I wonder where you are
I wonder if you
Think about me
Once upon a time
In your wildest dreams...
"Your Wildest Dreams"
The Moody Blues
The Moody Blues
Three weeks ago we were forced to euthenize a beloved pet. Old age and terminal disease had made her life untenable; even simple activities like eating and climbing into the litterbox had become feats of endurance.
Our cat lay on the examining table, looking at us with bleary eyes as we stroked her. I didn't need the vet to tell me when she died; I felt the loved creature turn into a lifeless collection of skin, bone and fur under my hand.
I can't describe the difference, but it was very real.
Euthenasia comes from a Greek word meaning "good death." I wondered if this was a good death. She was surrounded by people who loved her and the initial injection relieved her pain. But whatever took place after that final dose she had to experience alone.
In a world filled with tribes, cultures, species and subspecies, death is the one thing we all have in common. Sooner or later, every living creature on this planet will die. Contemplating that reality has occupied us sentient beings for millennia.
I was raised by a Christian mother- as tenderhearted as she is devout- and an agnostic father who loves science and history. Both of them let me read anything I could wrap my mind around.
My sweetheart likes to joke that he's a militant agnostic: "I don't know, " he scolds, shaking his finger at me, "and neither do you!"
These streams of belief and skepticism flowed together as we discussed handling our pet's remains. We had already agreed that we would not bury her in the front yard. She was a foundling we had rescued from that yard three years before. It seemed cruel to banish her remains to the outdoors.
It seemed equally cold to simply hand her little body over to the clinic for 'disposal'- as if her soft black fur and the memory of her toddling gait were no more important than a worn-out shoe.
We decided on cremation. A week later the plastic box containing her ashes arrived. It came with a card describing the Rainbow Bridge, a mythical heaven for deceased pets. Wikipedia summarizes the Rainbow Bridge concept this way:
When a pet dies, it goes to the meadow, having its body cured of any illnesses, frailties or injuries. The pet runs around and plays with other pets, missing only one thing – the love and companionship of its owner who is still on earth.
One day, upon the pet owner's death, the owner crosses the meadow on his/her journey toward Heaven. The pet spots its owner and runs to greet it. Pet and owner reunite, and cross the Rainbow Bridge together into Heaven, never again to be parted.
"Never again to be parted." When secular critics scoff at the concept of heaven, they usually imagine an Eternal Playground stocked with Goodies for the Faithful. Yet for centuries the idea of an afterlife has offered something else as well: reunion. The agony of separation is temporary; the faithful will meet again in eternity.
The hope of this reunion is meant to smooth the ragged edge of loss. Life without the deceased is unimaginable to the bereaved and eternity is inexplicable to mortals. Placing a loved one in eternity knits the familiar and the inconceivable together in a comforting way.
King George III of England felt this. His eighth son, Octavius, died at age four.
"There will be no heaven for me if Octavius is not there," the King would say.
Skeptics might call this belief in otherwordly reunions a form of denial. Even Shakespeare alluded to this idea in Hamlet:
"He waxes desperate with imagination," says Horatio, watching Hamlet chase after his father's ghost.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle seems to have been pulled in both directions at once. As a writer he created Sherlock Holmes, the master of deductive logic, but Doyle himself was a devotee of spiritualism, in all it's floor-knocking, table-turning mystery. According to seance skeptic Harry Price:
"Among all the notable persons attracted to Spiritualism, he was perhaps the most uncritical. His extreme credulity, indeed, was the despair of his colleagues, all of whom, however, held him in the highest respect for his complete honesty. Poor, dear, lovable, credulous Doyle! He was a giant in stature with the heart of a child."
The heart of a child. That child-like desire for a life beyond this one is not limited to the credulous. It can be glimpsed in scientific research. In February 2009, ReasonOnline published an essay by Ronald Bailey titled Neanderthal Rights. In it, Mr. Bailey reports that a team of researchers had created a partial reconstruction of the Neanderthal genome.
"Once the Neanderthal genome is complete, could it then be used to clone an actual Neanderthal? Harvard University biologist George Church thinks so. He told The New York Times that a Neanderthal could be brought to life using present technology for about $30 million."
Brought to life. That's a rather romantic turn of phrase for a science correspondent. It's also rather honest. In exhuming an extinct genome, doesn't some small part of even the most rational scientist hope that Neanderthal Man 2.0 will open his eyes and begin spinning tales of the prehistoric past? Bailey points out our similarities to Neanderthal Man:
Funeral rituals usually indicate a belief in some kind of afterlife. How ironic if, thousands of years later, Neanderthal Man is resurrected by modern scientists. Neither side will have proof of an afterlife but one will have achieved a form of immortality.
So who is right and who is wrong?
Possibly both. Mary Shelley's Dr. Frankenstein set out to erase death, but created a monster. In the end, neither creator nor creation can live in the world; they wind up self-exiled to the North Pole, whose frozen desolation could be a stand-in for hell.
But not everyone considers a frozen eternity hellish. Organizations such as Alcor Life Extension Foundation believe that 'death' itself is a misnomer. Humans are merely 'deanimated' and they can be preserved at extremely low temperatures until medical science is prepared to 'reanimate' them.
Call it the Pause that Refreshes.
Other groups, such at the Immortalist Society, believe that advances in technology will one day lead to eternal life on earth. Reunions in heaven will not be necessary as none will ever be parted.
Both these approaches discard the notion of an idealized afterlife for a permanent temporal reality. There is no escape to heaven; only continuous life on Earth. Hamlet would be amazed:
For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
The oppressor's wrong, the proud man's contumely,
The pangs of despised love, the law's delay,
The insolence of office and the spurns
That patient merit of the unworthy takes,
When he himself might his quietus make
With a bare bodkin? who would fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscover'd country from whose bourn
No traveller returns, puzzles the will
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?
"I will have nothing to do with your immortality," sneered Byron. "We are miserable enough in this life, without the absurdity of speculating upon another."
And it remains speculation. On all sides. No Neanderthal Man has ever been cloned. No person has ever been revived from cryonic preservation.
No kitty has ever returned from the Rainbow Bridge.
But the world is still imperfect and all living creatures must one day die. Until these harsh facts change, I'm willing to consider the possibility of another reality after this one.
Because I just don't know.
And neither do you.