Folk Beliefs About Death [UPDATED]

January 19, 2011 at 2:45 am (By Amba)

It’s surprising to me to discover how many people seem to hold, in a low-key, vernacular way, certain beliefs about the dead, or at least speak as if they believe these things to be true:  that when people die they’re reunited with the people they love who died before them; that when you dream about someone who’s died, they are making contact with you.

It’s not that I disbelieve these things.  I’m neither a believer nor a disbeliever (which to me is another kind of believer); I am a rigorous agnostic.  To me, the more we learn about life and the universe, the less we realize we know.  To me, the findings of science about the complexity of the cell and the dimensions of the universe throw both past science and past religion into a cocked hat.  We’re growing up into the realization of our ignorance, of the complete mystery our existence is.  We don’t know what we are, why we’re here, where we come from, or where we go.  Well, anyway, I don’t.

So I’m surprised to hear these childlike, comforting, almost greeting-card-level beliefs from otherwise thoroughly modern people. They’re evidently part of the folk culture, the generic spirituality of our time.  Not that I dismiss them.  I would love them to be true.  I hope they are.  I sometimes go along and talk as if they are.  I just can’t fool myself that I know for a fact they are.  I don’t know where J went.  I’ve felt his presence once since he died, about three weeks after.  I know that he had a lot of busy conversation with ghosts the last weeks of his life.  I have no idea whether this was the thinning of the veil or just the hallucinations of dementia.  I’m very curious about what he was experiencing, but there’s no way to find out except to die myself.  (And even then, maybe every death is as unique as the inward experience of being oneself.  One of J’s favorite quotes was from Céline:  “Experience is a muffled lantern that sheds light only upon the bearer.”)  As he was dying, I sang out to him the names of the people and cats who would be waiting for him on the other side — if there is another side.  It’s always “if” with me.  I don’t believe or disbelieve, I entertain.  I’m the Martha Stewart of agnosticism.

From a road notebook:

I was having such a sad dream when Ruth Anne woke me this morning.  I don’t remember the early part, but I was in a dim house with some people.  I was alone, while the others were talking in the kitchen.  I had to go out — for food? or cash? or to mail a letter? As I was getting ready to go out, I looked out the glass corner door and saw J’s wheelchair, and some winter-coat-bundled guy helping him into it.  Apparently I’d been unable to take care of him any longer and had abandoned his care to strangers.  I hesitated for a moment, then decided the happiness of seeing me would outweigh the sadness, and darted out the door.  J was settling himself uncomfortably but stoically in the back seat of what looked like a horse-drawn carriage (but no horse), squeezed in among 3 other old people, mostly befuddled old ladies.  I saw his face twist as he tried to fit his shoulders in.  I called his nickname, and he smiled at me, sweetly and without blame.  His beard and eyebrows had been allowed to grow out to the point where his face was covered with an inch or two of soft brown fur — they weren’t even bothering to shave him!  After another moment’s hesitation I called out, “Come over tomorrow and I’ll give you a shave!” Then Ruth Anne woke me.

Does this dream reflect my state of soul, or his, or an interface between them?  Ruth Anne’s free association was that J is in Purgatory.  (“Evangelicals think there’s a vacuum tube to heaven.”)  Of course, that’s not folk belief, it’s Catholic dogma (using that word in the technical, not the pejorative, sense).  But its sense of an in-between place or state or spell of time was echoed by my brother:

Maybe the same thing, not stated Biblically: he’s on his way, in the company of ancestors and the care of impersonal angels, to a place where personal care of the physical self is starting to be beside the point.

Chris said, “Well, at least he’s coming ’round.”

Then there’s my side of it.  Someone, maybe also Ruth Anne, said that I feel guilty for feeling relieved of the burden of his care.  But I don‘t feel relieved.  I miss taking care of him, even though I don’t know how I could squeeze myself back inside that life (as much as I don’t belong out here in this one, either) if I had the power to turn the clock back.  That is what the dream says to me most clearly:  I feel as if I’ve abandoned him, not to strangers, but to death (what could be stranger?); and I long to turn the clock back — the Victorian motif is resonant of a book I love in which that becomes possible, Time and Again. His grown-out eyebrows and beard remind me of the way hair and fingernails keep growing in the grave — even though J is not in a grave — a perfect representation of the space between life and death.  Maybe the departure of death is not as abrupt as it looks.  I don’t know.

