For the living know that they shall die: but the dead know not any thing, neither have they any more a reward; for the memory of them is forgotten. Also their love, and their hatred, and their envy, is now perished; neither have they any more a portion for ever in any thing that is done under the sun.
Ecclesiastes, chapter 9 (King James Bible)
Who would Fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscovered country, from whose bourn
No Traveler returns . . .
Hamlet, Act 3
There isn’t much time, must say my last rites
Nobody is here to read them to me
Must say my goodbyes, if only a line
A message to tell them in case they might find
For I have lived my life to the full
I have no regrets
But I wish I could talk to my family
To tell them that one last goodbye . . .
Iron Maiden, “The Final Frontier”
Any teacher who takes his or her job seriously is sooner or later going to have to talk to students about death. How can you avoid it? Do you study World War I and World War II and ignore the horrific death toll? Do you study biology and ignore necrobiosis? Do you study Hamlet and gloss over the meaning of “to be or not to be”? During Remembrance Day ceremonies do you pretend that the dead we honor did not actually die?
We all die, but we do not all agree on what this means. Some people believe that human beings have an immortal soul which will live on in some other form after the death of the body, perhaps as a ghost, perhaps in another body through reincarnation, or perhaps in another plane of existence such as heaven or hell. Other people believe that there is no such thing as a soul, that it is an outdated, superstitious idea, and that when we die we simply cease to exist, just as we did not exist before we were born. Still other people are agnostic on the question of life after death, which is to say they believe that it is simply not possible to know one way or another. Of these three positions, there doesn’t seem to be any way to know with certainty which is correct, which is why all three positions continue to be held strongly by different groups of people.
But there is one thing that a teacher can do definitively and that is help students understand what the positions are and why people hold them and how these beliefs shape how they live their lives. Why do people who believe in life after death believe such a thing? Do they think they could be wrong? Would it matter if they were? Why do people who believe in the end of existence at death believe this? How do they cope with the idea that when they die they will simply cease to be?
Like Hamlet, who held Yorick’s skull and saw there his own future and the future of all humanity, we have been gifted with the ability to engage in what psychologists have called “mental time travel”–the ability to reflect on our past and peer into our future. The price we pay for consciousness is an awareness of death. What it is, what it means to us, and how we should cope with it–these are questions that are far too important to ignore. There is too much at stake.