Early last month, as everyone was going about Christmas preparations and so forth, my friend Catherine died of what appears to have been a heart attack. Because it happened so suddenly, and because I was unable to attend the funeral, in some ways it still doesn't seem quite real; I feel as though I could walk the few blocks to her home, knock on the front door, and she'd answer.
I've been thinking about what happened to her -- not in the sense of wondering about the circumstances that took her life, but about what the heart attack took away, and where it went. No one really knows what happens to a spirit -- the indefinable presence that creates a living human being, the part of Catherine that made her Catherine -- when someone dies, though there are a number of competing theories. Some are more compelling than others.
The broadly atheist view of death -- that there is no such thing as a soul or spirit, so when someone dies, he or she ceases to be, save what remains in recorded ephemera indicating his or her former existence -- is the least compelling theory for me. If we were beings shaped solely by chance evolutionary processes to live for a short while, pass on our genes if possible, inevitably die and leave little to no trace of our lives on earth, I suspect we would also have evolved with a sense of mild indifference toward the death of others. We might feel about a friend's life the way we feel about a particularly good lunch -- well, that was worthwhile, but now it's over; when I hunger again, I'll find something else to fill the void. Instead, we mourn. We feel the keenest pain over the death of a friend or loved one, wish desperately to have him or her back again, and sense a consistent void made by that person's absence, one that nothing else quite seems to fill. Even in the case of catastrophes in faraway places, where we did not know personally anyone who was affected, the human tendency is to feel sorrow and empathy for the loss of human life -- and to be appalled by those who lack such empathy.
I'm also not much of a fan of the quasi-agnostic idea that a beloved deceased person continues to live on in you through your thoughts and memories. This is manifestly unsatisfying. If all I need is many memories to make a person live again, then my mom already "lives on in me," and she's not even dead. No matter how well you knew someone, there's a deep gulf of difference between recalling static memories and talking to a living person. It's something akin to the difference between a single recording of a jazz performance in a jukebox and the wild, virtuosic improvisations of live jazz. A person you know well is somewhat predictable in his or her responses, but because living beings constantly grow and change, he or she will also occasionally make a comment or react in a way you never would have expected -- sudden blooms of caprice that can make the conversation a surprise and a delight. You don't get that quality from memories; they are limited by what you already know of a person, so there's no possibility of unpredictability. Plus, the human brain being what it is, our memories of a person tend to become distorted over time; it's easy for our brains to reduce the life of a complex individual to a single defining trait, or to reinforce one set of memories while letting another set attenuate to nothing. After a while one's subjective memory of a person might come to resemble the actual person the way a caricature resembles a photograph.
I began by saying that no one really knows what happens to a spirit at death, and I reiterate that I don't know with absolute certainty that these things are so. (To verify it, I'd have to die, which would certainly hamper my ability to make a report.) But I do sense, in a way that feels deeply right even if I cannot prove it, that the spirits of people we knew and loved are not gone forever -- indeed, that they are not very far away. Maybe that's why it still seems to me that I could go knock on Catherine's door and she'd answer; perhaps, in a slightly different dimension from ours, Catherine is busy at home -- just as she was in life -- and listening for a friend to come by and knock.