Cliff Pickover's new book is Death and the Afterlife: A Chronological Journey, from Cremation to Quantum Resurrection. Death is the one thing we all have in common, and it's been that way ever since humans have been around. Not only have people in every historical era wrestled with the knowledge of one's own impending death, but each era and culture has developed its own customs, mythology, and folklore surrouding our ultimate fate and what may come after. Some of these ideas are universal; others are unique to the time and place. Death has been studied in the context of religion, psychology, biology, physics, philosophy, medicine, and art.
Death and the Afterlife follows the format of Pickover's earlier projects The Math Book, The Physics Book, and The Medical Book, in that items about the history of beliefs and customs surrounding death are laid out in chronological order, with a page devoted to each. Accompanying each page is a gorgeous, but often terrifying illustration on the subject at hand. You can easily skip around to subjects that catch your fancy, or read them in order, a little at a time, or all at once. The 100 entries tackle diverse ideas such as funeral rites, heaven and hell, reincarnation, autopsies, ghosts, premature burial, cryonics, abortion, ossuaries, kamikaze pilots, vampires, hospice, capital punishment, near-death experiences... all the way to the end of the universe and beyond.
1550 BC: Egyptian Book of the Dead. The ancient Egyptian ritual of “opening of the mouth” described in the Book of the Dead is performed so that the deceased can eat and drink in the afterlife. In this c. 1300 BCE papyrus, the jackal-headed god Anubis is shown supporting the mummy of the scribe Hunefer while three priests carry out the ritual.
From the introduction to Death and the Afterlife:
I have had a longtime fascination with death, dying, consciousness, the afterlife, and topics at the borderlands of science. Some of my interest was rekindled after reading freelance writer Greta Christina’s 2005 essay “Comforting Thoughts about Death That Have Nothing to Do with God.” Greta writes, “The fact that your life span is an infinitesimally tiny fragment in the life of the universe, that there is, at the very least, a strong possibility that when you die, you disappear completely and forever, and that in five hundred years nobody will remember you . . . [this] can make you feel erased, wipe out joy, make your life seem like ashes in your hands.” And then I sigh. Greta admits that she doesn’t know what happens when we die, but she doesn’t think this essential mystery really matters. She reminds us that we should be happy because it is amazing that we even get a chance to be alive. We get to be conscious: “We get to be connected with each other and with the world, and we get to be aware of that connection and to spend a few years mucking about its possibilities.” Her essay ends on a bright note as she enumerates items that contribute to her happiness, such as Shakespeare, sex, five-spice chicken, Thai restaurants, Louis Armstrong, and drifting patterns in the clouds.
As you read through Death and the Afterlife, remember that even if we may consider some of the ideas and rituals surrounding death unscientific, these are all still worthy areas of study. And the subjects we address are not all depressing. Our rituals and myths are, at minimum, fascinating models of human understanding and creativity—and of how we reach across cultures to understand one another and learn about what we hold sacred.
Our brains may be wired with a desire for magic, unseen forces and a need to exert control over the universe and have our deepest fantasies fulfilled. Perhaps our brains and cultural evolution operate in a way that predisposes us to believe in the soul, spirits, and the afterlife to foster community cohesion and create a sense of peace as the deaths of family members, and of ourselves, approach. The reasons for our fascination with death and the rituals we use to make sense of death are buried deep in the essence of our nature. Ideas about death, religion, mythology, and the afterlife are at the edges of the known and the unknown, poised on the fractal boundaries of psychology, history, philosophy, biology, and many other scientific disciplines. Humans need to make sense of the world and will surely continue to use both logic and mystical thinking for that task. What patterns and connections will we see as the twenty-first century progresses? How will we continue to cope with death—or elude death—in the future?
Check out some examples of the subjects and their accompanying artwork from Death and the Afterlife.
80 CE: Outer Darkness. The Ladder of Divine Ascent, a twelfth-century painting at St. Catherine’s Monastery at the foot of Mount Sinai in Egypt. The monks are tempted and pulled down by demons, while angels encourage them to continue their ascent to the top of the thirty-rung ladder, where Jesus is waiting for them. At the bottom of the painting, the gaping mouth of the Devil is visible.
100 CE: Ghosts. This illustration by famous Japanese painter and printmaker Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1797–1861) shows an enormous ghost reciting a poem outside the study of the poet Minamoto no Tsunenobu (1016–1097).
1424 CE: Grim Reaper. This illustration in Le Petit Journal (December 1912) shows the Grim Reaper bringing death by cholera to the masses.
c. 1805: Jacob’s Ladder. Jacob’s Dream (c. 1805) by English painter William Blake.
1880: Walking Corpse Syndrome. People with Cotard’s Syndrome believe that they have lost organs or are animated corpses. Shown here is a walking corpse with missing viscera from Tabulae sceleti et musculorum corporis (1749) by German-born anatomist Bernhard Siegfried Albinus (1697–1770).
1896: The Garden of Death. The Garden of Death (watercolor and gouache) by Hugo Simberg.
1968: Brain Death. Created for the use of a monk, this ivory pendant (c. 1600) at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore illustrates the fuzzy line between life and death. For example, brain-dead people still have organs that function, wounds that heal, and reactions to stimuli.
Death and the Afterlife by Clifford A Pickover is available now at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or a bookstore near you. It'll make great reading for yourself, and a great Halloween or Christmas gift for any thoughtful reader.