In a recent New Yorker article, Stephen Greenblatt, the noted Shakespeare scholar, includes in an interesting essay on the ancient philosopher Lucretius a revealing story about his mother. She was obsessed with a fear of death.
Not, her son writes, a dread of what might lie beyond the grave but of the act of dying itself, the end of her existence. She brooded on this, especially when any family member would leave the house; and her worries about her heart and her health, along with her intense anxiety, got passed on, as such things do, to her children.
The irony is that Greenblatt's mother lived to be almost 90. Yet what she suffered! Her son takes comfort in the words of Lucretius, from his 2000-year-old poem, "On the Nature of Things," an idea found in other literature: 'Death is nothing to us.' When we are gone from this earth, we won't feel because we won't be.
For the person like me who wants to believe in some idea of the soul, or of some immaterial me, living on, Lucretius is of limited comfort. Still, his is an important voice in the vast literature of mortality. What poet has not reflected on the cruelty or inevitability of death? On the need to value and be grateful for the years we are given rather than live in dread of the big sleep that awaits us?
I have come to see my death as a long, peaceful sleep, the end of the "slings and arrows" that age has brought: the slowing down of the body, the medications and doctors' visits, the pains and aches. I could not imagine going on forever with this body and will be relieved to give it up when the time comes.
And if the body, with its brain, is gone, how can consciousness survive? If I cease to be my conscious self, in what sense can I say I survive in an afterlife? What part of my "true self" continues? Any answer we give is a speculation about the ultimate mystery.
If we become one with God, does our individual essence cease to be? Not according to orthodox Christian belief. One contemporary theologian, John S. Dunne of Notre Dame, even speculates in his book The Circle Dance of Time about an eternal consciousness.
He wonders if our union with God after death may be conscious rather than a perception of God as an object. Distinguishing between consciousness and perception, he suggests, following Nicholas of Cusa, a mystical theologian, that there is a oneness with God that is "nonetheless conscious." And if we can say there is oneness with God after death, "we can also say there is consciousness after death." (emphasis added)
I have never heard anyone else suggest quite such a possibility. No one knows what such consciousness would consist of: whether we remain aware of ourselves, of others, of life on earth, etc. I am sure that every poetic rendering of heaven, including Dante's, is totally inadequate in expressing what being in the presence of Ultimate Reality would be. Such an experience is beyond words, beyond knowing.
In my youth, I lived with a fear of death, not as acute as Mrs. Greenblatt's; but I could see that the fear of the unknown end, which could come at any moment, was at the root of my other anxieties. Now, as one of the benefits of being a senior, I have found greater peace with this reality. I see myself at the moment of death entering a realm of pure light and peace, not knowing what to expect except that it will be good. As John of the Cross wrote, "I don't know what lies beyond for me; I only know that a great love awaits me."
His is a voice of faith. For all those who, understandably, lack a faith in eternal life, death does not mean a new beginning, but it is not something to be dreaded. It might just be a long, long welcome sleep. And maybe they will wake up surprised to "be" in a wholly new realm.