Life after death

Last Friday, I watched my father die.

It was the first time I had witnessed death in a human being, though I have seen it in animals. I will never forget what it looked like. The pallor of death is quite different from paleness due to shock or illness. Even before death arrives, the blood drains away from the face as if bleached, leaving behind something more like wax than human flesh.

Right up to the end, I knew he could hear. He tried to open his eyes when I spoke to him. He knew that my brother and I were there. I don't know if he was in pain, but his breathing was distressed, so I asked the palliative care nurse to give him morphine. Perhaps the morphine stopped him fighting the process of death. He died shortly afterwards.

I have sung about death many times: in the classical song repertoire, death is almost as ubiquitous as love. And I have read many, many words about death. But nothing prepared me for this. So many of our ways of describing death are euphemistic. Perhaps we want to shy away from the brutal finality of death towards something gentler, something that preserves hope. Sleep, for example. "To die, to sleep," says Hamlet. If the loved one is merely asleep, they will wake up, won't they?

No. Death is nothing like sleep. Sleep is renewal of life and refreshment of consciousness. Death is extinguishing of life and crushing of consciousness. They are opposites. Of that I am now certain. I have seen my father asleep many times, and this was completely different. He did not "fall asleep". He died.

I am also now as certain as I can be that consciousness does not survive death in any recognisable form. I did not witness my father's consciousness "leaving". It was more like a light going out. We don't say the candle flame has "left" when it goes out. We say it has died. Similarly, we should not sanitise death by pretending that the light of consciousness has "left". It has not. It has died.

My father is no longer there. He is no longer anywhere. His body still remains, for a short while, but all that made him who he was is gone forever.

And yet.....we are creatures of energy. Just as a candle flame consumes oxygen and wax, and dies when one or both runs out, so we consume physical energy sources - air, light, water, food - to maintain our life force, and we die when one or more of our energy inputs runs out. My father died when he could no longer take in enough oxygen. The pallor of death is hypoxia.

Energy never dies, it is merely transformed. So although my father's life force no longer exists in a form recognisable as "Dad", "Grandpa" or "Frank Cooke", it is still with us. It has been transformed, not crushed out of existence.

I don't know in what way life force is transformed at death. I don't know what it becomes. And although I think consciousness is crushed beyond all recognition, I do not know to what extent it remains. Death is intensely personal: although I was present when my father died, only he experienced it, and he will never be able to tell me what it was like. As a Christian, my model is the transformation of Jesus after his resurrection: he was the same, and yet different. But the Christian model of resurrection is uncomfortably close to pretending that death is not really death at all, just another life phase. And so too are other models of resurrection or reincarnation. I don't want to sanitise death. Death is final.

Death must be final, because otherwise we have too many excuses to treat life lightly. For too many centuries, the promise of "life after death" has been used to permit suffering and justify the brutal extinction of life for any reason or none. This life is horrible, but life after death will be much better. No, worse - the more you suffer in this life, the better life after death will be. These are the promises made by those who will do nothing to relieve suffering, who will condemn others to a life that is, in the words of Thomas Hobbes, "nasty, brutish and short". They are snake oil.

Having seen my father die, I am more convinced than ever that we have only one life. Our job is to live it to the best, using our talents and abilities to the full, overcoming the constraints of our circumstances and our disabilities to the extent that we can. And because we are social creatures, living life to the full means helping others to make the best of their lives, too. Being truly human means giving the best that we have to offer without restraint, without counting the cost, and without any expectation of reward. Selfishness, that hoards what we do not need while those in need suffer, is inhuman.

Those who deliberately seek to deprive others of the opportunity to make the best of their abilities and overcome their circumstances are evil beyond belief. Depriving another person of any hope of a better life is the most terrible thing you can do to them. When hope is gone, life is not worth living - and there is no other life that we know about. Ending someone's hope is tantamount to murder.

As I write, far too many people are being deliberately deprived of hope simply because they are the wrong colour, the wrong race, the wrong religion, the wrong sex, or have the wrong life circumstances. There is a mass outbreak of selfishness. The most obvious manifestation is the increasingly cruel treatment of refugees and economic migrants in many countries, including my own. These people have committed no crime. All they are doing is seeking a better life - which is what they, like us, are placed on this earth to do.

And yet - migrants still have hope, or they would not be migrants. This is perhaps what fuels the anger of those who want them shut out, brutalised, condemned to a horrible death. If you are poor in the richest countries on earth, what hope is there for you? Where can you go to find a better life? Migrants are richer than you, because they have hope and you do not. Despair is found even among those who are, in global terms, rich, when their hopes are dashed without reprieve.

As long as there is hope, there is life after death. Never again will I be able to sing the words "Ich starre dann, mit nassem Blick, und totenbleich und hager, den Himmel an" from Brahms's song An die Nachtigall without seeing my father's waxen face. But the song ends with hope, and the prospect of new life: "Fleuch, Nachtigall, in grüne Finsternisse, ins Haingesträuch, und spend' im Nest der treuen Gattin Küsse. Entfleuch!".

My father is gone, but I live on, and so do my children, his descendants. The night after he died, my daughter and I shared a meal and a bottle of wine, and watched a film together. Families are eternal, and life is good.

Related reading:

Reflections on death and immortality

Video is An Die Nachtigall, Brahms, performed by Anna Hofmann, soprano. Lyrics and translation can be found here


  1. I didn't see my father die, but I did see him laid out. 'Waxen' is right - I was expecting to have to remind myself that he wasn't still there, but in fact I had to remind myself that this thing *had been* his body, that it wasn't just a dummy.

