A few years ago, a member of my congregation with a background in science asked me why, in his words, “so many people insist that there’s some kind of life after death?” I don’t think he was prepared for my response, which was to say that it’s because there is.
I believe that that death is not an end, but a change in the way we are in this world.
I believe that life and death are, in the words of Rabbi Rami M. Shapiro, a “twisted vine sharing one root.”
I believe that though what we call “life” may end at death, existence does not.
Surely, our molecules do not die—whether they are burned and scattered, or buried in the ground, the molecules of our being become part of the Earth. They are recycled in the clouds and the rain, falling into streams that sing as they rush towards the sea. They are reclaimed by the bacteria of the soil, reused by the tree that grows in that soil, and then consumed and changed by the flame that feeds on the wood from that tree.
Any student of advanced chemistry can tell you that matter is neither created nor destroyed. Again and again, our molecules will cycle through all of life, for all of eternity. They will change and be changed, they might be converted to energy or infused with more through complex pathways. But our substance exists long after our life has ended.
Surely, our actions do not die—they are remembered in the thoughts and deeds of our loved ones, they are used by people seeking to learn, they serve as inspiration or lessons, memories or building blocks for something new. Every interaction we have ever had with another being changed the pattern of neurons in that person’s brain. We have made imprints—tangible, concrete imprints—in the lives of many, and those imprints spread out like ripples. Our deeds live on in the lives of others. Our presence in a particular place at a particular time creates a different future for all those who would follow us.
So, even if the conscience dies, if there is nothing of a soul to carry on after we are gone, can it really be said that the dead are really dead if there is someone to remember and celebrate them? If there is someone, somewhere that carries their genes or something, somewhere that is using their matter? If there is someone, somewhere, whose life is different for having encountered them?
Can it really be said that the dead are no longer with us if there is someone among us who reads what they wrote, or cooks from their recipes?
Someone who is warmed by the quilts they stitched by candlelight or who treasures the picture of an ancestor they never met?
Someone who has been inspired by their life, someone who has made better by their work, or someone who has learned from their mistakes?
This week, I had the honor and privilege of conducting a funeral service for the father of a member of the congregation I serve. Funerals and memorials are among the very hardest thing I do as a minister—and yet they are also among the most meaningful.
Part of how I face this task is by making visible all of the ways in which the departed loved one we are celebrating lives on. It means we are not so much saying goodbye, as learning to live together in a new and different way.