comfort for the atheist

I went to a graveside funeral recently. A Christian pastor led the service, and he read several passages from the bible about everlasting life with Jesus and how He has prepared a place to receive his believers after their life ends here on earth.

If you believe in the Christian faith, it must be comforting and uplifting to hear those words, to know that death is not a final end but a passage to a better place. I feel like the friends and family at the service appreciated this, and it helped them cope with the loss of a loved one.

As an atheist (or possibly an atheistic agnostic), I wonder what there is to give me peace and hope after someone close to me has died. Without the belief in an afterlife, am I to think that death is the end, hard stop? I am afraid that’s all there is; you had better enjoy life while you live it, because when the clock reads 0:00, you’re worm food, and that is it.

I believe that a person lives on in the memory of everyone they touched and everyone who loved them, but those memories are fleeting and fade over time. Some people live on through their accomplishments or inventions, but perhaps only in history books or remembered names of long-dead people. But these fragments are just temporary, and don’t imply any kind of afterlife. A person has no consciousness after death and cannot transfer from one phase of life to another one … or can they? 

Personally I don’t believe in any god or eternal life for the soul, but I’m open to the possibility of other outcomes that can’t be explained. There is something appealing about the concept of reincarnation. There are young people that seem truly wise beyond their age (you hear these people called “old souls”). I can accept that ghosts might exist (I think I saw one as an older child). I believe evil forces exist in this world and cause pain and suffering.

But those possibilities cannot be explained through science or logic; these are only constructs of the mind. The brain goes dark after death, and doesn’t return. People who talk about “near-death experiences” are simply confusing perception with the action of chemical reactions and electrical impulses.

None of this answers the questions at hand: what is there that gives me solace and comfort when someone has died, and what do I have to look forward to after death? I don’t think there is anything for me after death, but first I need to finish living. I can help keep alive the memory of people who are close to me. I can do good for others while I am alive. I can have a positive effect on the people around me, even if only a few. 

That’s good enough for me.

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