Death: The Great Blackboard Eraser

Jeremiah Bartlett

To me, one of the more intriguing aspects of life—in particular, “intelligent” life—is that once a life has ended it is as if it never happened, at least to the one who lived it. The reason is simple: As the memory is housed in the brain and the brain would be dead and hence no longer functioning, any and all memory of one’s life on Earth must cease to exist the instant that death occurs. As memory is an intrinsic part of life, it follows that without life there is no memory. Granted, there are those who believe the opposite: that life, and with it memory, somehow continues to endure in some form or other after physical death. But this is belief, not fact, and as such cannot be empirically proven. Or, to be more precise, that argument has not been proven so far; whether it could ever be proven is uncertain. As of now, however, any “life” after the one on Earth remains a matter of faith or belief.

What this means in practical terms is that the memory of one’s life resides solely in the memories of those who are still alive. George Washington does not remember that he was the father of our country and its first president, nor does Adolf Hitler remember that he was a heartless monster responsible for the deaths of millions of his fellow human beings. Prince or pauper, beggar or king, saint or sinner, master or slave, benevolent or rapacious, genius or cretin, male or female—no one who is deceased remembers even the slightest detail of his or her life on Earth, as the memory has simply vanished, ceased to exist. Even if that were not the case, it would not be long (in cosmological terms) before everything that one had learned and experienced while on Earth was forgotten; indeed, much of the information received by the brain is forgotten long before a life ends. That is the nature of memory.

Only a handful of uncommon people are capable of remembering everything they feel or experience while alive; for everyone else, memory is as capricious as it is ephemeral. As noted, some people believe that life—and with it memory—continues on after one’s life on Earth has ended; others believe that the human spirit returns, perhaps in some other guise, to live again. These, however, are beliefs, not facts; as far as is known at this time, human lives are finite and given one to a customer. There are no do-overs; neither is there any verifiable proof of a life beyond the one on Earth. As it is, we must assume that life has meaning only while it is being lived. And even then, that meaning is filtered through the intellect and personal experiences of the one who is determining its relevance and value. Like snowflakes, no two meanings are exactly alike. And like snowflakes, once life and meaning are gone, they are gone forever.

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