Death and belonging
This is another post that’s being pulled from the draft folder. The first draft was written a couple of years ago. My grandfather had just died and on the day after the funeral something popped up in my RSS reader. It was a smug and rather vicious piece by a bishop about how atheism had nothing to offer at funerals. He went one with some relish imagining what atheists would say to grieving families. I think the idea was to contrast it with the caring, consoling approach of Christianity. Instead it just read as an intolerant rant and probably revealed far too much of his own suppressed desires of what he’d want to say at a funeral.
My reply never went up. I wanted to write something that was the opposite. Not a piece that said Christianity was a lie and offered nothing of value for the grievers. Whether or not it’s true it’s not something you’d want to rub in the face of a family that’s lost someone. So I wanted to write something positive. After writing it I had no anger for the bishop, only pity. Respect for the feelings of another human being isn’t a uniquely atheist position. Nearly all the Christians I know share the same feelings. The venom of the original post suggested he’d lost some connection to humanity and his rage was more about his own problems. Publicly naming him and berating him wasn’t going to help.
It stayed unpublished because it seems a common feature for someone with bigoted views to claim they’re “Christian” views rather than personal views. Reductio ad absurdum the Westboro Baptist Church claim their picketing of funerals is not a demonstration of the hate at the core of their beliefs but a necessity of Christian values. The fact that many Christians vehemently disagree shows that the Phelps clan are at best self-deluded. Treating bigots as spokesmen for Christians does no one any favours.
But if you strip away the spite and hate, the bishop raised an interesting question. If there is no eternal reward what hope is there for the future? For someone raised in a religious tradition it’s a reasonable question. Just before Christmas my grandmother became seriously ill. Recent events mean I’ve taken this out of the drafts folder and had a go at re-writing it.
I’ve returned to Merthyr Vale to complete a journey that started a couple of years earlier when my grandfather died. We found a spot for his ashes, and now it’s my grandmother’s turn to join him. It’s a bittersweet day. It’s painful to lose her, but at the same it time it’s a release from the room where she spent her final days, confined to her bed with various tubes pumping things in or taking them out. Given the inevitability of what happened why feel any pain at all? It’s because biologically there is no other option.
I’m part of a chain of existence. My grandparents were born 50 years before me. Their grandparents were born 50 years before them. As Jack Cohen and Ian Stewart have pointed out it takes just 40 connections like this back in my family to get to the Roman era. Around 500 steps would take me back to the first humans arriving as the Ice Age released its grip on the British Isles. If you took around 30,000 to 50,000 steps back you’d be at the time when Homo sapiens diverged from other hominins. That’s about the same population as Merthyr Tydfil, further up the valley. Along each step of the way, natural selection haphazardly sifted though all the various combinations and recombinations of genes. Among the traits that proved useful were bonds of commitment to family members. At the same time, language and copying behaviour built in cultural connections to earlier generations. I use turns of phrase that my grandparents used. They probably did the same. How many run back into deep time? How many habits of thought by distant ancestors have been passed down to me? These are questions that we’re only just starting to be able to answer. But so far its clear, the ties between me and my ancestors are real and built into me. Being human means mourning the loss of family and friends because it’s part of what it means to be connected to humanity.
In Merthyr Vale I’m probably more connected than usual to humanity. It’s where my family lived, and some of their ancestors lived and so on. That’s also true for many of the people living there today. At some point in the past few centuries it’s highly likely we have common ancestors. If you want to take it back to 1000 years (just 20 grandparents) I’m connected to almost everyone in the UK at the very least. It’s not just the people in the village that I’m genetically connected to. Travel further back in time and you find common ancestors with the birds in the air, the insects flitting about and even the grass that carpets the hillside. Depending exactly on how you count, about half of my DNA is shared with the cabbages growing in the allotments below. If I can see something growing then it is, even if only distantly, a relative. The rock is even stranger.
The reason my family moved here was because of the rock. Not on the surface, but the coal mined from below the valley. The coal was laid down in the carboniferous period. Around 300 million years ago trees evolved to use lignin which gave them bark for the first time. Insects did not immediately evolve the ability to tackle bark, so huge numbers of trees fell and hardly decayed. Over geological time they were buried and compressed to form coal seams. In my hand I can hold a mineral that I am connected to through deep time. It gives me a sense of vertigo. What other reaction could make sense when I learned I am related to some of the geology that caused my family to move here? I’m also connected to the geology in other subtle ways. Some molecules are necessary for survival, yet can also be poisonous if taken in excess. Evolution has shaped my body to these chemicals like gravity shapes a puddle into a dip. The fit is so perfect that it is likely Earth is the only place I could exist. If humanity is to live elsewhere and travel into space, it will be imperative to create Earth-like environments.
That sounds crazy because I also know that everything I see here came from the heart of a star. Most elements in me were formed in a supernova, the violent explosion at the end of a massive star’s life. Most of these elements would be blasted out in all sorts of directions away from where I am now. Even if we find billions of habitable planets in the future, the Earth will remain extremely rare. Even on Earth with all its life, the chances of being something self-aware is terribly slender. Among so much wonder it could be easy to be overwhelmed by a feeling of isolation.
Yet the biggest wonder of all is we can see we’re not isolated. We are formed and reformed throughout our lives with our connections to other people. Language, culture, the sheer experience of being human means that we get to experience the universe in a way that no other species on our planet can. We are not simply battered by the storms of an indifferent nature. Uniquely we can, and do, work to give each other shelter in our communities. In these communities we don’t simply share our DNA, but also our thoughts and hopes, our knowledge and our creativity. Collectively create a culture and pass on to our children and their children and so who we are echoes forever into the future. Our physical bodies may disperse, but in ripples we make with our hearts and our minds we can touch immortality.