The relief was in waking up and realizing that, in fact, I saw it through, as I had pledged to.  I did not become unable to cope and abandon him to strangers — except for those four respite days in the hospice facility, which may (or may not) have triggered his shingles.  I steel myself against the pang of regret, against thinking if only I could have kept him at home he might still be here, by acknowledging that nothing much good awaited him here.  It was better to go while he was still himself, and aware, and able to savor things, than to outlive himself and lie there in a coma for a year (as my grandfather, with a related dementia, did).

I don’t know.

Here’s what I do know:  There is love.  There is also hurt and accident and evil (destruction is one thing, reveling in destruction is a whole other thing).  Love is just that much stronger.  It wins by a nose, world without end.  And that’s about it.

 

UPDATE: “Dr. Platypus” (Darrell Pursiful) linked to this post, and as I result I discover that one of the things he has been writing about is liminality.  That is highly pertinent.

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42 Comments

  1. Folk Beliefs about Death | Dr. Platypus said,

    [...] ancient Hebrew folk beliefs and practices. I was therefore interested to find this post on “Folk Beliefs about Death” in my feed reader this morning. I link to it neither to endorse nor to condemn, but simply [...]

  2. chickelit said,

    Well that was beautifully put-all of it.

    Love is just that much stronger. It wins by a nose, world without end. And that’s about it.

    Is there a generic name for that phenomenon? The small difference between two very large opposites? I’ve encountered it in science before when analyzing multiple opposing factors and searching for the cause of an overall result. It’s akin to a very narrowly decided election when the signal approaches the noise.

  3. wj said,

    I think that, even for those who disbelieve, it is an attempt to ease the pain of someone else; someone who has lost someone that they were close to. To give them hope that the one that they loved is not gone forever. As you noted, you have sometimes said the same kinds of things yourself.

    How many of those making those statements, of reunion and the continued existence of those who have died, actually believe it themselves, I don’t know. But I do know that they were trying to reach out and comfort someone else, someone who was hurting. And that, I think, says something very good about them — whatever they personally believe on this or any other subject.

  4. amba (Annie Gottlieb) said,

    chicken, I believe the existence of the universe is thought to be ruled by factors like that. A slight asymmetry between the quantities of two kinds of subatomic particles, or between matter and antimatter, is why there is something and not nothing. I know I read something like that when I was fact-checking a cosmology article.

  5. mockturtle said,

    “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
    Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” Hamlet, Act I, Scene 5.

  6. Ron said,

    As I get older I find myself less likely to write the phrase ‘I don’t know’. Not knowing…I kind of take that as a given, so I’m less inclined to write about it. I don’t write ‘I breathe air’ all that often for much the same reason…[cocks head] Maybe it’s my old Roman instincts burbling up? Only write/think about the known? Hell…I don’t know!

  7. Darrell Pursiful said,

    amba, thanks for sharing your story in such a brave yet vulnerable way.

    Readers may be interested to know I’ve just posted something about the liminal experiences of death and bereavement. It’s not terribly “pastoral,” but it may pique someone’s intellectual curiosity.

    http://pursiful.com/2011/01/wise-women-4-mourners/

  8. realpc said,

    “There is love. There is also hurt and accident and evil (destruction is one thing, reveling in destruction is a whole other thing).”

    I have to object to that, first of all. Reveling in destruction is, or can, be perfectly normal and natural. The most obvious example is a cat torturing a mouse. The cat is behaving according to its nature, and it is not evil. Maybe you think that’s ok for a subhuman animal, but humans should be above that. No, I do not think humans are above other animals in morality. We are just more intellectually conscious of morality, and therefore more hypocritical.

    But aside from cats, there are plenty of human examples. Loving to play violent video games, for one thing. Ok, it isn’t real destruction, but it shows that humans love to destroy as much as cats do. And on the real battlefield, you will see a joy in fighting, even if it is mostly hidden by agony and grief. There is definitely pride, of course, but there is also joy.

    Or look at any young child smashing the tower another child carefully built out of blocks. Is he evil, or just experiencing one of the normal pleasures of life? Knocking things down.

