Death and the Afterlife

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Death and the Afterlife

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jan 3, 2008, 5:02 pm

Coincidence, synchronicity, whatever...I was at my profile at LAST FM and decided to investigate who had something close to my musical tastes. I chose one song and clicked on it; a page came up showing me who had played that song fairly recently. Of all the people listed, I chose "rainman1953" and asked if he would friend me. Our tastes in music are indeed startling similar.

He replied the same night. An e-mail conversation ensued and we discovered we were both LT users. I saw that we also share many books, most on religion and spirituality. He is teaching a course next semester on "Death and the Afterlife," a subject that intrigues me. We agreed that a discussion here at LT might be just the thing. He said he was busy with family matters just now but would return here when possible to participate in discussions.

I suggested that he read or review the D. H. Lawrence essays on the Etruscans. I am anxious to know what sources his students will read and discuss.

I know that he is interested in poetry and films, as well as non-fiction/factual sources.

jan 3, 2008, 7:10 pm

There is an active thread on "Heaven. Hell, " Can't remember the group, but some interesting responses.

jan 4, 2008, 5:57 am

My afternoon and evening were spent rereading D. H. Lawrence's great travel memoir, Etruscan Places. I was moved to do so after meeting rainman1953. Lawrence's observations about the Etruscan tombs shed light not only on the Etruscan Civilization but Lawrence's own poems about life and death. One of the fascinating observations made by Lawrence (repeated in the recent films called Art Made the World by Nigel Spivey) is that paintings on the walls of Etruscan tombs showed death as a continuation of life as lived on earth until the Etruscans' civilization came under threat of annihilation by the Romans. It is during this frightening, dark time that the paintings inside the tombs begin to reflect a concept of two possible afterlives, one a paradise, the other hellish. Lawrence has great respect for the Etruscans, less for the Romans, as he illustrates in the very beginning of his memoir:

The Etruscans, as everyone knows, were the people who occupied the middle if Italy in early Roman days, and whom the Romans, in their usual neighbourly fashion, wiped out entirely in order to make room for Rome with a very big R.

Continuing the sarcasm, Lawrence says,

...the Etruscans were vicious. We know it, because their enemies and exterminators said so.

Isn't that writing just so delicious?

But Lawrence doesn't rely on sarcasm alone; he comes right out with his opinion of the Etruscans, writing: "Myself, the first time I consciously saw Etruscan things, in the museum at Perugia, I was instinctively attracted to them." Lawrence goes on to describe Etruscan paintings and artifacts with knowledge and sensitivity, showing profound respect for the spiritual lives of the people who produced these things. One of Lawrence's major concerns is that the deep mystery which was at the root of the Etruscans' spiritual lives should be preserved.

Redigeret: jan 6, 2008, 9:25 am

Death and the afterlife...Peter S. Beagle's A FINE AND PRIVATE PLACE comes to mind. Not my idea of what Heaven would be like...

jan 6, 2008, 12:18 pm

Cliff, the only work of Beagle's that I've read is The Last Unicorn. You are onto something: tales of fantasy, myths, or fairy tales that talk about mortality/immortality. There are so many ("Little Mermaid," Garden of Eden, Achilles, etc.)

jan 7, 2008, 8:19 am


FINE AND PRIVATE PLACE isn't as fantastical as Beagle's other works. The novel is set in a graveyard, lonely souls wandering about--haven't read it in over 20 years but it stuck with me. Isn't there an Afterlife (of sorts) in Thornton Wilder's OUR TOWN too?

jan 7, 2008, 10:23 am

#6: In Our Town? Wow, I'm not sure. I haven't read or thought about Our Town since the 7th grade. I can't remember! The Beagle work sounds intriguing.

Redigeret: jan 7, 2008, 12:58 pm

>3 TheresaWilliams: - Lawrence's view of the Etruscans says less about the Etruscans than it does about him; he sees them as the precursors of his own 'alternative' lifestyle, while the Romans represent the ordinary staid life. It's not dissimilar to the way that Native Americans are now seen as more spiritual, more in touch with the earth than the Europeans that came later. Historically neither of these stances are particularly factual but these 'myths' have now become the cultural norm.

The title of the Beagle book comes from Andrew Marvell's great poem 'To His Coy Mistress'. Amazingly, he wrote the novel at 19.

jan 7, 2008, 2:15 pm

#8 You said: "Lawrence's view of the Etruscans says less about the Etruscans than it does about him."

