Inquiry: Estrangement XX – Death, Soul & Afterlife

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by LJ Frank; Contributors in the form of inspiration, thoughts and words – Sue De Gregorio-Rosen, RN, CLNC.  Contributing Editor; Keith Raymond M.D.; Elizabeth Anderson, Ph.D.; Hillary Bowring, Contributing Editor, Alexander Lamis, AIA; Mark Hulsether, Ph.D., Uriél Danā, Contributing Editor; Jennifer Miller, Columnist and Nathan Frank, Senior Editor

This series on estrangement seeks to understand some of the differing faces of estrangement and the crossroads it approaches for good or ill.

 Thoughts about the ultimate Estrangement of Man.


 “I saw the sun rise this morning.” The grey bearded old man from the Florida Keys nodded, gazing over the surface of the blue-green depths of the Atlantic.

The earliest understanding of death, the soul and an afterlife and the desire to live forever is buried with the skeletons of ancient humans. What does man consider in his struggle to exist other than the pragmatics of survival? When was the very first moment there was an inkling of a soul or afterlife and man asked a question that led to the eventual development of myths and beliefs? 

The Romanian religious historian, Mircea Eliade, in his work From Primitives to Zen, suggests at the core of every belief is a kernel of truth. A multitude of man’s myths and beliefs display a common thread of concern about living life, the experience of death and what may come after.

In an archaeological dig a single skeleton, several meters from other human skeletons, was uncovered lying on its back with the skull’s slightly elevated and face up as if staring at the sky. The only discernible markings suggested he died of a disease in a winter of despair. I can envision the man lying there in the cold of a clear starry night, near death’s door and perhaps uttering, I don’t understand. Could an utterance such as that be evidence for the beginning of belief or reasoning through a statement that becomes a question? 

 “No man deceives while in his death agony,” The Babylonian Talmud: Bab Bathra, 10, 175 (450 CE)

Belief that our individual deaths are not final and there exists afterlife is primitive. Archaeological discoveries at the burial sites of Neanderthal man are suggestive of a belief in an afterlife with grains, flowers and the arrangement of the bones. Other ancient burial sites throughout the world opens the door to intellectual, emotional and spiritual curiosity and a probing with what Eliade observes – “A manifestation of the Sacred is always a revelation of Being.” 

 Most people have heard and or read tales of immortality, the soul, spirits, angels, and afterlife. Some of them we imagine and tell ourselves, or what we have studied or even been indoctrinated with through religious dogma. All sacred literature is hearsay unless one was an eyewitness to the person or event. And all sacred literature and beliefs have an intent. The intent is to inspire, persuade, instill, enlighten, empower and sometimes to control. 

In the Idea of the Holy Rudolf Otto wrote about emotional elements in appreciating if not comprehending the experience of the numinous. The profound emotional experience transcends the pragmatic – mysterium tremendum (terrible mystery). Otto’s work remains classic and thoughtful. God, the soul, and afterlife are a contemplation always in want of an understanding across generations of thinkers.

If a person reads St. John of the New Testament depending on text and translation (Greek, Hebrew, Syriac, etc.) all agree that no one has ever seen God (at any time). St. John 1:18. No one has witnessed the actual appearance of God (the word God is a creation of man…see Martin Buber, I and Thou for a better understanding of naming and along similar lines the Midrash interpretation of Eyeh-Asher-Eyeh, Exodus 3:14 The Torah, a modern commentary by W. Gunther Plaut. 

Man creates, ponders, contemplates, and inspires himself with the idea of a higher power and an afterlife. It’s neither good or bad as Shakespeare might say – it’s related to one’s emotional and intellectual context and meditation on the subject. Volumes of research have increased curiosity.

