Roger Ebert on Death

Roger Ebert writes about death so poetically. (With no mention of an afterlife because you don’t get one.)

And now my friend’s wife and the newspaperman have both passed away. Early one morning, unable to sleep, I roamed my memories of them. Of an endless series of dinners, and brunches, and poker games, and jokes, and gossip. On and on, year after year. I remember them. They exist in my mind — in countless minds. But in a century the human race will have forgotten them, and me as well. Nobody will be able to say how we sounded when we spoke. If they tell our old jokes, they won’t know whose they were.

That is what death means. We exist in the minds of other people, in thousands of memory clusters, and one by one those clusters fade and disappear. Some years from now, at a funeral with a slide show, only one person will be able to say who we were. Then no one will know.

That may sound depressing to some, but I don’t see it that way at all. Life is all about the memories you create and take part in. With all the events that had to happen perfectly for us to be alive today, it’d be crazy not to make the most of the time we have available. It’s a call for optimism, a call for us to be happy, to do something meaningful with our lives, whatever that might mean. It’s inspiring, really.

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • Matthew

    That is beautiful. But while I understand your point, I can’t help but see a hint of woe on the disappearance of those memories; the nostalgia that is experienced by an ever-dwindling number of people. I think of the scene in the film Dead Poets Society in which the students are looking at the long past alumni, and they contemplate the fact that these “souls” once lived, and were alive … alive with passions and pursuits … and now they are nameless faces without active hopes or dreams or lives. I understand the “live for the moment” message, but I can’t help but sensing a bit of sadness there.
    I experience the same feelings when I see certain older buildings that have fallen into disrepair … namely homes and schools. When I see these neglected buildings, I see them too as forgotten, abandoned … despite the fact that at one time the home brimmed with the warmth of a fresh meal, or the hallways glowed with the sound of laughter and friendship … and now they lie in ruin, and in quiet despair.
    I certainly try to live for the moment, because I don’t expect an afterlife. And I take some comfort in the fact that while I sense sadness here, I won’t feel anything once I’m gone … I won’t care that I am quickly forgotten, or that my valued items become someone else’s trash.

  • sunburned

    Of course there is a after life.  It’s just after life…your dead.

  • martymankins

    I agree with Roger in this.  For those few people that I’ve known over the years that have died, I have memories and good times and all sorts of things that make me feel glad I had time with them.

  • http://twitter.com/iquestionthis Tomasz Gorecki

    well said, if there was an afterlife, wouldn’t there be some proof. I mean it has been 2000+ years that religion has existed, at least Christianity that is. 

    • http://annainca.blogspot.com/ Anna

      The concept of an afterlife absolutely predates Christianity; plenty of other ancient cultures claimed this or that afterlife. Alas, for those who wish to deny their own mortality, there has never been a shred of evidence for any of them.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Margaret-Whitestone/100001682409207 Margaret Whitestone

    Yes, it may sound depressing to some but it’s realistic.  That’s better than drowning oneself in a myth just to try to feel better.

    • dauntless

      Just like Rick Deckard, finding out the toad he found was electric.  “I’m glad to know. Or rather… I’d prefer to know.”

  • Anon

    I’m paraphrasing from a source I don’t remember, but this is a good example of why religion is narcissistic. Believers can’t stand to think of a world without themselves in it, or stand to think that others could forget them for that matter.

    I think it’s a good thing. My screw ups will be forgotten!

  • One Man Damned

    Sure, there is sadness, but there is more than a little black comedy inherent in the human condition.  A bit of bravado can help in facing our eminent demise.

    To quote Daniel Daly,  “Come on, you sons of bitches! Do you want to live forever?”  

    • Anonymous-Sam

      Yes, actually. Just not here. XD

  • http://dogmabytes.com/ C Peterson

    As a cultural species, we don’t just live on in the (slowly fading) memories of others, but in the memes we contribute. A scientific discovery, a clever invention, a good book… these things may carry a piece of us forward for hundreds or even thousands of years.

    • http://profiles.google.com/statueofmike Michael S

      I agree. Ebert is too distracted by conscious memories. Everyone has a limited attention span, but there is more to us than what is consciously acknowledged.

      You don’t briefly cease to live every time a co-worker forgets your name.

    • unclemike

      I think for the rest of us that may never make a scientific discovery, or create a clever invention, or a good book, his thoughts ring pretty true.

      • http://dogmabytes.com/ C Peterson

        You don’t know what memes you might contribute that will live on long after your death. Don’t underestimate yourself!

        • unclemike

           The point is, I’ll be dead. Anything I’ve had a part in will, eventually, be forgotten and never spoken of or even remembered again.  Whether it’s 10 years, 100 years, or 1,000 years after I kick off, the pithy witticisms of UncleMike won’t hang around long, comparatively.

