These are some highlights of last Wednesday’s Harvard Humanist Alumni Discussion. If you’re in the Boston area we invite you to join us for an upcoming discussion. You can join the list at https://memdir.org/HHA or at https://www.facebook.com/groups/HHADiscussionXYZ/.
We all agreed that there is nothing after death (or “very probably” in the case of an agnostic). I made the argument that the fact that life is finite only makes it more precious, and focuses us on finding meaning in the texture of our actual lives rather than in an imaginary afterlife. Another participant noted that there’s no point in wasting your limited time on earth worrying about death. It was pointed out that people who are confident in either atheism or religious beliefs have less fear of death than those who are in between, and that confident atheists should make an effort to understand the fear of death that others have.
One participant expressed no fear of his own death, but great anxiety about how to comfort someone else who might be grieving or dying. We agreed that Humanists have strong intellectual arguments, but you need to offer emotional comfort as well as logical arguments to console someone. Even though religion may be factually wrong it may still have an advantage in its ability to offer consolation to people who are afraid of death, or grieving the death of a loved one. It was noted that a Humanist funeral is mostly a celebration when the person who died had lived a long and rich life, but that such a funeral is a lot harder in the case of a tragic early death; in that case one has to acknowledge shock, anger and grief first and foremost since there isn’t as much to celebrate.
One participant described how s/he had avoided someone who had experienced the tragic death of a child because s/he didn’t know what to say to the person; we all agreed that it is natural to be afraid in such a situation but that we shouldn’t do this.
We didn’t agree on the best way to die: one of us wanted to die in his sleep; others thought it would be better to have some time to say goodbyes; though we all agreed that lingering severe pain wasn’t appealing.
The participants ranged from under 30 to over 60; it was interesting that the older ones on the whole expressed less fear of death than the younger.
We discussed a couple of ancient texts. My personal favorite was this one from De Rerum Naturae by Lucretius:
Nothing to Fear in Death
15 Death, then, is nothing to us, nor does it concern us one least bit, inasmuch as the nature of the mind is that of yet another mortal possession. .
For, if by chance grief and pain are in store for a man, he must himself exist at the time ill is to befall him. Since death forestalls this and prevents his existence, into which such misfortunes might otherwise crowd, we may be sure that we have nothing to fear in death, and that he who is no more cannot be wretched, and that there is not a scrap of difference to him if he had never at any time been born, when once immortal death has stolen away mortal life.
16 Again, suppose nature should suddenly lift up her voice, and herself rebuke some one of us in these words: “Why is death so great a thing to you, mortal, that you give way excessively to sickly lamentation? Why groan and weep at death? For if the life that is past and gone has been pleasant to you, and all its blessings have not drained away and not been enjoyed—as if poured in a vessel full of holes—why don’t you retire like a guest sated with thee banquet of life, and with calm mind embrace, you fool, a rest that knows no care? But if all you have reaped has been wasted and lost, and life is a stumbling-block, why seek to add more—all to be lost again foolishly and passsed away without enjoyment? Why not rather make an end of life and trouble? For there is nothing more which I can devise or discover to please you: all things are ever as they were.”