THE BLOG
07/30/2015 01:45 pm ET Updated Jul 30, 2016

Life After Death? A Religious Studies Professor Becomes a Student

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My grandmother-in-law, Joanne, died one week ago at the age of 80. Joanne was a mother of four, grandmother of nine and great-grandmother of seven. She was a woman of effortless charm, inexhaustible care and stupefying selflessness.

Joanne battled Parkinson's disease for the last two years, and we have known for some months that it would only be a matter of time before she passed. Last week, my wife's cousin called to tell us it would be a good idea if we could make the trip home quickly in order to see her before she died. She was unresponsive, and it appeared as if she could pass at any moment. After packing a bag, we rushed hurriedly on the long road between Washington, DC and western Massachusetts, desperately trying to make it there before she was gone. As we drove, my mother-in-law took the red eye from California in order to try to be there one more time before her mother passed.

Along the road somewhere, deep into the night, I began to reflect on why it was so important for us to be there. Why were we making such an effort to see someone who would neither know we were there, nor have any chance of speaking to us? Was there any logic to it?

As a professor of Religious Studies, I sometimes teach a class on religious dimensions of death and dying. All teachers know that teaching often turns you into a student in ways you never expect. One of the materials I often assign my students is a Ted Talk by Kelli Swazey on the burial practices of the people of Tana Toraja in the southern province of Sulawesi, Indonesia. The people of Tana Toraja often wait months, and even years, to bury their relatives. As Swazey explains, they recognize that death is both a biological and a social process, one in which the survivors must transform their relationship with the deceased from living to dead, or from the present to the past tense. In the months between biological death and the burial rites, family members interact with the deceased in ways Americans might think unimaginable -- placing their skeletal remains in the house, bringing the deceased tea and food each day, and including them in family activities. The idea is to slowly endure the process of transforming their relationship to the deceased. After the elaborate and expensive burial ritual, an effigy of the deceased is placed in the villag,e where their image symbolically speaks to the living from beyond the grave.

In addition to materials on the people of Tana Toraja, I also assign selections from Robert Harrison's Dominion of the Dead, wherein Harrison draws on classical literature and current events to articulate just how difficult it is to cope with the death of a loved one without conducting burial rites, because one of the most important functions of death rites is separating our image of our loved one from the corpse which they no longer inhabit. We must re-create our world in a way that we can relate to them in the past, rather than in the present tense. We must dissociate them from their body in order to enable them to live apart from it. Whereas the corpse is buried or cremated, given over to the earth from which it came, our image of the deceased lives on in the imagination. In this sense, not only does the deceased pass from this life to the afterlife, but the survivors begin the arduous task of creating an afterlife, or life after, their loved one's death.

As Swazey says in her talk, one of the beautiful aspects of the Torajan's elaborate death ritual is the recognition that there is a long process involved in re-creating our world and transforming our relationship to the deceased. However, as Harrison points out, this doesn't mean re-creating a world without them. Swazey is insightful when she says that the biological cessation of life is not equivalent to death. This means that when we re-create our world in light of our loved one's death, we transition to a state where they no longer speak to us, but where, as Harrison says, "We lend voice to the dead so that they may speak to us from their underworld -- address us, reprove us, bless us, enlighten us, and in general alleviate the historical terror and loneliness of being in the world." We speak for them, so that they may continue to speak to us. Our stories, memories, photos, and remnants of deceased loved ones help us to re-create a world where they speak to us from the past in order to help make our presents and our futures vibrant, meaningful, and full of love.

As we sat together by Joanne's bedside, more and more family arrived. Deep into the night and early morning, we sat with her as she lay motionless. As time went on, the sad silence transitioned into dozens of stories and memories, many of which hadn't been told in years. Silence and sobs turned to laughter, remembrance and a feeling of rare togetherness while we encircled Joanne's near-lifeless body. The next morning, my mother-in-law, Joanne's third daughter, arrived an hour before Joanne passed away. As we sat next to Joanne, still with us, if only barely, we drank coffee, shared photos and told tale upon tale of her life, and her life with us. Amidst the winding re-creation of her life, her only son looked up to see that her breathing had slowed. We all fell silent. In the coming seconds we experienced her transition from life to death together. The silence and tears returned at the realization that the transition period was over. Her body, a second ago clinging to life, was now lifeless.

But that experience of saying goodbye to her in this life -- on this side of death -- together with the people that she, and we, love the most, the experience of helping her transition from life to death by telling stories of her childhood, of her motherhood, her friendship and her love -- that experience of experiencing her passing together -- was more meaningful than any of us could ever express. That was the reason for making such an effort to see someone and speak to someone who could not speak or see us. We all transitioned in that moment from a world where Joanne spoke to us in her body -- speaking to us through her quiet breath even in her silent last moments -- to one where we speak for her in order to enable her to speak to us. As she moved onto the afterlife, so did we.

In the days that followed, we sat together looking through more old photos, telling more stories and breaking bread. The wandering hours together allowed us to begin the excruciating process of lending Joanne a voice by repeating the lessons she taught us, appropriating her favorite sayings, promising each other to carry on her legacy of love, friendship and selflessness. Above all, we vowed to help each other keep her alive by promising to be vessels through which she continues to speak, enliven, reprove, bless and enlighten.

As we drove home, I reflected on how this process of transition and re-creation is often tragically fast in twenty-first century America. Rather than taking months or years, most of us have to haggle with our bosses just to take a few hours off in order to attend a funeral or a wake. After a day or two of mourning, we are rushed back to work, to the concerns of normal life, and to a world indifferent to the death of someone we loved immeasurably. After all, nostalgic story-telling, errant remembering, and shared reminiscence don't produce anything. They aren't valuable. So, what are they worth?

Life after death.