    Does that mean I don’t think the Arizona shooter is evil, for example? I don’t know, I think maybe people like that are missing something that tells us when to control our destructive desires. Or else maybe his insanity was telling him his victims were evil and he had to kill them to save the world.

    I don’t even think Hitler was evil. He just had some crazy ideas that made him perceive evil in his innocent victims.

    I do think absolute evil exists, on some other plane, but no individual person or animal is evil.

  9. realpc said,

    It’s true that we don’t know what really happens after death. but it is not true that we know absolutely nothing. Lots of people have communicated with ghosts, and most cultures have believed in ghosts and some kind of afterlife. I think at least some of that belief must result from experience. Most cultures have believed there are divine and sacred aspects to the world, or worlds. I don’t think this is all based in delusion and hallucination.

  10. karen said,

    Do you think absolute love exists, real?

  11. realpc said,

    “Do you think absolute love exists, real?”

    Karen,

    We are trying to talk about things that are beyond words and beyond our ability to comprehend. My opinion is that absolute loves exists, on some higher plane, but it’s just an opinion. We usually think of love coming down to us from some kind of higher levels, and we might call the source of that love God. But it’s all just words. I think most of us do experience it, in our individual ways, but we can’t really explain it.

    And as i said before I don’t think any individual person can be called evil. I also don’t think any individual person can be called good. All of us do things that can be called good or bad, from some perspective. Any absolute good or evil has to be on some higher plane.

  12. amba12 said,

    And on the real battlefield, you will see a joy in fighting, even if it is mostly hidden by agony and grief. There is definitely pride, of course, but there is also joy.

    I would ask some of those silent, traumatized veterans who came back even from “good” wars and never talked about it. How do you know there’s joy in battle? Have you ever been in battle?

    I can believe there was for General Patton, who was mostly planning the strategy and dreaming of the ancient Romans. And maybe there was for American Indians for whom fighting involved skill and excitement and equal risk. Martial arts and boxing have some of that usually survivable life-or-death joy in them. With modern weapons? Not so much.

    Not that I’m a peacenik — those people who stand around with signs saying “Give peace a chance,” as if “peace” were some sort of policy choice, strike me as idiots. Of course there is conflict in life, and there always will be. But there IS such a thing as evil. Stalin starving 30 million Ukrainians? Evil. A guy who captures a teen-age girl in a deserted parking lot, rapes and kills her? Evil. Humans’ potential for taking pleasure in causing pain and destruction goes very far beyond a cat’s.

  13. michael reynolds said,

    Mengele used to sit at the gate of Auschwitz and separate children from their mothers, sometimes sending the children to be murdered immediately while the broken-hearted mother was used as a lab rat, for experiments that included injecting cement into her uterus.

    That’s not a mistaken point of view, RealPC, that’s evil.

  14. realpc said,

    “That’s not a mistaken point of view, RealPC, that’s evil.”

    I NEVER said evil doesn’t exist. In fact, I said it does.

  15. realpc said,

    “With modern weapons? Not so much.”

    That is true, as weapon technology advanced, war became more deadly and less fun. But I definitely think the joy has to be there somewhere. Otherwise, competitive sports and violent video games would not exist.

    How do I know this? I am expressing opinions, based on all the stuff I used to read about war. When I was young I thought war was just stupid, and now I think it is natural and inevitable, in all of nature.

  16. realpc said,

    I NEVER said humans can’t be sadistic and cruel. OF COURSE they can, and often are. We all are at times. Hey, I am the person who always reminds everyone about the Shadow!!

    I am also the person who is inevitably misunderstood, because I don’t say whatever everyone is saying.

    Sadism is probably, usually, just an exaggeration of the normal natural instinct to hate your enemies, or to destroy your prey.

  17. realpc said,

    “Mengele used to sit at the gate of Auschwitz and separate children from their mothers, sometimes sending the children to be murdered immediately while the broken-hearted mother was used as a lab rat, for experiments that included injecting cement into her uterus.”

    Oh yes, you can always recite long lists of atrocities committed by your enemies. It’s a good way to get people riled up, and it implies that YOU are GOOD, unlike the BAD guys you are describing. This is a real easy rut to fall into.

    Someone else might say the same kind of things about a scientists experimenting on rats. And there are animal rights activists who get all crazed about it.

    Yes Mengele was a sadist, but in the context of believing certain groups were subhuman and evil.

