I republish / post this every year on the 28th of August because my mother died on August 28, 1994. It always puts me in a reflective mood.
I am at that age where I spend moments throughout the day contemplating life and death. I am not consumed with the idea, but certainly the older I get the more aware I am that time is running out. I am now in my 50s.
All thinking and feeling adults at some point ask themselves that difficult question: “What will happen to me when I die?” If you’re religious or spiritual, more than likely your beliefs answered this question before you even posed it.
Anyone who’s known me more than half an hour knows that I am an atheist. So, what does it mean to be an atheist? It simply means that I don’t believe in God, god, G*D, Allah or multiple gods. It doesn’t mean I lack a moral compass, as some have accused me of; it just means I don’t believe there’s an entity out there who is at the helm.
Before I go any further with this, it’s important that you know I respect whatever it is that you believe, as I ask you do the same with me.
Usually when I “inform” people that I am an atheist, I get all sorts of reactions:
- “I feel sorry for you; your soul is going to hell!”
- “Are you a wiccan?”
- “What do you mean you don’t believe in God? Of course you do!”
- “Well then how do you explain all of this (points to the skies above, the earth below, the mountains, the sun and beauty that surrounds us), and what do you think will happen to you when you die?”
Those are all great questions. Well, I don’t think I am going to hell, mainly because I don’t believe in hell, or heaven for that matter. But the others, yeah, they have merit. For the record, I am not a Wiccan, and I think Wiccans would be offended at the notion that they don’t believe in something larger than themselves. It’s just not the same something that God-fearing people believe.
So what happens to us when we die? That question has been asked as long as people have been alive. In fact, it’s my belief that religions—all of them—were invented to answer tough questions, and you gotta admit, this is the toughest of them all.
To answer this question, I could have Googled it, but I decided to ask some of my friends what they believe. I may be an atheist, but I pride myself on having an eclectic group of people in my life. After I finish sharing their beliefs, I will share what I believe and then a story with you.
Death According to Judaism
José Portuando-Denbar of Boston, Massachusetts was raised Catholic. Several years ago he converted to Judaism. He explained to me that Jews take no official position on what happens after death because there are different forms of Judaism. There are reformed Jews, observant Jews, conservative Jews and Orthodox Jews.
What they all have in common are the rituals that take place from the moment death is imminent until burial (which, by Jewish law, must take place within 24 hours) and beyond in the period of mourning when loved ones are sitting shiva. Again, more attention is paid to the rituals of those left behind than to discussing an afterlife.
Death According to Christianity
A neighbor of mine is an Evangelical Pentecostal. Her beliefs about death are very similar to the way I was raised: “Salvation first, if you have lived a Christian life you will go to Heaven. If no salvation through accepting Jesus as your Savior, Hell.”
Daniel Brantley of Tennessee is a Presbyterian. He shared this about death: “Jesus is God's son, was born of a virgin, lived the life we couldn't live and died the death we rightly deserved—all in order to bridge the gap between man and God. All have sinned (gone against God's will—both in omission and commission—and deserve God's wrath. Only through belief in Jesus can this fate be avoided.”
Death According to Islam
I found incredible similarity between what Muslims and Christians believe. Tariq Aziz of New York, New York quoted from the Quran 34:3-5: But those who disbelieve say, “The Hour (i.e. the Day of Judgment) will not come to us.” Say, “Yes, by my Lord, it will surely come to you. [God is] the Knower of the unseen.” Not absent from Him is an atom’s weight within the heavens or within the earth or [what is] smaller than that or greater, except that it is in a clear register—that He may reward those who believe and do righteous deeds. Those will have forgiveness and noble provision. But those who strive against Our verses [seeking] to cause failure (i.e. to undermine their credibility)—for them will be a painful punishment of foul nature.
Death According to Hinduism
As I did with Christianity, I asked two Hindus what they believe happens when we die. Chandresh Trivedi (who lives in Singapore and India and is Indian) said the following: “We believe that our souls will migrate to another state depending on how we handle the soul in this lifetime. It will migrate to another body and so on until we obtain "moksha"—or the liberation/freedom of the soul from the cycle of birth/death/re-birth.”
One of my friends was happy to contribute, but asked that her name be withheld. She believes the following: “Hinduism has many paths, one of rituals, one of knowledge, one of karma (what you do/how you live). I focus more on karma and less on rituals except where it's important to family.
“After death the soul lives on and either is freed into nirvana because it’s evolved to the extent possible (rare), or it's reincarnated into its avatar (next form as another human being) and born into circumstances that allow it to continue to learn and evolve based on its karma.
“I don't know what will happen but I believe anything is possible, and I believe we hold onto beliefs that give us comfort and a purpose in life. I believe heaven and hell can be metaphors for nirvana or reincarnation, but nothing is that simple. It all depends on that balance between our circumstances and our choices, which drive our destiny (kismet).”
