In the Middle Ages, especially in the wake of the Black Death, there was a Latin inscription that permeated virtually everything. Memento mori. Remember that you will have to die. One of the popular ways to remind people of this great equalizer was to entomb a body, usually a noble or a royal, in a glass coffin, visible to all who visit the tomb. Above the coffin was a stone effigy resembling the body as it was at the moment of death, before desiccation begins. It was a silent reminder of what was going on in the mass graves. Even if you were one of the lucky ones that survived, death claimed anywhere from 30-60% of the people around you, depending on exactly when and where you lived. Give that a think. Consider what it might do to a population where the prevailing zeitgeist is Christianity.
Now consider that everyone across the globe, in every culture, confronts the exact same reality. We will all die. Once upon a time, ancient humans and proto-humans before them witnessed the very same thing happening around them. Then, as now, explanations were needed to help stave off fear, both personal and en masse.
Philosopher Stephen Cave has looked into the beliefs of death and somehow managed to whittle it down into four basic stories that define how humanity pushed back against personal finality.
The best way I know to summarize this book is to let the author do it for you. This TED talk is essentially a 15 minute overview of the book. If you’re interested in what you hear, this book is for you.
With an understanding of the four stories Cave offers, the book expands upon each of these stories, going into the histories and philosophies behind each one. It may be impossible to separate the idea of how morbid it is, but it’s still fascinating all the same. At least, I think so. Depending on what your personal spiritual or religious beliefs may be, you may find yourself bristling at any one or more of these ideas. Some of the conclusions could lead to existential meltdown. Everyone reacts differently, after all. For many, a direct challenge to faith is just begging for a fight. Others will welcome the opportunity to prove the conclusions of this book wrong, and others still will find an uncomfortable truth. Perception defines reality.
As someone who is highly spiritual and completely non-aligned, dogmatically speaking, this book is still an interesting read. How could be otherwise? Even so, I still have some fundamental problems with its limitations, mostly due to my own personal experiences. If you’ll forgive the Trekkie in me: “It would be impossible to discuss the subject without a common frame of reference.” (Spock, Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home) While we all have the same common frame that we don’t know what will happen when we die, the point of the book is that we tell these stories throughout time and culture precisely because we don’t know. We have books that tell us and bring us comfort. The people that wrote them didn’t know either. That’s where the idea of Jesus comes in, for example, because authority is granted if someone can die and come back to tell about it. Every religion has something upon which its authority is based, else that religion wouldn’t exist as it does. This book flies in the face of all of it from the standpoint of logic, dismissing understandings of faith. The logic of the mind isn’t the same as the logic of the heart. The arguments in favor of neuroscience, against the possibility of a soul… well, it speaks for itself. The more religious you are, the more personally you’re likely to react to that. There are questions asked in this book that cannot truly be answered regardless of where you stand. In that regard, perhaps Spock is correct. That’s not to say Cave doesn’t give it his all, and that, in my opinion, is philosophy at its best, no matter what our counterarguments may entail.
What this book does not do is take into account what’s beyond those stories. It’s not the scope of the book, for example, to discuss things like near-death experience, angelic encounters, and so on. It’s more “common frame of reference” type stuff that makes an otherwise logical and simple presentation into something truly messy because hard science can’t and won’t comment upon it without abject dismissal. On one hand, some might consider the examination of such things to undermine Cave’s credibility and the point of the book. On the other, maybe that’s a companion book that needs to be written, though it’s not likely to happen based on the author’s views here.
What this book does quite brilliantly is stick to the point of those four basic stories of immortality. For the serious student of such matters, bibliographical annotation would be nice for cross-referencing or further reading. In the end, as I say, the more dogmatic your approach to faith is, the more likely you’ll be to reject the author and his conclusions out of hand. It’ll feel like standard strawmen arguments, though I would argue that faith unchallenged isn’t faith at all. Atheists and agnostics will likely get more from it, though that will also likely defeat the point of asking the big questions. And probably no one will get a warm fuzzy feeling from it, no matter how you look at it. What you bring into it, and what you put into it, is what you’ll get out of it. For my part, I see a book like this as a window for further self-examination, so it was worth it for me.