  18. realpc said,

    And by the way, even those of us who are “good” and never cause any physical harm (and that includes most of us, since most of us are not in the military and most of us don’t hunt for our food), still commit acts of cruelty and sadism all the time. It’s verbal and social, rather than physical. We all hate, consciously and subconsciously, we all deceive, we all injure with signals that are subtle and lightning fast.

    So I wish you could stop feeling smug.

  19. amba12 said,

    What sometimes happens to that “normal, natural instinct” in the echo chamber of the human brain is what’s truly chilling. It is some orders of magnitude beyond the merely natural. People have the potential to empathize (how unique to us this is we don’t know), to recognize the ability to feel and suffer in other beings. The Biblical story of eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, in this case, gets a lot closer to the choice we have than anything science has yet come up with.

  20. amba12 said,

    Yes Mengele was a sadist, but in the context of believing certain groups were subhuman and evil.

    Yeah, like the one you belong to, by birth at least, real. Where’s your natural instinct to hate your enemies?

  21. realpc said,

    Yes, we can empathize and feel compassion, but I think animals can also, at least some species. But a cat will not become a vegetarian out of compassion for mice. It is to smart for that. Our compassion can become pathological, as can our instinct for cruelty. Humans are good at turning natural instincts into something pathological.

    “The Biblical story of eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, in this case, gets a lot closer to the choice we have than anything science has yet come up with.”

    I don’t think we really have knowledge of good and evil, not more than other animals. We think we know how to make the world better, but everything we do to make one thing better makes other things worse.

    We call ourselves “homo sapiens” but we really are “homo considers itself sapiens.”

  22. realpc said,

    “Yeah, like the one you belong to, by birth at least, real. Where’s your natural instinct to hate your enemies?”

    Amba, I HATE anti-semitism, and it always terrified me. I used to be afraid to let anyone know I am Jewish. And I absolutely consider myself Jewish, even though I don’t take the bible literally (who does, anyway?)

    I HATE Nazis and neo-Nazis. There is nothing wrong with my hate instinct. But I was taking an intellectual objective perspective on it.

  23. amba12 said,

    Of course people cause pain with verbal and social weapons, maybe especially (and unthinkingly) to children, who end up marked for life to varying degrees. I’m not claiming anybody is all good, real, but there are, shall we say, degrees? And there are choices. I do believe most people have a choice whether to let themselves act mechanically (from past causes, what the Buddhists call karma, which includes both evolutionary history and personal history). At some point that choice may become irrevocable.

    I just wonder why you react as if Michael or I were your enemies, but not Mengele. He’s just one of us, no worse than you or me.

  24. amba12 said,

    everything we do to make one thing better makes other things worse.

    Well, that’s certainly true.

  25. realpc said,

    “I just wonder why you react as if Michael or I were your enemies, but not Mengele. He’s just one of us, no worse than you or me.”

    Amba, I NEVER meant to act as if you are my enemy! I just try to provide a different angle on things. I hear people say the same things all the time, and they just see it from one angle and never look for counter-examples. I can’t help seeing counter-examples. I know it must be annoying, but I NEVER meant it to be antagonistic.

    I am not having an argument with Mengele. He is dead thank God. No, I do NOT think he is just one of us and not any worse. You have mis-read what I meant. It is hard to explain things that are counter to what everyone always says.

  26. realpc said,

    “I’m not claiming anybody is all good, real, but there are, shall we say, degrees?”

    Well yes, of course, and that is what I am here to promote and encourage. I think Jung was right, that denying the Shadow makes it stronger. I am always trying to ask people to look at the evil inside them, instead of always seeing it in others.

    BUT, it isn’t that easy! When I try to act loving and compassionate, sometimes I go too far and people walk all over me. Too much compassion is a problem for many women, myself included.

    How to find the right balance is the challenge. Jesus taught self-denial, exactly what many of us do NOT need to learn. We need to balance selfishness and selflessness, and that depends on GRACE.

  27. amba12 said,

    I am always trying to ask people to look at the evil inside them, instead of always seeing it in others.

    You’ve got company.

    http://scripturetext.com/matthew/7-3.htm

  28. realpc said,

    Yes, Jesus did say that, and I agree with that. I disagree with his advice that says we should all be completely selfless. That only works if you expect to get your reward in heaven, not in this life.