Death According to Buddhism
Ronnie Cusmano of upstate New York believes the following: “Buddhists believe death is the end of life for the body that one spirit currently inhabits. Attachment is the driving force behind impending rebirth. Consider an ‘Enlightened Being’ whose efforts and practice would release their spirit from the need of ‘attachment’. The remainder of all sentient beings who have yet to attain enlightenment remain in the natural process of birth, old age, sickness and death. A cycle of remaining attached to new bodies, new lives. Accumulated karma, the result of accumulated positive and negative actions, cause and effect, determine where we will be reborn. So, life doesn’t end, it moves on, in different forms based on inherited Karma. Because of this we should not fear death.”
If you see similarity between Hinduism and Buddhism it’s because Buddha was raised Hindu. Although attempts were made to shield him from death, aging and other forms of human suffering, once Buddha witnessed it for himself, he set out on a quest to understand suffering. I am over simplifying things, of course, but we call the answers he obtained following his answer-seeking "enlightenment."
Death According to Sarah—an atheist
So I have told you a lot about what others believe and nothing about what I believe. The me who believes in science tells me that the stories in the Bible, the Quran and the Torah should be taken with a grain of salt. After all, they were written by human beings who in the absence of logic and science came up with their own answers.
I believe that people have been struggling to answer this and other difficult questions for as long as we have been walking the earth. We used to believe the world was flat and that the sun revolved around the earth. Science debunks both these theories and numerous others that at one time were considered Truths.
Although I was raised a Christian, when I was 13 I came to a crossroads in my life. My father was Catholic and my mother was an Episcopalian. I went to parochial school and I served as an acolyte in my church. At one point I had seriously considered going to divinity school and becoming a priest. Despite being raised to believe in God, I was stuck on one concept, which ultimately drove me away from Christianity. “He who so believeth in me shall have everlasting life.”
I was taught there is a heaven and a hell and those who don’t believe in God and Jesus Christ are going to hell. I have always been a very sensitive person. I must still be because the thought that those who don’t believe in God will go to this very hot and fiery place upsets me. The God I was raised to believe in is benevolent, and He wouldn’t damn someone to hell for all of eternity just because he or she didn’t believe in Him. I believed (and still believe) this is people’s interpretation of His thoughts.
I did as all wandering souls do. I read and I explored what others believed. To me it seemed that there was very little difference between belief systems. I had come to the conclusion that we do as other life forms do: we live, we die, we decompose and then we become one with the earth. I actually take great comfort in believing this as it means that in death I become a part of something bigger than I was in life. I was fine believing this until something happened.
This one event has left a question mark over my head for more than two decades. I still don’t believe what I was raised to believe, but I also am not completely sold on the ashes to ashes, dust to dust concept either.
So what happened?
I was 27 years old when my mother died suddenly of aneurysm. We were in different parts of the world at the time of her sudden death—she and my father had retired to the South of France six years earlier and I was living by myself in an apartment in the Morningside Heights section of Manhattan.
Although separated by thousands of miles, I was with her the moment she died.
It was the wee hours of Saturday morning, August 28, 1994. I was subletting a completely furnished apartment from a man who is an opera singer. He’d landed a six-month long tour through Europe performing in Der Rosenkavalier.
Working as a personal assistant for a family in the West Village, I was in the latest installment of reinventing myself. This time I was trying my hand at becoming a writer again. I was in my minimalist stage of life. I owned very little: 18 boxes of books (all stacked in the second bedroom of my 3-bedroom sublet), my clothes, my cat and my hand-me-down IBM computer (thanks to my big brother who had recently upgraded). This time I was attempting the impossible: a novel whose protagonist is a serial killer who meets his victims through the Personal Ads of his local newspaper. The title, Come Prowl With Me, was the only thing worth reading about this manuscript.
Stuck on page 28 for the last month and a half, it’s 1:57 in the morning. I am wide awake, thanks to a strong cup of café con leche courtesy of the Puerto Rican Bakery down the street. Sitting in an antique wooden chair with casters (his, not mine), one minute I was staring at the computer screen, and the next I was yanked away from the desk with great force. The bedroom was small and I couldn’t go but so far. The chair bounced off the bed and suddenly I was head over feet. As I landed on the floor, I begin screaming in agony. “Oh My God! My umbilical cord is ripping! I have to call my mother!”
I remained on the floor for several minutes; I was cold and clammy. I reached for the phone and called my parents’ number in France. It rang and rang and rang. I knew what had happened. In my heart of hearts I knew my mother was gone. I also knew she was never coming back.
I have never known what to make of all that. I do know that the police confirmed that my mother died at approximately 8:00 in the morning (France time, which is six hours ahead of the east coast—thus making it 2:00 in the morning for me). Although they pronounced her dead at 9:03, they arrived to my parents’ house and, based on the physical evidence, concluded she had probably been dead about an hour. I have concluded that I was with her as she was dying and on her way someplace else. The problem is, I have never been able to explain where that someplace else is or why I was with her during her transition. And quite frankly, I am not in a hurry to find out.