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Posts Tagged ‘life after death’

By chance I was in my home town of Harpenden on Sunday, and after the 9.45 Mass many people from the Catholic church went down the road to the United Service of Remembrance round the War Memorial on Church Green.

It’s years since I have been present for this. I have memories of a few hundred people scattered around the green in the centre of town. But this Sunday there must have been a crowd of over two thousand people, spilling onto the surrounding roads. Perhaps it has been growing over the years; perhaps it was particularly large this year.

It was very moving, and very Christian! Prayers, hymns, readings. The names of the dead were read out. And it’s so easy to forget, but the whole town was gathered round a standing cross (see the old postcard above). I’ve wandered across the green a thousand times over the years (we moved to Harpenden when I was four), but I’ve hardly stopped to reflect that the focus of unity for the town was and still is the Cross of Jesus Christ. And when people want to reflect on death and life, remember their loved ones, or just come together as a community conscious of itself and its history – they gather round the Cross.

I’m not suggesting that everyone there had faith, or even that Christianity is on the increase in Hertfordshire (who knows?). But the huge crowds present this Sunday made me wonder if there is a deepening hunger for community and for a sense of connection with those in the past. Maybe we are more aware of our military than we used to be; maybe it’s the patriotism of the Jubilee or the communitarianism of the Olympics and the Paralympics; maybe we just long to feel more connected.

This was civic religion at its best: people still broadly connected with the nation’s Christian faith, even though there would be various shades of belief and unbelief; people finding that this faith gives them a unity with each other, and a way of making sense of their human struggles, that perhaps they wouldn’t find in any other place.

And a final note about purgatory: It was an ecumenical service, but I was fascinated how each prayer spoken was actually a prayer for the dead. We kept hearing phrases like: ‘May they find the fulfilment in God they were longing for'; ‘May they rest in peace'; ‘May they come face to face with the Lord’. All of these ‘may they…’ prayers suggest, theologically, that there is still something to be achieved or worked out for those who have died. In other words, this wasn’t just a service of remembrance – whatever the service sheet suggested – it was also a service of prayer for the dead. I don’t think this was very conscious or theologically explicit, but it shows how hard it is to just remember the dead without actually praying for them – at a psychological level. And a Catholic would add that this makes theological sense as well!

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I was really disturbed by some of the reactions to the recent report into the 2009 Air France crash, which suggested that it would be far better for someone if they had no warning at all about their impending death.

You probably remember hearing about the tragedy: all 228 people aboard were killed when an Air France flight from Rio de Janeiro to Paris crashed into the Atlantic in June 2009. A preliminary report has been written two years after on the basis of information from the aircraft’s black boxes, which were only recovered last month. There is no clear conclusion about what caused the crash – it was partly to do with faulty instrumental readings. The fall took three and a half minutes.

This is the bit that disturbed me, as reported by Elaine Ganley and Jill Lawless:

Some families of victims who said they were given information in a meeting with the agency said it was possible their loved ones went to their deaths unaware of what was happening because there was apparently no contact between the cockpit and cabin crew in the 3 1 / minutes.

“It seems they did not feel more movements and turbulence than you generally feel in storms,” said Jean-Baptiste Audousset, president of a victims’ solidarity association. “So, we think that until impact they did not realize the situation, which for the family is what they want to hear — they did not suffer.”

It’s true that they may not have had to live through the horror of knowing they were falling to their deaths; and I do understand how a relative can find some consolation in knowing this. But surely there are other considerations involved here as well? It must be frightening to know that you are about to die, and I have sat with many people as they face this knowledge and try to come to terms with it – but would you really prefer not to know?

I’m not just writing as a Christian believer now. Yes, as a person of faith, I would rather have a few minutes to pray, to thank God for my life, to say sorry for anything I have done wrong, to offer my life to the Lord, and generally to prepare for my death. But even if I had no faith in God or in a life after death, my impending death would still be a hugely significant horizon, and those last few minutes of life would surely take on an unimaginable significance. I wouldn’t wish for myself that I were left in ignorance. I’d want to know, in order to try to make sense of it, or simply to make the most of it, or at least not to waste it. And I wouldn’t wish for my loved ones to be denied the possibility of knowing that their end was near.