    Death is cruel. You have my deepest sympathies, now and in what may be some tough months to come.

  2. Ms. Coppola. Condolences on the loss of your father.

    Sufism is the mystical branch of Islam, i.e., the Islamic path to enlightenment. It has as its goal, the death of the ego, which is called "fana". Mystics die, and are raised to life again. Buddhists know this state as "nirvana". The Hindus call it "moksha". Christians know it as being "born again" (no, not that common meaning of being born again). And so on. All mystics bear witness to life after death. Thus, their faith is turned into certainty. And in dying, they increase the faith of others.

    The Prophet Muhammad was referring to this ego death when he said: "Die before you die.". He also said: "Whosoever desires to see a dead man walking upon the face of the earth, let him look at Abu Bakr." (Abu Bakr was his closest companion, father-in-law, and the first Caliph after the Prophet died.)

    There is life after death. The twice-born attest to that.

    1. Please re-read the paragraph ending in "They are snake oil".

      You will find that Francis has already eloquently addressed promises of a life after death.

    2. Christians call it "resurrection".

      I do not know if it exists. And I do not think this should be our focus anyway. Our job is to make the best we can of THIS life, not hanker after the next.

  3. I have been following your blog for a long time and am sorry to hear about the loss of your father.

    The refugee/religion/general human selfishness I would like to address, but think that this is not the time. Maybe you can at some point address in in the future with another post?


  4. Hi Frances, I make a point of reading your excellent blog and occasionally find myself posting a (hopefully constructive) anonymous reply. I'm sorry to hear of the death of your father and I'd like to extend my condolences to you and your family. Losing a loved one is never an easy thing, but I hope you can take some small comfort in knowing that the thoughts of the many people you've reached with your writing over the years are with you.

  5. "Evil does not exist; once you have crossed the threshold, all is good. Once in another world, you must hold your tongue." —Franz Kafka

    Rumi says that there are two veils between a man and God—health and wealth—the other veils are derivatives of these veils. All suffering comes from God and it is part of the human condition. People see suffering coming from people rather than coming through people. They stop short at causes, short of the Causer of causes.

    When God loves a person, he rains down calamities on that person. Thus He draws that person close. The rest he showers with riches. As if to say: Go away, I have nothing to do with you.

    This is why the Bible says: "We glory in tribulations." —Romans 5:3

    Don't get me wrong, I hate suffering as much as the next person. But looking back at my life, I have never seen anything but good come out of my suffering. The good years on the other hand, few as they are, I consider to be wasted time. For I did not grow in those years.

    "In Italy for thirty years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love; they had five hundred years of democracy and peace and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock." —Orson Welles (The Third Man, 1949)

    Suffering notwithstanding, if I was a country, I'd rather be Italy than Switzerland.

    1. This is nothing like the God that I know. I do not believe that God deliberately causes suffering. He allows it to happen because of the hardness of our hearts, and because it is a natural part of the living system that he created. But to say that "when God loves a person, he rains down calamities on that person" - no, that is going too far. It is the snake oil of which I spoke. It is too often used to justify both inaction in the face of suffering and actual brutality. Enough. This must stop.

      I don't think the human measure of "greatness" in art and inventions is any measure of God's love for people.

    2. "The Human — the Divine

      When a human sovereign, even if he were the most absolute, needs a person to keep others in line, how does he go about it? Well, he gives this person wine and cakes and sweet words and all earthly glory, etc. — and then says: Now go out and crack down on the others.

      It is quite different with God. When he is going to use a person to bring the others in line, how does he go about it? This person is, so to speak, summoned [kaldt op]. Then, if I dare put it this way, God takes this person in his own hands and gives him a sound thrashing. And then he says: Go out and bring the rest in line. In the service of God the rule is that no one gets orders to thrash others more than he himself has been thrashed, or a fraction thereof.

      Why the difference? Because God is in truth sovereign; God only figuratively 'needs' a man, for God needs no one. Every human sovereign needs a man, and therefore he can express sovereignty only in the latter relationship." —Søren Kierkegaard

    3. "And while Teresa’s spirituality was a deeply reverential one, her humor also evinces a kind of playfulness in her relationship with God. Once, when she was travelling to one of her convents, St. Teresa of Ávila was knocked off her donkey and fell into the mud, injuring her leg. “Lord,” she said, “you couldn’t have picked a worse time for this to happen. Why would you let this happen?”

      And the response in prayer that she heard was, “That is how I treat my friends.”

      Teresa answered, “And that is why you have so few of them!”

    4. In my piece I observed that the promise of life after death is used to justify brutality. This quote from Kirkegaard simply proves my point. It is snake oil.

      I have already made it clear that I do not see God as the violent thug you portray. Since I have written this post as a reflection on my father's death, not as a religious tract, I also find your posts utterly insensitive and inconsiderate. Please don't post any more.

    5. I apologize if I've offended you. That is not my intent. My intention was to show that outside of God, there is no power. It was to free you from the idea that dark forces hold some kind of power over us. They don't.

      Please note that my post about St. Teresa of Avila was posted at the same time as your reply as you can see from the time stamp. I only just refreshed my browser and saw your reply (I did not see your reply when I posted it). Which is why I posted one more time lest you think me insensitive in not respecting your wish not to post.

      I will not post anymore on this subject.

      If you wish, feel free to delete all my posts here. I will understand.

  6. all living things will feel death and will arrive in time, but we will never know after that death and until now it remains a secret of a God until the time comes we will feel that and no one will know about the journey after death.


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