It has been about forty-five years since I first became interested in studying death in a scholarly manner. At the time, I was an assistant professor of sociology at Bates College in Lewiston, Maine. At Bates, all seniors were required to write a thesis, a select subset of which consisted of honors theses. One of my students, Dennis C. Foss, chose to write his honors thesis on the topic of death. Subsequently, he and I collaborated in expanding and refining his original work into our 1972 book, The American View of Death: Acceptance or Denial?
In the early 1970s, I am reasonably certain that I lacked awareness of the term secular humanist. I was, however, a skeptic. Born in 1940 and raised in the Catholic tradition, by my early teen years I actually considered entering the priesthood or becoming a Brother of Christian Instruction.
What happened to change the trajectory of my religiosity? It’s difficult to answer, exactly. What comes to mind, though, is the recollection of my emerging commitments to the values of reason, science, integrity, compassion, and the search for “truth.”
During the time I was a “believer,” the acknowledged belief in the reality of death was nonproblematic, relatively. I believed:
- There is an afterlife;
- The afterlife consists of the alternative destinations of:
- (a) heaven,
- (b) hell,
- (c) purgatory, and
- (d) limbo; and
- How I behaved in this life would determine where I would spend the next. Acknowledging all this reality puts a lot of pressure on a person, to say the least.
Although the notions of heaven and hell are well understood by most, purgatory and limbo may be less familiar to those not raised in the Catholic tradition. Purgatory is that place in the afterlife reserved for souls that are not quite pure enough to be allowed entry into heaven. Limbo is that place just above hell set aside for the souls of infants who die before being baptized.
The strategy to ensure the best possible afterlife outcome was to avoid or minimize sinning. The problem was that there were so many ready ways to sin. In that regard, it was important to distinguish between two types of sin, venial and mortal. Venial sins were relatively minor, such as telling a little white lie or stealing ten cents from your mother’s pocketbook, which I confess that I actually did in my childhood. Mortal sins, on the other hand, if unconfessed and unforgiven, could gain you entry into hell.
Particularly challenging was the reality that mortal sins were so easily committed. The “seven deadly sins” were lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy, and pride. I still remember vividly a large mural in my Catholic elementary classroom depicting hell, accessible by seven portals and replete with raging fires, within which danced pitchfork-bearing and horned demons.
Not a day passed when I didn’t commit at least three of the seven deadly sins. Woe was me. The accompanying emotions of fear and guilt functioned as important mechanisms of social control. Combined with the laws of the state, most Catholics were under tremendous pressure to walk the “straight and narrow” most of the time.
But now that I self-identify as a secular humanist and deny the reality of the heaven, hell, purgatory, and limbo alternative afterlife destinations, my thoughts turn to my legacy and how my behavior in life might affect it. First and foremost, legacy is a social phenomenon, but it also has an important biological component through genetic transmission to one’s progeny: children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and so on.
In contemplating one’s social legacy, three fundamental questions come to mind, with particular salience attributable to the first two:
- Who will remember me?
- How will I be remembered? and
- For how long will I be remembered?
It is probably the case that most persons will be remembered by their progeny for one or two generations. Genealogy buffs undoubtedly can stretch the memory band considerably longer.
In that regard, I can trace my roots to seventeenth-century France, in particular to the province of Normandy. My early ancestor, Jacques Guiret dit Dumont, migrated to Quebec province, Canada, in 1790. My father was born in Trois Pistoles, Quebec, in 1917. In that same year, my mother was born in Sanford, Maine.
Regarding my social legacy, I hope that my attempts to live my life according to secular humanist beliefs, values, and prescribed behaviors will be determinative. This involves commitments to reason, science, integrity, and compassion. Am I uniformly and consistently in conformity with these principles? Of course not; I am human, after all. But I do try to the best of my limited abilities.
How long will I be remembered? The answer to that question may very well be largely dependent upon the volume of sales of my two recent books, Economic Inequality and What YOU Can Do about It (2012) and When Hate Happens, So Does Other Bad Stuff (2013). Such is life.