“Give me my robe. Put on my crown. I have immortal longings in me.”Cleopatra states. Anthony and Cleopatra, Act V. Scene. II  William Shakespeare

In the early 1970’s I met a woman near Bombay, India who was in her 70s with whom I sat down to share some tea.  She had met Mahatma Gandhi, the slightly built charismatic man when she was a young woman. She told me a few stories about him…noting he thought we must be careful of machines taking away the humanity of man and in a sense devouring his soul. He believed in God and thought his soul would be reincarnated with no memory of his past lives…

 In the work titled Zen Physics, The Science of Death , the logic of reincarnation, the author David Darling, astronomer, sees us surviving in another consciousness and unaware of our previous consciousness.  

 Is the soul and its links to an afterlife merely a human invention to offer emotional support to our primitive immortal longings?  Is life but an individual journey filled with struggles – some of those have value, others not so much? Is our individual life the result of chance and fortune? How many deaths from war, disease and violence have meaning? What and who decides meaning? Jonathon Edwards, the 18th century American theologian. lay awake at night thinking of the precariousness of life and death while contemplating the Freedom of the Will.

 “The greatest dignity to be found in death is the dignity of the life that preceded it,” Sherwin Nuland

On other levels, well-known psychic mediums and television personalities (e.g., John Edward McGee Jr.) have stated they experienced ghostly visitations at a very young age. Others such as clairvoyants share prophetic insights (e.g., Edgar Cayce) and others using sacred literature like modern day evangelicals of all faiths shared their knowledge on subjects that can seem surreal. And with all of them comes the belief there is an afterlife, in some form. As a famous preacher in the Sinclair Lewis novel Elmer Gantry, seems to have intimated – it’s what people long to hear. Andrew Carnegie’s The Gospel of Wealth has taken on new meaning for the modern television personalities who appeal to their followers for personal enrichment in the name of a person’s soul and their afterlife. (Sue DeGregorio-Rosen, RN, CLNC)

In yet another arena, Chico Xavier, born Francisco de Paulo Candida, was born on April 2, 1910, in the city of Pedro Leopoldo, in the State of Minas Gerais, in Brazil. He was a philanthropist and spiritual medium. During his life he wrote/channeled 490 books, he claimed were not from his own hand, but written by others in their afterlife. His spiritual mentor Emmanuel, also post life, directed others from his realm to use Chico’s hand. Branded as a charlatan by many to gain wealth and fame, he rebelled against the claims, by donating all the income he made from his books to charity. He lived a modest life as a result, although many came to assist him and seek communion with dead family members. He had five million followers in Brazil and appeared on TV talk shows in the 60s and 70s to spread the Spiritism Doctrine. In 1943, they published one of his most popular books, Nosso Lar. Translated into English, it reads ‘Our Home.’ In 2010, they made it into a movie, called Astral City: A Spiritual Journey, directed by Wagner de Assis, with a soundtrack by Philip Glass. Filmed in Portuguese and featuring well-known actors of Brazil’s telenovelas, it is the story of Andre Luis, a prominent doctor in Río de Janeiro. He was not a fictional character, but an actual MD practicing in the 40s. (Keith Raymond, M.D.)

There have been countless fictionalized films about God, the human soul and afterlife. None are scientifically and empirically substantiated, rather they are like parables or metaphors or allegories of the possibilities. No one knows with certainty. Though the “artists of persuasion” are always in want of a monetary reward at the expense of a curious and compassionate human heart.

 Still, there are innumerable instances of people encountering experiences through their Mind’s Eye or Mental Image that have surreal yet realness in physical quality and nature. In some cases, the object or person they see is remarkably actual whether encountering them in a hospital emergency room or at home or in a forest. The people who have experienced these visitations feel odd in explaining the events and the spirits as they don’t want to appear immature and childish let along unstable.

The meaning of the spirits and visitations are in some fashion a meditation on life, death and our relationships with each other.  