    Amba, you have been very selfless for several years. It was required by the situation. But eventually I think you should learn to be a little selfish and you will be amazed at how wonderful it can be.

  29. amba12 said,

    Real, you might enjoy reading James Hillman, a post-Jungian. He restored the ancient distinction between spirit and soul, and said that we in American culture are far too uniformly “spiritual” — we’re always striving for the heights and denying the depths; we neglect and abuse the soul, which needs beauty and problems. We try to fix everything, and we make everything ugly.

  30. realpc said,

    “we’re always striving for the heights and denying the depths; we neglect and abuse the soul, which needs beauty and problems. We try to fix everything, and we make everything ugly.”

    Yes I think I would agree with him. Of course, I don’t know if it’s possible for us to stop trying to fix everything.

  31. realpc said,

    In the Black Swan movie, Nina accepted her instinct to kill her rival, and had a vivid fantasy of doing it. This natural instinct gave her the energy and inspiration for a great performance.

    Christianity has programmed us to deny these murderous instincts at all cost. Of course we aren’t supposed to act on them! But we aren’t supposed to deny them either.

    So many Americans are sick, and maybe this is one reason. And if they aren’t sick, they are often anesthetized.

  32. realpc said,

    BTW I am not against all aspects of Christianity, just the Shadow-denying, self-denying aspects.

  33. amba12 said,

    The admonition to be selfless is quintessentially spiritual. Buddhism is much the same way. The particulars of your life and your emotions and dreams are to be dispassionately observed, not identified with. They are passing ephemera, illusions.

    The soul perspective gets down into it all. And it tends to sabotage spiritual aspirations and bring them down to earth — which is why new year’s resolutions never come to much. On the other hand, the light of insight that penetrates the jungly undergrowth and reveals its pattern and beauty — that’s spiritual. Neither one alone will do, saith Hillman — he’s just trying to redress the imbalance.

  34. amba12 said,

    By the way, when Jesus said thinking an adulterous thought is the same as committing adultery — no way!! Yes, the thought can be the seed of the action. But the thought can also be the seed of a fantasy that satisfies the soul’s need without being taken literally.

  35. realpc said,

    “But the thought can also be the seed of a fantasy that satisfies the soul’s need without being taken literally.”

    That’s what happened in The Black Swan. It stated that very beautifully and honestly, I thought. Very un-Christian.

  36. realpc said,

    “The admonition to be selfless is quintessentially spiritual. Buddhism is much the same way. ”

    Yes, I think Buddhism and Christianity are very similar.

  37. realpc said,

    “The soul perspective gets down into it all. And it tends to sabotage spiritual aspirations and bring them down to earth — which is why new year’s resolutions never come to much. On the other hand, the light of insight that penetrates the jungly undergrowth and reveals its pattern and beauty — that’s spiritual. Neither one alone will do,”

    Well that makes sense to me.

  38. amba12 said,

    I guess I’m going to have to see The Black Swan, despite my dislike for The Wrestler. (I do like Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Boxer.”)

  39. realpc said,

    I would like to know what you think of it. I loved it so much, but maybe I was just in the right mood to see that kind of movie that day? But more likely, it’s because I definitely resonate with the theme. I see so much denial and hypocrisy these days. Maybe it was always there and I didn’t notice? Or maybe it really is getting worse.

  40. karen said,

    Ace of Spades compares ~The Black Swan~ w/-(gulp)- ~Blades of Glory~. He broke it all down and had similar quotes and pictures, t’boot. LMAO.

    I saw ~Blades of Glory~.
    Please don’t hold that bit of info against me.

  41. Callimachus said,

    Your line brought to mind, “There is a land of the living and a land of the dead and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning.”

    [Last sentence of "the Bridge of San Luis Rey," though it also could be from "The Eighth Day," which I would wish everyone I love had had time to read, but I seldom have time to read anything myself anymore, or even "Our Town."]

    Wilder looked at the modern universe, the big, post-Hubble Theory universe with its inhuman scale, and the time that erases everything, and still found human life triumphant, even it its pettiness.

  42. CGHill said,

    As a fan of Time and Again, I grasp this perhaps a little better than I ought to.

    (About five years ago, I managed a blog post that referenced the book. Feel free to disagree with any conclusions I might appear to have made.)

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