I’m not romanticising death. I’m certainly not pretending that the fear isn’t very real, especially if the knowledge comes quickly and unexpectedly. I’d just rather know. Fear, sometimes, is what helps us to appreciate the significance of some great truth that lies before us; and there aren’t many truths as significant as death.

A film that played with these themes very creatively was Last Night from 1998 (not the new film with Keira Knightley).

Everyone knows that the world is going to end this evening at midnight, and we see how various characters in Toronto react. Their decisions about how to spend the last few hours of their life generally reflect the concerns and priorities of the life they have already lived, the life they have made. Their fundamental intentions are clarified and crystalised in these last moments.

On the other hand, knowing that time is so short, it gives them a chance to make something different of their life. Not so much a moral conversion (although that is also possible), but a reorientation, a new level of authenticity, a sort of redemption – even if the choices some of them made were thoroughly depressing. It’s well worth seeing.

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Today, they preserve not just your head, but your whole body, in the hope that years from now — with advances in medicine and technology — they will be able to reanimate your corpse and give you back your life.

This is the science of cryonics, as described by Simon Hattenstone. Only it is more a hope and a science. Or, as some would think, an emerging science that has only been embraced by a few prophetic ‘early adopters’.

In a bungalow in Peacehaven, by the east Sussex seaside, a 72-year-old man and his 62-year-old wife are planning their future. There’s no discussion of anything morbid, like death, because, as far as they are concerned there is no such thing as death. When they stop breathing, they will pass into a state of suspended animation. They will be frozen in a giant flask of liquid nitrogen at almost -200C, which will preserve their brains and organs in as fresh a state as possible until technology has advanced to the stage where they can be revived.

Many cryonicists choose to have only their heads frozen – because that contains all the vital matter – and by the time people can be brought back to life it will be easier, and preferable for some, to attach a new body. But Alan and Sylvia Sinclair will have their whole bodies frozen.

Alan now runs Cryonics UK, and every month he holds meetings with fellow cryonicists and potential converts to discuss the practicalities and potential problems of their suspension – of which there are many. First, upon so-called “death”, a team of experts must rush to their sides, pump out their blood and fill them with antifreeze. This is complicated because virtually all the members of Alan’s suspension team at Cryonics UK have practised only on dummies, rather than real people – and if, for example, air bubbles enter the pumping system, the brain will be irreversibly damaged. Second, there are no storage facilities in Britain, so patients will have to be transferred to the US or Russia. Third, science has some way to go before we can bring people back to life.

When you see this in a science fiction film, with the mood music and the beautiful actors, you think ‘why not?’ But the thought of my body stored in a warehouse in Arizona for 50 years sends shivers down my spine. Perhaps this unease is irrational, like the fear of being trapped in a buried coffin.

hai von der seite by loop_oh. 

The idea behind the science is not new:

It was Benjamin Franklin who first suggested, in 1773, that it might be possible to preserve human life in a suspended state for centuries. And that was that for close on 200 years, until physics lecturer Robert Ettinger published The Prospect Of Immortality in 1962, in which he argued that, since we keep food fresh by freezing it, we can do the same with the human body until such time as we have discovered how to defeat death.

The term “cryonics”, derived from the Greek kryos, meaning cold, was coined in 1965 when Karl Werner founded the Cryonics Society of New York, and the premise is that memory, personality and identity are stored in cellular structures, principally in the brain. So, if you can preserve the brain in decent nick, technology permitting, you can eventually restore people with their personalities intact. The cost varies from $28,000 for head-only preservation to $155,000 for full body.

The largest cryonics organisation, with more than 800 members waiting to be preserved, is the US company Alcor. It was established in 1972 and has frozen 87 patients. The Cryonics Institute, also American, and founded by Ettinger in 1976, has frozen 95. The two groups are rivals. When men walked on the moon at the end of the 60s, eternity did not seem such a huge leap for mankind. But progress has not quite kept up with our dreams.

I find it all rather freakish, even gruesome. But it raises lots of questions: About life and death and the borderline between the two. About personal identity and consciousness and the soul. About our deepest fears and hopes. Why is it perfectly acceptable to seek another decade in life through exercise, healthy eating, or medical interventions, but decidedly weird to seek another century or two through cryonics?

If the science were proven, and the technology reliable, and the contractors trustworthy — wouldn’t you do it? And if not, why not?

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