Yes, I think you're right. But I don't read Lawrence for "facts." He wasn't a historian, after all, but a writer seeking to make sense of the world and his place in it, and I value that. The essay also sheds light on Lawrence's poems, which fascinate me.

Beagle wrote that book when he was 19? Oh, I'm really jealous now.

jan 7, 2008, 11:37 pm

I also have an interest in this subject, especially reincarnation. I had a recurring dream as a preschooler which has strongly effected my beliefs on the subject.

M Scott Peck (author of The Road Less Travelled ) has a novel called In Heaven As on Earth : A Vision of the Afterlife. I haven't read it since I'm more interested in nonfiction (such as it is) on the subject.

I'm currently listening to an audiobook version of Amy Tan's book of essays entitled The Opposite of Fate and have been interested to find several stories of her encounters with ghosts, synchronicity and communication with a dear friend after his murder.

jan 11, 2008, 7:40 pm

Thank you for recommending Amy Tan's book. I love her fiction, and didn't realize she had a book of essays out, especially on a subject that interests me so greatly. Another one for the TBR list - perhaps I will find a space for it near the top somewhere.

jan 12, 2008, 12:57 pm

Thanks for starting this thread, Theresa. I would also recommend The Oxford Book of Heaven by Carol and Philip Zaleski. For Greek antiquity I would mention The Greek Way of Death by Robert Garland, Restless Dead by Sarah Iles Johnston, and especially the truly wonderful Aspects of Death in Early Greek Poetry and Art by the late lamented Emily Townsend Vermeule.

jan 12, 2008, 6:55 pm

Richard Matheson's novel WHAT DREAMS MAY COME features many scenes set in the afterlife. Matheson is the horror writer/fabulist who wrote I AM LEGEND, THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE (more afterlife) and THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN.

jan 13, 2008, 3:34 am

Rainman, I am glad to see you here. I was thinking about you today. I don't know any of those sources you mention and will look for them.

Gilgamesh is also a wonderful work about death. In part:

"You will never find that life for which you are looking. When the gods created man they allotted to him death, but life they retained in their own keeping. As for you, Gilgamesh, fill your belly with good things; day and night, night and day, dance and be merry, feast and rejoice. Let your clothes be fresh, bathe yourself in water, cherish the little child that holds your hand, and make your wife happy in your embrace; for this too is the lot of man."

jan 13, 2008, 3:47 am

Also from Gilgamesh:

"There is no permanence. Do we build a house to stand forever, do we seal a contract to hold for all time? Do brothers divide an inheritance to keep forever, does the flood-time of rivers endure?"

Redigeret: jan 13, 2008, 7:19 pm


Which translation of GILGAMESH was that? I think Stephen Mitchell, an author I quite like, translated a new version of GILGAMESH--he also did a terrific job translating THE BOOK OF JOB a few years ago...

jan 13, 2008, 5:41 pm

Cliff, It is a translation by N. K. Sandars which I found on the Internet. I believe I have a version somewhere that is more musical than this one. I like Stephen Mitchell's work, too. Did he do a trans. of Gilgamesh?

The site I used:

Redigeret: jan 13, 2008, 5:47 pm

Ack! What am I thinking! I have the entire epic (spoken word) of Gilgamesh on my computer, trans. by Mitchell! Aaaarough!

jan 13, 2008, 7:20 pm

Aha, I thought so. Did you like Mitchell's translation?

jan 14, 2008, 12:38 pm

Yes, I do like it. It is more poetic than the Sandars. Mitchell does good work. :-)

jan 14, 2008, 5:06 pm

Ms. T:

I shall see if I can hunt up a copy, Mitchell's BOOK OF JOB was exquisite.

jan 14, 2008, 6:18 pm

Mitchell also did a good job with Rilke's poetry.

As to books on the after life, C. S. Lewis's The Great Divorce is interesting. Rainer Maria Rilke's Duino Elegies are certainly worth reading.

jan 15, 2008, 12:39 am

Duino Elegies are the most beautiful poems ever written, in my opinion.

jan 15, 2008, 8:32 am

Didn't Rilke always claim the ELEGIES were "dictated" to him? Spooky, but I know exactly what he means...

jan 15, 2008, 11:22 am

I just found a book about a slightly different take on the subject in my tbr pile (which I'm trying to add to my catalog). Claire Sylvia's book A Change of Heart: A Memoir about receiving a heart transplant and then becoming in touch with the heart donor's spirit. Very odd-- but my search at Amazon shows other books in similar veins. (OOOOh what an awful pun!!!!!)

jan 15, 2008, 12:42 pm


Every year without knowing it I have passed the day
When the last fires will wave to me
And the silence will set out
Tireless traveller
Like the beam of a lightless star
Then I will no longer
Find myself in life as in a strange garment
Surprised at the earth
And the love of one woman
And the shamelessness of men
As today writing after three days of rain
Hearing the wren sing and the falling cease
And bowing not knowing to what

W S Merwin

jan 15, 2008, 2:16 pm

#26: Oh, I have always loved that Merwin poem: thanks so much for reminding me. I wouldn't have thought to mention it here.

