I'm gonna write an angry post. I haven't slept well this week and can't get my thoughts together well enough to write something I'm not immediately invested in, so I'm gonna write this instead. If anyone is offended by it (and quite a few people ought to be) I can't apologize in all honesty. Five months ago I might have been able to, but not right now.
A few weeks ago I went to my great-grandmother's grave alone for the first time. I'd been there before with my family, but this was the first time I spent any great length of time there. It was a bizarrely warm March day, with a bright sun and green grass, rather than the usual Minnesota Spring blizzard. I sat by my grandma's grave for an hour that day. When I first got there, I was just looking around, making sure it was tidy. I thought about the prosaic aspects of being at a graveyard, of my bike ride from Minneapolis to Falcon Heights, of the previous times I'd been. Then I stopped avoiding my real purpose in being there, and I started trying to articulate my thoughts and feelings, for the first time, four months after she had passed away.
Up to that point, from the day she died December 4th, I hadn't cried. In fact, I hadn't really cried outside of watching movies in about a decade. And I hadn't cried at her funeral, or at my subsequent visits. And I didn't cry right then. But I sat down on the grass and started talking. I started saying mundane things about missing her, and finally coming to see her, and how strange it felt for her not to be around. And then the same part of my brain responsible for writing this blog kicked in, and I started drawing straight lines. Straight lines are what I do. I don't curve around inconvenient ideas (in as much as I can help it — we all have our biases). I try to think straight through all the relevant information I have in my head.
And a line of thought began to develop. My grandma was dead. Her body lay six feet beneath me in a coffin in the ground. This was a physical reality. Everything that had ever been her was in a box beneath the earth. I pictured her brain, as it was then, several months after her death. It certainly was not a pleasant image, but that was what everything referred to as "her" was now. All we are is a subset of the pattern of neuron firings in our heads. And that pattern had come to an end.
That pattern hadn't gone anywhere. It hadn't transcended matter. It wasn't part of a soul, or spirit, or chain of reincarnation. Everything that had been my great-grandma, that had experienced love and life and war and migration, all of that was now a pool of gray mush inside a very slowly crumbling skull. It had been sustained as part of a self-perpetuating chemical process for nearly a century, which had quickly degenerated and ceased to be. Now, for some people, that is an ugly and horrible thought, that that is all we are. But to me, it's heartbreakingly beautiful: this pile of gray mush pushing electrons around via sodium and potassium exchange wrote the Bible, built St. Peter's, painted the Sistine Chapel, and composed the Ave Maria. That is a miracle.
And then my mind took the next step forward: all of that ability and potential and memory and personality was gone for my grandma. It had gone out like a candle, with barely even a wisp of smoke to show for it. It was gone. She was gone. She was gone, and she was nowhere, and she never would or could come back. There's a physical law that says as much. The laws of physics literally dictated that my great-grandma had ceased to exist for eternity. Except a huge host of high deluded people thought that she wasn't.
Religious people believe in the eternal soul. They hold it that there is some essential, everlasting part of us that continues to exist before life and beyond death. They believe that we are never really gone, and some of them even believe that we will join our loved ones in eternal paradise after death (or judgement, or whatever fairy tale they wish). But they're wrong. And they know they're wrong. How do I know that they know they're wrong? Because they grieve.
If I had the slightest shred of belief that my great-grandma was not well and truly gone for all eternity, I would not have shed a single tear that day. But as I came upon the above line of reasoning, I started crying. Sobbing. Huge, painful dry heaves. I sat on the grass for forty-five minutes straight and cried into my hands. I cried because I knew my grandma was gone. I knew she was gone. I knew it right down to my bones. I knew it the way a baby zebra knows its mother is gone after finally finding her lion-eaten corpse. It was beyond thought, beyond culture or memory or ideology. It was chemical.
And in my grief came also anger. Outrage, in fact. Outrage at the fact that religious people would dare to grieve at a funeral. That they would dare to wail and moan about the supposed "loss" of a loved one. The hypocrisy of it galled me. Had I any hair, I would have been tempted to tear at it. To claim that there is an afterlife where your relatives wait for you before an eternity of bliss, and then to bemoan their passing struck me as obscene. And on clear-headed reflection, I can do nothing but stand by that line of thought.
If a religious person thinks that a deceased person is merely in another place, where they themselves will eventually go, then grief is not simply unnecessary, but nonsensical. We do not grieve when our loved ones move away. We do not grieve when the brother we're angry at leaves town and we know we likely won't speak to him again. We do not grieve when we leave a job, knowing we'll never again see our coworkers. We might be sad, or disappointed, or upset, but we do not grieve for separation. We grieve for death. Because we know right down to our DNA what death is, and all the religious platitudes in all the holy books read by all the priests and sages can't stop us knowing it. And I think that claiming that "it's God's plan" and "she's in a better place" is the absolute worst of sanctimonious, hypocritical delusion.
If you want to claim that you are religious, and believe in a God, or a Soul, or an afterlife, then you do not get to fucking grieve. You get to be sad and annoyed and impatient, because you won't get to see your loved ones for a little while. But what is the remainder of your life compared to eternity? Nothing. Literally, mathematically nothing. So just don't. However, if you accept your grief for what you know it to be, give up your childish insistence on magical thinking and ancient fairy tales. Accept that the universe is a system of particles interacting in infinitely complex ways, guided by blind, stupid natural laws which still somehow manage to produce the absolute miracles of thoughts and songs and love and life. If you insist on keeping your holy books and imaginary creatures, I won't judge you. But only atheists get to grieve.