Following on from yesterday's reflection its worth remembering that today is The Day of the Dead or more famously Día de los Muertos. The Catholic Church picked up on a much older ceremony that goes back to the time of the Aztecs. The New Scientist has a special edition on Death with the sub-theme of Inescapable – Universal – Uplifting which is rather neat. The opening article looks back to Australopithecus afarensis our 3.2 million year old ancestor where we see one of the first examples of what appears to be a formal burial.
As the article points out: Once you have designated places for the dead you are clearly treating them as if they still have some kind of social agency. You have a sense of yourself not an an individual, but as part of a wider identity that transcends this mortal coil. The edition is a wonderful mix of archeology, anthropology and hard science with one great title Moving and producing brainwaves? You can still be official deceased which is the modern fear to reflect an older one of being buried alive.
The most interesting article is on immortality which includes are rather vivid description of putrefaction which is not recommended for the nervously disposed. There is a wide article from Yale philosopher Shelly Kagen on fear of death which has the cherry news that even an 80 year old has a more than 90% chance of living at least another year.
Yesterday I talked about the importance of community and I have a personal reflection on this in the context of funerals. My Uncle Frank who had left the UK for Ireland, married and became a Catholic. I took my parents over for his funeral and it was a lengthy affair. The body had been laid out for three days, various relatives had visited to pay their last respects, meals had been eaten, tears had been shred. On the day of the funeral all the close relatives had to stand by the grave shaking the hands of what appeared to be the entire population of Monaghan. By the time we got to the funeral tears had more or less gone, this had been a community event with a sense of continuity. I contrast that with my own parents funerals held ten days apart and conducted in a Crematorium by a Humanist in respect for their beliefs. The whole focus of grieving was in a single event and focused on the memory of an individual. I've thought about that difference many times over the last eight plus years and the contrast has remained with me to this day.
Of course immortality of the physical self, rather that the community of which you are a part has always been an obsession. And one that has resulted in some pretty nasty pseudo-science involving blood in the main. The the modern age we have believers in the Singularity, the point at which the brain can transfer to a silicon chip. To believe in this means to restrict the brain to neuro-electrical impulses and ignores the chemistry along with a lot of other things. I once said, and did not retract, that to believe in the Singularity is a self fulfilling prophesy as the restricted view of the brain required for said belief probably means yours can be so transferred. The other real question however is why?
Of course Ian M Banks in his latest novel explores the way in which humans could use such a world to create a new approach to Hell. I prefer Terry Pratchett's Death who as a character evolved to represent a noble aspect of humanity. And then don't forget the Death of Rats, one of his most delightful side inventions. I suppose that over these three posts I have been arguing to see identity as more of a flow of community connections, less of an assembly of atomistic self-interests. Back to less morbid subjects tomorrow.
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