mind wasn’t playing tricks on me. The Stillness seems to clear up sometimes, like tiny ripples that perturb a tranquil lake.
I am no longer all alone with my thoughts.
It started with a visit by my daughter Lucia.
“Hi papa, how are you? We miss you.” I could clearly make out her voice inside my head. I could even make out, however dimly, what she saw and did, the chrysanthemums she carefully arranged on my grave. “We haven’t forgotten about Clara either, don’t worry. I put flowers on her grave too—cape daisies,” I heard her think.
“Lucia, I am here! Can you hear me? I’m still around, can you believe it? Don’t leave me!” I thought desperately.
She didn’t seem to hear me and I could feel her walk away, almost as if I could sense her receding steps, until I could feel her presence no longer.
I was surprised by the strength of my emotion.
My longing for her company (for any company, really) punched me, though I had no gut, flooded me, though I had no heart. It suddenly hit me how I had been without another human being’s voice, another human being’s touch, for almost six months. I almost relished in this new-found state of utter desolation, I clung to it as some precious, ephemeral thing, as if I suddenly caught sight of a single plum blossom on a lonely branch in winter, in the expanse of the vast white snow cover of the Stillness.
Lucia came back, almost weekly. She explained to me why she broke her promise: “I’m sorry I didn’t have you cremated, papa, I know you wanted that so much… But, you know, you’re dead, so I gathered it wasn’t a big deal for you anyway. And also, I could then visit you when I visit Clara. And it’s comforting to see your graves so close together. I hope you don’t mind, papa. Also… I know you don’t, but I still believe in the resurrection of the dead, and it seems better that you should have a body when that happens.”
Indeed! I was an atheist even before I lost Clara. Yet, now, with the faint beginnings of hope stirring within me, and also because I (or my soul at least?) was undeniably still there in spite of my expectations to the contrary, I began to pray.
I curled myself up into a tight ball (metaphorically speaking), and I cried out to God, “Please, let it end. I am ready to surrender to You. I give up.”
To no avail.
Well, my after-deathbed-conversion didn’t last long. I am still a firm atheist, though no longer a materialist. I reckon if God doesn’t come through even now there is no point in bothering about Him. The Stillness remains as quiet, austere, and unrelenting as before.
Nevertheless, I’ve slowly become aware of the minds of the other dead near me. You can’t exactly call our exchange of thoughts a conversation. Whatever you may call it, we try to keep it up, following through deep lines of thought interrupted only by sleep. We no longer need the niceties of small talk and we’ve long dispensed with etiquette. But even this deep conversation, though satisfying, is hard. The Stillness has made me introverted and sullen.
The woman lying in the grave next to mine is called Sharon. I don’t know what she did for a living—she only cares about her children and grandchildren, though they rarely visit her. She’s a good listener, though, I often talk philosophy, and she’s become my latest, and most enthusiastic, student. I have asked her and others about Clara—Clara’s small grave with the reclining angel with arms crossed over his breast (such a piece of kitsch, but Sara insisted on it) is still here on this graveyard. But Clara’s soul is nowhere to be found. None of the other dead, not even the ancient ones who have lost all sense of time, have met her.
I learned that it takes decades for a body in a coffin to rot away entirely, and the other dead suspect the soul leaves once the body is gone. The soul, so we hypothesize, is tethered to the body. The soul-stuff is released once the body has decomposed. I tell them about Plato, who argued that the soul longs to be free, I tell them about how Socrates took the hemlock, arguing right before his death how he longed for his release, for his soul to be truly free.
“How does Socrates know his soul will survive?”, Sharon asked me once.
“He doesn’t,” I admitted, “But, look, we are still around, so he was at least partly right.”
My little daughter Clara’s body has long melted into the earth. She is free now, while I wait in bondage.
This is my new hope: release from the Stillness.
There is a kind of freedom in having one’s worst nightmares realized. I have nothing left to fear, all I can do now is wait. Many religious traditions promise liberation, though it means annihilation of the personal self—Nirvana, Moksha. Even in the Christianity I grew up with, you lose yourself as you gaze upon God’s splendor in the beatific vision. Being liberated from oneself is the greatest liberty of all.
Every day, my mind becomes a little clearer, my emotions become sharper, and my vision of my final end becomes more concrete. I envisage how my mind will dissolve along with my body. Then, the low November light, filtering through the fir trees, cedars, and oaks on the cemetery will join my soul. I will rise up as my mind will dissolve and unite with the sun and moon, the constellations, the great vastness of galaxies and the minute vastness of water molecules. I no longer fear that the memory of me will dwindle in insignificance, for I will be elevated into the infinite multitudes of the universe.
I still listen to the thoughts of the other dead and of my daughter Lucia, who visits me faithfully. On occasion, I still indulge the other dead in philosophy lessons. But, for now, I mostly slumber and wait in sweet hope for the glory of my soul.