          So enjoy the hell out of today.  That’s what I took away from it.

          • http://dogmabytes.com/ C Peterson

            Sure, you’ll be dead. Personal memories of you will fade away with the people who knew you- a few decades. Your name itself, and perhaps a few references will persist longer in records. Eventually, even that will be gone.

            But my point was that you will make contributions that last as long as the human race. They probably won’t be associated with you, but they will be real, and they may be very significant. That is no small thing. It doesn’t take away from Ebert’s comments about the way we live on in the memories of others, and it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t live for today. But we will live on in more ways than just the memories of our friends.

            • The Other Weirdo

               My name’s attached to a bunch COBOL programs, so I guess I’ll live on that way since COBOL will probably stick around for a while yet. :)

  • http://religiouscomics.net/ Jeff P

    I like the stage metaphor. Think of the world as a stage. We all get some time on the stage but then we have to get off so others can get on. The show goes on but our personal role has only a finite time limit. That is just the way it is. No sense getting upset about it. Just enjoy the time you have on the stage and wish others good fortune as you depart and others go on.

    And of course there is no afterlife. Life needs a physical substrate to exist in and once you die, the physical substrate that had enabled your existence starts to disintegrate. There is no soul outside of a body. The “soul” or personality has to exist in a body. Once the body dies, the “soul” dies with it.

    • Saneman

      How did you verify your statements, sir?

  • pRinzler

    Yeah, Jeff P.

    Monty Python, in their wisdom,  have said the same thing:

    Life’s a piece of shit
    When you look at it
    Life’s a laugh and death’s a joke, it’s true.
    You’ll see it’s all a show
    Keep ‘em laughing as you go
    Just remember that the last laugh is on you.

    From “Always Look On the Bright Side of Life.”

    • http://religiouscomics.net/ Jeff P

      I love that song!

  • http://profiles.google.com/statueofmike Michael S

    I think it was a good piece of writing. I’m glad to see more people talk about the informational component of our existence. You are no more an intellectual individual than you are a genetic one.

  • Ndonnan

    To belive there is no after life for most people would make everything pointless.Why should i work so hard to provide a house in the suburbs,give lazy teens a better education,an ipod, a wife/husband who dosent appriciate or make me feel good.Why help the poor in Africa,why not live for the moment,do what feels good now,do what it takes to get by now/today. Isnt that what we call third world countrys do,what we call dole bludgers do,maybe their right. Thank goodness i do belive in an after life and have hope for the future.I do belive in the spirit realm,experianced things  to know its true what atheists simply dismiss and deneiy. This is why i help the less fortunet,pursivire whith marraige,kids,people and community,there is an eternity and on going relationships,thank God

    • http://annainca.blogspot.com/ Anna

      That strikes me as a horrifically self-centered viewpoint. Unless you get to be immortal, you’re not going to bother caring about yourself, your children, or any future generations? How selfish.

      • Ndonnan

        I totally agree Anna,i think self centerdness is the hardest thing for anyone to over come in life,im a much better person because i belive im accountable to a higher power,now and when i die.If this was all there is then Darwin would be right,it would be servival of the fittest,thats the conclusion hitler and stalin came to and they would be right,thats how it is in the animal kingdom.Human morals are only relative,there is no right and wrong.You only have one chance at life ,take what you can get,if we really are animals why not.Thank God we are immortal,wether you like it or not,its not a choice

        • http://annainca.blogspot.com/ Anna

          I think you missed my point. I was saying that your viewpoint is self-centered. You think the world revolves around you. Christianity is the ultimate in narcissism. The only thing that matters to you is your supposed immortality. You’re saying this life and other human beings are worthless to you. What does that say about your character, that the only thing stopping you from behaving badly is your fear of punishment in some afterlife? 

          It’s selfish not to care about other people unless you get to be rewarded with immortality. And it’s also greedy. You’re saying that this life isn’t enough for you – you want more and more and more. Like a petulant child, you’re not going to bother caring about anyone or anything else unless you get what you want.

          • Ndonnan

            No i didnt miss your point,the point is if this is all we get then make the most of it,dont waste your time.Neither do i do volenteer work ,acommondate people,serve at church and strive at relationsips because i belive i get immortallity,i do it because my saying is love God love others make a differance! If i didnt recognise and appriciate the grace of God in my life i would ,like most people be much more selfish than i am. Hell even our choice of pet dog is a greyhound,we foster a new dog every month before they get put up for adoption other wise they get put down.[20000 a year in Australia] Why because i care

            • http://annainca.blogspot.com/ Anna

              But you said that without an afterlife, you wouldn’t care. That’s why I said your belief system is self-centered. The only thing that gives meaning to your life is the fact that you believe you’re  immortal. Otherwise, you said you wouldn’t bother doing anything to help others. You’re only doing all these nice things becauseyou have an ulterior motive. According to you, if you believed there was no afterlife, you wouldn’t care about your children, your spouse, or your greyhounds. What does that say about your character?