“I have been increasingly conscious, for the last 10 years or so, of deaths among my contemporaries. My generation is on the way out, and each death I have felt as an abruption, a tearing away of part of myself. There will be no one like us when we are gone, but then there is no one like anyone else, ever. When people die, they cannot be replaced. They leave holes that cannot be filled, for it is the fate — the genetic and neural fate — of every human being to be a unique individual, to find his own path, to live his own life, to die his own death.”  Oliver Sacks

Where did the soul originate? Etymologically the word soul is derived from the Proto-Germanic word saiwalo, according to F. Kluge’s Etymologisches Wortebuch der deutschen Sprache, and means “coming from the sea, belonging to the sea,” intimating that the sea was the soul’s place before birth and after death. Was there something in our distant ancestor’s brain that suggested he knew of his origins from the sea…like a genetic linkage and the soul would become a natural and intuitive understanding of his origins across the eons? Would the concept of the soul allow humans to transcend their physical mortality? (See: Life After Death, a history of the afterlife in the religions of the West by Alan F. Segal (2005) 

 The theme of an afterlife and the human soul affects our architecture as we attempt to transcend the brief physical time we exist here on Earth. Architecture premised on the belief in an afterlife retains a mortality of its own even if much longer than a human life span. The designs of most of our buildings are confronted with mortality. When torn down will the building materials be used for something else – a reincarnation or resurrection in a different form? Will our living and working space entail more of imagination than a physical reality as we know it today?

Where does the human soul fit into the future architecture of the human mind?

“The fact of the matter is when it comes to getting any sort of information, be it a ‘book’, a ‘record’ or a ‘video’, we can get it anywhere, any time—or nearly. So having a physical home for physical books, records, and videos, is a bit like when your i-phone takes a picture and you get that shutter clicking sound. Intellectually you know that there is no shutter but it is still comforting to know that an image has been taken.” from Interview (Alexander Lamis, AIA).

The word soul within an ancient context is also linked to both the physical and the mystical. Human blood and water were considered that which the soul consisted of. And today that ancient imagery of the soul (blood and water) is drained into the sewer system at modern funeral homes. An embalmer suggested to me that the energy that leaves the body at death is the true soul and energy force yet he has witnessed strange things to the body once the blood and water is drained as it becomes a pale reflection of its former self.

What will happen to the soul when man and machine become one?

There are volumes written about the human soul, and with so many of them one comes away with the Shakespearian words of longing for immortality. The moment we experience death comes the inevitable estrangement. If there was no immortality…and being with or in the presence of one’s God, then what was this life about, is heard over and over – to only experience oblivion? What have we been taught to expect? Is expectation learned or a natural part of man’s being-ness?

In his work, Death and the Afterlife (Oxford UP, 2013), Samuel Scheffer and Niko Kolodny write about the positive aspects of our death. “Scheffler argues that it is a mistake to worry about one’s personal afterlife, or the continuation of one’s own life after one’s death.  What really matters for our life to be meaningful is that other people survive us.  The afterlife that matters most to any given individual is that of future generations.  Most of the activities that make our lives meaningful and flourishing depend on the continuing existence of other people after we die.” (Elizabeth Anderson, Ph.D.)

“Seeing directly constitutes a direct communication between the eye and the object. Unless a thing is seen without mediation, the thing itself cannot be grasped.” Soetsu Yanagi 

Where does that leave the mind of the seeker?  

“The mind precedes all things, the mind dominates all things, the mind creates all things.”  Gautama Buddha

To return to our introduction to this series on Estrangement we have man playing chess with death as envisioned in the Seventh Seal. The question becomes – is the concept of the soul and an afterlife merely man’s attempt at winning the game of chess (extending his life) or is the meaning too deep and unnerving to contemplate? 

“What we see, we become.” Vedic proverb.

Is there such thing as ‘finality’ in the ‘vocabulary, language and mind’ of a Creator? Death appears to be the final human arbiter. In Fear and Trembling Soren Kierkegaard suggested that in the face of the absurd man makes a leap of faith, and attempts to find meaning and value in the existential moment.