Cliff, I didn't know that about Rilke. I do have a book about the imagination, though, which mentions him: I need to dig that out again. I go through periods of buffet-style reading and then I forget things or forget where I read them or heard them (like with Mitchell's Gilgamesh).

#25: That is an amazing story. But maybe I shouldn't be surprised that one's spirit might be housed in the transplanted heart. It's quite something to think about.

jan 15, 2008, 4:44 pm

I immediately thought of the extremely short story "I Used to Live Here Once," which unmasks the precise moment a ghost realizes she is dead. In Jean Rhys's Collected Short Stories, it falls nearly at the end. Since so many of her stories are clearly autobiographical, it's especially poignant, as if the author had peered into her own impending absence...

jan 15, 2008, 5:04 pm

#28: Oh my goodness, I have never read this. What a stunning idea. I should look for this collection! This is by the author of Wide Sargasso Sea, which I read and enjoyed as a graduate student.

jan 15, 2008, 6:00 pm

I loved Wide Sargasso Sea, too... really oughta re-read it. After I re-read Jane Eyre. After I read the seventeen library books I have checked out.

In my experience, Rhys's short stories can be easily and cheaply picked up at used book stores. (Please insert me starting to browse through the collection, getting a little lost, then shaking myself with the reminder that I really do have to finish those library books that are about to be due.) Yes, definitely worthwhile.

jan 16, 2008, 2:52 am

I have a deep interest in the afterlife. One especially interesting title is "Beyond The Horizon", by Grace Rosher. In it, she claims she received automatic writing from a long deceased friend, with all sorts of fascinating alleged insights into the afterlife. Handwriting experts compared the writing to existent writing from her friend and yes, it's an exact match.

jan 18, 2008, 1:21 am

I'll have to read Rosher's book. I'm fascinated by these kinds of mysterious correspondences.

feb 27, 2008, 6:01 pm

I loved the poem in posting 26, it is wonderful. I've been thinking a lot about this topic all day. Wondering what is the appeal of a afterlife. Of course it would be nice to know how unfinished aspects of our life finished. If we have children how did there lives go, the same for grandchildren, family, friends. Would a afterlife just be the start of a new life? In my hospice experience I don't hear many people talk about afterlife, i.e. going to heaven, most people seem to be focused on their life they are living.

feb 28, 2008, 6:52 pm

When heaven is defined as a place where we go, permanently, to "be with God" rather than to do anything, it sounds like a dreadfully dull place. I have to confess I've never had any interest in going to heaven, despite having been a traditional Christian believer during the early part of my life and knowing I was supposed to think heaven would be pure bliss. I'm much more interested in the Eastern idea that after a restful sojourn outside the body, in which we have the opportunity to reflect on our lives, we reincarnate into new lives where we get the chance to learn some of the leftover lessons we didn't have time to absorb in our previous lives. To me, that is very appealing. And if it's true, then it's very sensible for people to continue focusing on the life they are living in the present, all the way to the end. There are always new ideas to think about, people to care about, things to discover.

mar 3, 2008, 8:45 am

I always thought if reincarnation was really a viable possibility in terms of the afterlife, the world would have to be in the constant state of improving as transmigrated souls learn from the past mistakes of their last time around, living fuller, richer lives. That doesn't seem to be happening. Either we're not reborn or our souls are reconstituted as dumb as what would be the point?

mar 3, 2008, 5:13 pm

I think we do improve, it's just slow. Look how slowly we learn when we're alive, after all. So many people make the same mistakes over and over again (myself, alas, included).

We're certainly doing better than in the Middle Ages, when murder was basically a way of life for the aristocratic classes.

sep 1, 2008, 7:59 pm

For "reincarnation" happenings, try The Messengers by Julia Ingram and G.W. Hardin

okt 24, 2008, 8:02 pm

#25: Check Bruce Lipton's The Biology of Belief for the effects of organ transplants.

We all would benefit from reading Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor's My Stroke of Insight.

apr 2, 2009, 2:43 pm

Also: Existential Psychotherapy by Irvin D. Yalom.