Roger Ebert died last week. Given his long and serious illness, this could not have come as a shock to anyone and it certainly did not come as a surprise to him. He knew it was coming, likely sooner rather than later, and he wrote less than two years ago about his inevitable demise.
I know it is coming, and I do not fear it, because I believe there is nothing on the other side of death to fear. I hope to be spared as much pain as possible on the approach path. I was perfectly content before I was born, and I think of death as the same state. I am grateful for the gifts of intelligence, love, wonder and laughter. You can’t say it wasn’t interesting. My lifetime’s memories are what I have brought home from the trip. I will require them for eternity no more than that little souvenir of the Eiffel Tower I brought home from Paris…
What I expect to happen is that my body will fail, my mind will cease to function and that will be that. My genes will not live on, because I have had no children. I am comforted by Richard Dawkins’ theory of memes. Those are mental units: thoughts, ideas, gestures, notions, songs, beliefs, rhymes, ideals, teachings, sayings, phrases, clichés that move from mind to mind as genes move from body to body. After a lifetime of writing, teaching, broadcasting and telling too many jokes, I will leave behind more memes than many. They will all also eventually die, but so it goes.
But Ebert’s words here strike me as rather powerful. As I said when I gave the eulogy at my mother’s funeral, I have no idea what happens after we die. I’d like to think I’ll be reunited with lost loved ones, but I see no reason at all to believe that. The only immortality we can hope to have, I think, is living on in the thoughts and lives of the people we affected during our lives. And that seems like quite enough, don’t you think?