Friday, February 6, 2015

After-Life Musings (What Comes Next?)

Dear George,
The worst moment of childhood has to be when one first learns about death.  Parents try to protect their kids, but it’s nearly impossible.  The family goldfish dies, or sometimes a next door neighbor.  And it’s not just realizing that we ourselves will inevitably die.  That’s bad enough, but to discover that one’s parents are going to die is ten times worse.  How can anyone survive without parents?  Even though I’ve been motherless and fatherless for decades, I still get depressed about that idea.

My paternal grandmother Olga and my maternal grandfather Guy passed away when I was five.  As far as I can recall, nobody told me at the time.  My first experience of actually seeing a dead body was a few years later when the Ogden Avenue crossing guard at Washington Grade School had a heart attack and died.  The funeral home was a half block away, and several of us fourth-graders stopped in a couple of times to look at his corpse.  We stayed there quite a long while, hoping to detect the slightest movement -- a twitch of an eyelid or the slightest hint of a breath -- but there was nothing.  It was eery, almost supernatural.  One of my classmates claimed he had gone to Heaven, but I had my doubts.      

Our family only went to church a couple of times a year, so I didn’t get much exposure to religious beliefs about the afterlife.  Most of what I learned I got from my friends, and they weren’t that knowledgeable.  After we moved to the country, I was exposed to death on a daily basis.  Dead turtles and skunks lying on the road.  Sometimes a dead chipmunk in the yard or a fish floating in the river.  One time I found a dead five-foot pine snake outside our dining room window.  Steven and I shot a couple of porcupines with the family .22.  And we must have killed a million mosquitoes.  All these corpses struck me as dead as doornails, and I didn’t think there was any possibility that they were living on in some other realm.  If that were true for bugs and animals, I decided, the same thing holds for human beings.

The only time I came close to believing in ghosts was when I was a teenager.  We lived a mile outside of town on Riverside Boulevard, and the local cemetery was halfway between our house and the city limits.  I’d ride my bike into town after supper, then return home in the dark around 9:30 or 10.  Words don’t even exist to describe how scary it is to ride on your bike past the cemetery in the dark.  I’d watch the gravestones out of the corner of my eye, terrified that I was going to see a ghoul or a ghost at any moment.  I pedaled as fast as I could, perhaps thirty miles an hour, and didn’t slow down till I reached our driveway.

My father was very pragmatic, and I don’t think he ever entertained the notion of an afterlife.  When he reached his late seventies though, he got more interested in religious ideas.  I can see how that happens.  It’s easy to dismiss life after death when it’s a distant abstraction, but, as possibilities become more imminent, the idea gains in appeal and plausibility. 
If people do go to Heaven after they die, no one knows for sure what that’s like.  What I learned in my grade school years is that it’s up in the clouds, and St. Peter admits you through the Pearly Gates.  Nowadays I imagine Heaven to be similar to retirement.  You have lots of free time, no onerous duties, and you can do whatever you like.  Maybe you can smoke two packs of cigarettes a day, drink a lot of bourbon (but never have a hangover), and be fawned over by movie starlets who think you are the cat’s meow.  On the other hand, they might have rules against these things.   I hope it isn’t too dull.  Also I’m worried about being someplace for all eternity.  I’d like to play a lot of  one-on-one basketball in Heaven, but how many eons can you do that without losing interest?  Of course, you might run into people like Marco Polo or Adlai Stevenson or Florence Nightingale.  But I’d probably be too uncomfortable to strike up a conversation. 

It’s also true that, even if there is an afterlife, there’s no guarantee that you’ll wind up in Heaven.  There have been times in my life, especially around age twelve, when I was on a fast track in the opposite direction.  I wouldn’t say I’ve been exactly evil, but it’s hard to think of any impressive virtuous things I’ve done either.  If I added up all the behaviors in my life and plotted them on a scale from -10 (thoroughly evil) to +10 (saintly), I think I’d come out about a -1.5.  If zero is the cutoff point, I better start accumulating some morally admirable actions in a hurry.  

Our family is of Swedish ancestry, so I draw from my Viking heritage as much as I can when I think about life and death issues.  The Vikings believed that there were multiple destinations after death, and where you go depends on how you lived your life.*  The number one option was Valhalla, the majestic hall presided over by Odin.  Only warriors who died in battle went there.  Valhalla had 540 doors, rafters made of spears, and a roof made of shields.  The warriors in Valhalla fought all day long and feasted all night.  In addition to Valhalla, the Norse Goddess Freyja chose half of the fallen warriors to join her in a great field named Folkvangr.  Like Odin, Freyja led her dead warriors in battle, and women could go to Folkvangr if they died noble deaths.  Other Vikings who led exemplary lives but failed to die in battle went to Helgafjell, a warm, cozy place where people would sit around and drink beer and talk.  The worst after-life outcome for Vikings was reserved for those who had died dishonorable deaths.  They went to Helheim, a cold dark place ruled by the monster Goddess Hel whose skin was half-blue.  Helheim is encircled by the impassable river Gjoll, and its entrance is guarded by a hideous dog named Garm.  Dishonorable deaths for Vikings included dying in bed from old age rather than in battle.  Since I’ll probably die dishonorably in bed or in the shower, I may well be headed for Helheim.

Because I grew up on the riverbank in the Land of Wild Rice, I also have looked into the afterlife beliefs of the Menominee tribe.  These are surprisingly compatible with Viking thought.  In particular, the Menominees held that there is a huge dog that guards the land of the departed.  To approach the dog, one had to cross over a dangerous river on a slippery log.  Evildoers and those who had mistreated dogs in the past fell in and were swept away by the rushing stream.  If one were able to pass the dog, though, they would join the spirits who had preceded them and would enjoy nightly feasts with plenty to eat for the rest of eternity.**

At this point in my spiritual quest, I'm mainly confused.  According to a Pew Forum survey, 74% of Americans believe in life after death, and 50% are absolutely certain about the matter.***  The groups with strongest beliefs in the afterlife are Mormons and evangelical Protestants, regular churchgoers, Republicans, Southerners, and people with a high school education or less.****   I’m not a member of any of these groups.   Atheists (18%) and agnostics (35%) don’t usually believe in the afterlife.****  Swedes believe less in the afterlife than any other developed nation except the French.******  Among those who are believers, women think they are likely to go to Heaven more than do men.*****  I agree with that as a general rule.  My personal next step is to dig up more facts about Valhalla and Helheim.  If need be, maybe I still have time to gain some points and reduce the odds of eternal damnation.

*, "Viking Funerals Burials and the Afterlife"
**, "Dogs in the Afterlife";
***, “Chap. 1.  Religious beliefs and practices”
****, "Eternal Destinations: Americans Believe in Heaven, Hell" 
*****, “Global Poll: Most Believe in God, Afterlife”
******, “Thoughts on the Afterlife Among Adults 50+”

G-mail Comments
-Linda C (2-6):  I need to look into where the Irish go.  The idea of floating around forever just bores me to tears.

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