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. 

Walking in Merthyr Vale

Walking in Merthyr Vale

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.


When he's not tired, fixing his car or caught in train delays, Alun Salt works part-time for the Annals of Botany weblog. His PhD was in ancient science at the University of Leicester, but he doesn't know Richard III.

3 Responses

  1. Sarah May says:

    A beau­ti­ful post Alun, expresses that sense of athe­ism as won­der in the things we can learn without invok­ing god that I was brought up with. A good anti­dote to some of the aggress­ive sex­ist non­sense Dawkins has been spew­ing lately.

    When my father died I found my athe­ism (and his) a great com­fort. It was good to know that he had lived his own best life, taken respons­ib­il­ity for it. And good to know that it was over, he was truly at rest, not in pain, or in judge­ment or hav­ing to work through any of it any more.

    I hope your grief softens soon

    • Alun says:

      Thanks, it happened a while ago, but I left put­ting it up till I was ok with whatever came in the com­ments. Also I’d moved next door to my grand­par­ents to help look after them and this week I start mov­ing out.

  2. Gav says:

    There is that pecu­liar South Wales val­leys expres­sion “who’s he / she belong­ing to?”. The old people in par­tic­u­lar would enjoy try­ing to find a person’s spe­cific fam­ily con­nec­tion, and be over­joyed when they succeeded.