              • Ndonnan

                No i said if this is all there is ,i would be best just looking after my own interests.Truth is ive always belived in eturnity and acountabilaty to God,so ive always reached out to others,i do belive its better to give than recive,what you put in you get out,what goes around comes around,these are biblical principals.Society works better when people live this way weather your a beliver or not, the alternative is chaos

                • http://annainca.blogspot.com/ Anna

                  We’re at cross purposes. You seem not to be understanding what I’m saying. You keep stating that without an afterlife, you wouldn’t care about anything besides yourself, and my response is that this assertion is what makes your belief system self-centered. I don’t know how to make it any clearer to you. If you didn’t think you were getting an afterlife, you wouldn’t be bothered to do  help others. Again, I see this as indicative of greed, selfishness, and narcissism.

                • Ndonnan

                  welcome to the real world Anna,in western culture it seems to me at least the less spiritual a nation becomes the more selfish it gets.I carnt objectivly say what i would be like if i didnt have a faith, but what i can say is the people in my family who are atheist or agnostic are everything you describe and more.What you dont seem to understand is i choose to be a generous person not to get into heaven but to please God.A wife/husband dosent do something for their spouse so they will love them, they do it because they love them.I know im going to heaven, i dont work my way there,its a free gift,you only have to accept it

                • http://annainca.blogspot.com/ Anna

                  I don’t get how you can accuse non-afterlife believers of selfishness when your own point of view is so wrapped up in pleasing your god so you can get your own precious afterlife. You don’t do anything for its own sake, just so you can get your “free gift” at the end.

                  The rest of your comments make little sense to me. The vast, vast majority of people in the United States believe in an afterlife, so I’m not sure why you believe we’re getting more selfish. 

                  More to the point, there are many countries where very few people believe in an afterlife, and it hasn’t resulted in their societies being overwhelmed by selfishness. Those countries have high rates of charity and volunteerism, too.

                  And, yes, I understand about pleasing your god. You do everything to please your god, because your deity and your immortality are the only things that matter to you. I find that sad. Your beliefs are up to you, but that’s the self-centeredness coming into play once again.

    • Vend Tana

       There absolutely is a spirit realm. We have all experienced it to some degree. Your mistake is in thinking it exists external to your mind. It is a creation of your own perception – which is the only way you can experience anything in this world.

    • Anonymous-Sam

       If there’s no point in living without a paradise afterward, feel free to shove slivers of glass into your eye sockets. What? It doesn’t matter whether it hurts now if there’s nothing that comes afterward, right?

      Clearly you don’t really believe this, since I don’t hear you screaming. The argument that life is meaningless without Heaven is a straw man fallacy disproven merely by finding life meaningful enough to argue about, rather than finding the nearest sharp edge and introducing it to tea and scones with your arteries.

  • JoeriC

     I can’t help it, I feel sad, to not be, at any point in time, be part of this amazing gift, called life. Luckily for all of us, we will be death way longer then we have lived … and just don’t give a sh*t.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Arthur-Bryne/100002441143047 Arthur Bryne

    In the glass half empty versus half full, all the good we are may eventually fade into insignificant background… but so may all of our mistakes and their consequences.

    And there’s even a hope that the latter will fade sooner; or perhaps, once others finish learning from where we got it wrong. (“Never start a land war in Asia” is probably going to outlast the name of Napoleon, now.)

  • Vend Tana

    In a way though, we are still carrying “snapshots” of our ancestors, in our genetic code. When we look at pictures of the ones whose names we have forgotten we can find comfort in knowing we carry a bit of them in us. Even people who aren’t directly related to us were kin to us at some point in the past. We are all one big dysfunctional family. My son’s great-grandkids may not remember my name but they might have the same brown eyes I do.

  • Duhsciple

    Are we sad that we did not exist before we were born? If we are not sad about that, then why be down about post-death nonexistence?

    Of course, as my nickname suggests, I do look forward the a new creation, one that deepens the meaning of this present.

    Of course, as Ernest Becker demonstrates, the “denial” and terror of death is a powerful force in human life

  • semasa

    It seems illogical to be an atheist. If your beliefs are correct, you’ll never know it. If you’re incorrect, you may piss off a very powerful entity.

    • randomfactor

      Ah, Pascal’s Wager. Suffice to say that I don’t hold the same low opinion of the Christian god as Christians do. I do him the courtesy of believing that such an infinitely evil being is a logical contradiction and nonexistent. You know, just on the off chance.

    • http://gamesgirlsgods.blogspot.com/ Feminerd

      Ah, but which one? When multiple very powerful entities are posited, wouldn’t believing in the wrong one piss off the other ones more than just rejecting all of them?


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