As a hospice chaplain, my work revolves around supporting the dying and their families. I officiate many funerals. I deal with questions about death and what happens after people die. I am asked regularly about mysteries beyond our human experience in this life.
On Mondays we are delving into this subject, starting with Gerhard Lohfink and his excellent new book, Is This All There Is?: On Resurrection and Eternal Life.
Chapter 3 discusses another option people consider when thinking about what happens to humans after death.
This concept is represented in an excerpt from an obituary which Lohfink cites: “Dear Mama, you had my back in everything I did in life. Dear Papa, you modeled what it means to work with passion and dedication. You are in me, and you live in me” (p. 20).
“You are in me, and you live in me.” About this idea the author comments:
Behind that statement lies the idea that those who have died live on in their descendants. [emphasis mine] Death is the end for them personally, but the good they have brought into the world is not lost; it continues through their children and grandchildren to distant generations. So it endures, and so the dead themselves remain in the world. (p. 20)
We see something of this idea in the Hebrew Bible: “May his posterity be cut off; in the very next generation may their name be blotted out” (Ps. 109:13). To die without heirs who carry on the family name was to lose a share in God’s ongoing blessing upon Israel. They held on to the concept of a “life” that carries on from generation to generation. As Lohfink says, “…the idea of being embedded in the sequence of generations was firmly tied to the belief that in coming generations God’s promises would continue to be fulfilled again and again” (p. 22).
Though they may not conceive of it in the same covenantal terms as the ancient Israelites, I know people who find great comfort in the idea that there is a continuing life that we receive from our ancestors and pass on to our descendants. If this is true genetically, it is also true in terms of the common narratives we share. Each individual plays a part in the ongoing family story. I think there is a great deal of solace in this, and often use Genesis 25:6 as a funeral text: “After the death of Abraham God blessed his son Isaac.”
I also believe that each life adds something to the world. Something organic, as it were. As though the life we live and the work we do plants “seeds” which sprout and grow up and live after we’re gone. I also encourage families and loved ones to “keep the spirit of their loved one alive” by taking up the ongoing task of sharing memories, telling stories, and paying honor to them by finding ways to commemorate their life and contributions.
However, some people think that the only “afterlife” involves living on in the hearts and memories of their families and friends and in the “harvest” of the seeds planted by how they lived their lives. For example, Lohfink quotes Gerard Mortier:
Every life continues somewhere,
my father and mother in me,
and I in everything I have brought to be.
That is what resurrection means to me.
Paradises do not interest me.
In the end, Gerhard Lohfink (and I) find this concept meaningful but lacking. It may be true that each human life adds something to this world that is good and beneficial, but it is also true that every accomplishment and achievement we might celebrate can be countered, corrupted, and ultimately destroyed by future generations. Or, in a more banal sense, simply forgotten, dissipating into the ether of time.
There is another problem with “keeping our loved ones alive in our hearts” — i.e. through remembering them. Our memories are ours, they do not necessarily represent the essence of the person himself or herself. Lohfink gives us this somber reminder: “Even our memories of our own life stories are fragile, have many gaps, and are full of self-deceptions. Our grandchildren will still know something about us. But beyond that we inevitably begin to be forgotten” (p. 24).
The chapter ends with an honest word from one of my favorite philosophers.
I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work; I want to achieve immortality through not dying. I don’t want to live on in the hearts of my countrymen; I want to live on in my apartment.
• Woody Allen (quoted, p. 26)