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, ill 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.