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People don’t like to think about their own death. Religious faith was invented mainly to escape from facing the reality of death. We are born, we live our lives, and then we die. Plants do it and animals, including human animals, do it. We have made up elaborate myths and deluded ourselves about the Almighty taking care of us and giving our soul eternal life…if we follow his rules. The whole exercise is designed to allay the fear of our own demise…and in the process, enrich the coffers of the church, of course.

Throughout human history, there have always been nonbelievers who didn’t buy that package, and their numbers are growing. But many of them would acknowledge belief in “spirituality.” If questioned about religious faith, they might say something like: “I am not a religious believer but I am spiritual.”

What does that mean? I think it means that they believe there is something more than the material world that we perceive with our senses. An invisible essence that is our conscious self. They reject the idea that the brain is just a computer, even one of incredible complexity. That is no different from religious faith, because there is no scientific evidence that such an entity exists. Nevertheless, studies have shown that most people on the planet have some kind of belief in spirituality.

This belief in spirits has resulted in some elaborate rituals when a person “passes.” What exactly does that mean? Passing suggests that death is some kind of journey…from the real world to the spirit world. The traditional funeral places the corpse in an ornate, often very expensive, casket that is lowered into a six-foot hole in the ground. Why the fancy box? If there is a spirit, it is certainly gone from the body at that point, so it is just a lump of flesh and bone, tendons and sinews, intestines and toenails, an inanimate object. It’s pretty silly when you think about it.

We go to funerals to “pay our respects,” but the person we knew is not there. If funerals serve any purpose, it is mainly to show friends and family that we admired and respected the individual, and to force everyone to acknowledge to themselves that the person is gone. That’s called “closure.”

For religious believers, the funeral ceremony is often about the individual being “with Jesus now,” or something similar. The number of people sitting at Jesus’ feet, gazing up at him reverently, must be in the billions. If you think that nonbelievers have a more matter-of-fact view, think what happens if the body is cremated. The ashes of a fisherman are scattered at sea; a farmer’s are spread on his land. We had a close friend who was a classical music lover, and he particularly enjoyed attending concerts at the Hollywood Bowl. When he died, his widow invited a number of us to a concert at the Bowl. We were each provided with a small plastic bag of his ashes to be surreptitiously scattered in the landscaping around the outside of the Bowl. It was probably illegal, but I don’t think anybody noticed what we were doing, and it did no harm.

What part of the spirit could possibly be contained in those ashes? It’s really a bizarre ritual when you think about it.

My wife and I have talked about this. She is a travel enthusiast, and has worked in the travel business for more than forty years. She specializes in Africa, and is enthusiastic about the game preserves, where guests enjoy lavish accommodations, five-star food, and two “game drives” a day in a Land Rover, one in the early morning and another at sundown, when the animals are most active. We both were planning to be cremated, and she has been trying to figure out a way to have her ashes scattered in one of those game preserves. What did I want? I thought about it, and decided that I really didn’t care what was done with my ashes. I finally suggested that they be spread in the back yard of our home, where we have lived for almost sixty years.

We have been re-thinking cremation. It wastes a lot of energy and creates CO2 from a gas-fired oven. I recently read about “compost burials” in a cardboard box that can be dug up in a few years so that the site can be re-used. The state of Washington recently passed a law allowing compost burials.

Or maybe a medical school would be interested in letting their students carve up my carcass and analyze the wreckage wreaked by a life of dissolution and debauchery.

My wife had a final suggestion, the simplest of all: We have two compost stacks in the back yard. She thinks she could enlist the help of a couple neighbors and just toss my carcass in with the leaves and grass clippings.

There is no evidence that anything like a spirit or soul survives death. The whole idea is pretty absurd. But humans believe a lot of absurd things.


Bert Bigelow is a trained engineer who pursued a career in software design. Now retired, he enjoys writing short essays on many subjects but mainly focuses on politics and religion and the intersection...