Overview:

They say, "life is stopping by to drink". Life is short and we'll go on in the afterlife. Not the soul, but our name and memories.

Reading Time: 4 minutes

My family church here in Indonesia offers an online Bible study. One day, at my parents’ request, I helped them navigate to the page. The theme of the day was “Being brave facing death.” In support, a common proverb was offered: urip mung mampir ngombe—”Life is just stopping by to drink.”

The proverb invites us to imagine someone on a journey, with life reduced to a brief pause to drink before continuing on the journey.

Which invites the question: Journey to where?

Journeying to the afterlife

As my society is highly spiritual, the proverb conveys a spiritual message: “Life is short, people will die, and they’ll continue on in eternal afterlife.” It is meant to remind us of the uncertainty of the time spent in the world and the certainty of leaving it. Life on Earth is so short compared to the eternity of afterlife. Hence, it’s like stopping by to drink. As it’s just stopping by, the time spent in the place is short. So, one should be mindful of their “drink”, their actions in this world, and prepare for the “long journey ahead”, the afterlife.

The proverb may relate to Islamic teaching. In Islam, there is a system of rewards (in Indonesian and Malay called pahala) and sins (dosa). The rewards lead to Heaven, while sins lead to punishment in Hell. More rewards means Heaven, while more sins means Hell. The drink you consume in the world can either be good for the journey (actions that earn you rewards), or bad (sins).

However, the proverb is also heard in other religious communities in different forms. A Christian blog post quoted Lazarus and the rich man parable (Luke 16:19-31) as an example. The rich man only focused on his life on Earth and ignored Lazarus the poor man. After death, he reaped the consequences of eternal punishment.

So basically, the proverb reminds people to be mindful of their actions while living, since life is short. And we only have one canteen of life, because unfortunately we aren’t cats who have nine. And in a spiritual point of view, after death people will eventually be held accountable and judged in the afterlife.

What continues on after we die?

As the proverb has roots in spiritual philosophy, it relates to the soul. Upon dying, the soul separates from the body, ultimately going on to the journey in the afterlife. That’s what most religious and spiritual beliefs say.

As a secular person who believes in neither soul nor afterlife, I can’t relate to that. Instead, viewing it with other lenses, what demonstrably exists and continues after we die? What still journeys on after we are gone?

Our name continues. Our works and contributions continue, as do the memories of us in the minds of others. That is our afterlife. Many people’s names are remembered now due to their contributions to society or the memories associated with them.

The secular afterlife

Just like the soul in religious thought, our name and the memories of us can go to an afterlife, so to speak—either to “Heaven” or “Hell”.

If we are kind, do good for people around us, and contribute meaningfully and positively for others, our names and memories will be pleasant in the minds of others. We are in “Heaven”, so to speak, as people think well of us.

On the other hand, if we’re horrible towards others, people will remember us less charitably. We are in “Hell” if after our deaths, people think poorly of us—or worse yet, forget us entirely.

The concept is an ancient one. Old English and Germanic legends often include the idea that true death occurs only when a person’s deeds are forgotten. When the film The Ten Commandments had the Pharoah Sethi order that “the name of Moses be stricken from every book and tablet,” it was an attempt to ensure Moses’s erasure—and a reflection of the actual Egyptian belief that true death occurs only when one is forgotten. What better reason for pyramids and Sphinxes?

The satirist Terry Pratchett captures the same idea in Going Postal: “Do you not know that a man is not dead as long as his name is still spoken?” he writes—then has the operators of communication towers send the names of beloved people in never-ending loops.

The Pixar film Coco literalizes this idea, as the souls in the Land of the Dead are tied to the world of the living by people’s memories. If living people no longer keep the deceased in memories, the soul fades away. In the film, Miguel’s great-great-grandfather Héctor almost faded away when the memories of the only person who still remembered him fondly, his elderly daughter Coco, were fading. Eventually, Miguel managed to renew Coco’s memories of Héctor with singing, and saved Héctor’s soul from fading away.

I believe that’s how it goes in our world. We continue living after death in the memories of those we have affected. A deceased person who is entirely forgotten and not recorded might no longer exist in any form whatsoever. They are truly dead. Meanwhile, when memories still exist, whether inside people’s mind or in a form of records, they still continue to live on in a way. Isaac Newton may be gone for centuries, but he’s not really gone, as people still remember his name and works. Stephen Hawking also have passed away, but his name and works are still remembered and highly valued up to now, and most likely so until the foreseeable future.

Choosing the drink

A central message of the proverb is that life is short, and one should be mindful of what they do while still alive. If in religion, what we do would determine the soul’s fate in afterlife, then in the secular view, what we do would determine how people remember us later on.

An impact doesn’t have to be big or splashy so that our names appear in the headlines. There’s no need to be the next Stephen Hawking, Carl Sagan, Albert Einstein, influencer, or any major figure. Anything we do to our family, friends, colleagues, people around us matters. An act of compassion or kindness to another goes a long way, and it goes deep in the person’s memories.

So: Do we want to go to “Heaven” by doing good, meaningful, and compassionate things so that people remember us fondly even after we die, or go to “Hell” by being toxic and horrible so that people hate even to remember our name?

Our time to make this impression is limited. Life is as short as stopping by to drink.

A Javanese person living in the world's most populous Muslim-majority country. Believing Christian until 17, began to doubt at 17, eventually deconverted at 18 during transition from high school to college....