Thursday, November 1, 2007


In the afterlife
You could be headed for the serious strife
Now you make the scene all day
But tomorrow there’ll be hell to pay
”Hell” – Squirrel Nut Zippers (CD: Hot)

Occasionally I scan back over the essays I’ve written over the past couple of years, and yes, there’s a lot of writing about death, one way or another, even before I had my intimation of mortality in the form of a fingernail-gone-really-bad. A friend of mine once observed that she thought that a lot of people considered me “morbid and macabre,” and who am I to disappoint my fans?

In the A&E Network show, the host, James Lipton has a question that he asks every guest: “If Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates?”

My answer would be “Well done. You get a free replay.”

That can be taken as the reincarnation option, of course, but I have a few revisions I’d make to the standard version. I’ll get to those in a little while.

The first version of the “belief dependant afterlife” that I think I recall is from Mark Twain, but he may have been taking a page from James Branch Cabell (or given the dates, vice versa), who had the afterlife both dependant on the individual’s religion and beliefs during life, but also subject to clerical errors, allowing one character to get the wrong afterlife because of tombstone erosion, the ultimate in typos. Robert Heinlein borrowed the Cabellian view in Job: A Comedy of Justice.

Reincarnation figures big in religions that don’t cotton to heaven and hell. One way of looking at the “Great Wheel” that’s featured in Hinduism is that this world is hell, and you are condemned to stay on the Wheel until you do a good enough job of it to get off into Nirvana, a sort of joyful non-existence (I’m simplifying here because it’s important to be able to compress centuries of religious thought into facile one liners). I think the important thing about Nirvana is that you’re supposed to be beyond all the petty desires, annoyances, pleasures, and minutia that, to me, make life worthwhile.

One unexamined feature of most reincarnation beliefs is that the incarnations are sequential in time; previous lives are in the past. But really now, there’s no need for that to be the case, is there? If something can transcend death and invoke various heretofore unknown (and unprovable) principles of the universe, surely time shouldn’t be a constraint. So there’s no reason not to have a reincarnation that can work backwards in time, allowing your next incarnation to be Alexander the Great, or, more likely one of the guys Alexander killed on his twenty-third birthday as part of the celebration.

The usual end result of this is the “everyone is everybody” scenario, the Mystical Experience, We-Are-All-One, where there’s a single, universal soul that inhabits everyone, and it’s time to sing Kumbaya, dammit, the marshmallows are ready and so’s the camp fire.

But if reincarnation can go backwards in time, there’s no reason for it not to go sideways, into one of those parallel universes that we hear so much about (and that I’ve written about more than once). Alternately, you can view it as a really big version of the film Groundhog Day.

If we get our afterlife of choice, here’s what I want: When I die, I want another go at it. In fact, I want all the goes at it. Not all of everyone’s lives, all of my lives. I want every single quantum possibility of my life, starting at conception. That includes every variation on what happens during my life, of course, like this earthquake happened on a different day, that snowstorm didn’t happen so I get to go to the banquet where I get the short story award when I was 15, Lee Harvey Oswald trips and sprains his ankle and can’t climb the stairs of the Book Depository, even the one where that single atom of potassium decays one second later, to no significant macroscopic effect.

I have no idea how many lives that is, except that it’s a lot. Nor do I really know how many of them can be considered “mine” given the slippery nature of identity. And since there’s no way for there to be any memory or awareness of those other lives, there’s no way to know if I will get / have gotten what I want.

Is that any comfort in the face of the knowledge of personal mortality? Let’s just say I take at least as much comfort from it as from the prospect of singing in a choir for all eternity.


Anonymous said...

My answer would be “Well done. You get a free replay.”

I find that sentiment to be semi-related to my expressed desire to learn "everything" at my moment of death per this rambling, semi-coherent post at WAAGNFNP. But I think yours is better.

A variant on the clerical error theme was described in Melvin van Peebles book The True American: A Folk Fable - Jesus is working the gate and is overwhelmed so you only get a cursory look over - one person was good and blameless etc, but they happened to die while drunk, so one whiff and Jesus sends them straight to hell.

James Killus said...

Ah, that explains why it is so important to die "in a state of grace." Or at least sobriety.

Anonymous said...

Another reason to die in a state of grace is accordian avoidance.

Intimations etc of immortality quickly resolve into the unimaginable which I have difficulties uh, imagining. Occasionally acts of unimaginable imagination just appear in my browser. (Link from boingboing the other day.)