Yesterday I found myself alone in a room with the body of a deceased person.
My husband’s grandfather passed away this weekend after a long illness, and we went to the funeral yesterday. We arrived at the funeral home an hour early, and I went inside to use the restroom while my husband gave the kids some snacks in the car. As I walked through the lobby to the restroom near the little nondenominational chapel, I realized there was nobody else in the building. It was completely silent.
As I walked back toward the lobby, I saw someone in the next room. I was startled to realize it was my husband’s grandfather, lying in an open casket in the viewing room. I hadn’t expected there to be a viewing, and I only met him a couple times, but it felt somehow rude to just walk by. So I crept into the room and stood next to the white coffin for a moment. Everything was so still. My breathing was the only motion, the only sound in the whole building.
As I said a couple prayers for his soul, I realized that this was the first viewing I’d attended since I was an atheist.
What surprised me about that was that it didn’t feel all that different from the last time I went to a viewing before a funeral, back when I was a teenager. Not that I expected a chorus of angels or to hear the voice of God or anything, but I guess I thought it would feel noticeably different to see death face-to-face now that I’m aware of God’s existence. But it didn’t. It didn’t feel different because seeing death so close up, then as now, stripped away any high-minded theories or explanations I might try to invoke and left me only with a certain unmistakable feeling, a feeling that came from some primordial part of my mind.
Yesterday, I was able to put my finger on just what that feeling was. I realized in that moment, standing next to a body in an open coffin in a silent room, that I was aware of something at the very deepest level of my consciousness. It was something simultaneously obvious yet easy to ignore, like the fact that there was a ceiling above my head and a floor beneath my feet. It was something I’d felt before, when I looked at my grandmother in her coffin as an atheist teenager so many years ago:
This is only a body. The soul lives on.
In that room yesterday, I didn’t think that that man had an eternal soul because I’ve read about it in theology books or because it says so in the Bible. It wasn’t that I wished or hoped or wanted this death to be a separation of the corporeal body from the incorporeal soul; rather, it was something I was simply aware of. I was aware of it on such a fundamental, primitive level that it surpassed the need for words. It would have been easy to let more loud, conscious thoughts distract from it (as I did when I was a teenager). If there had been anyone else in the room, anything else going on in the building to attract my attention, I might not have noticed this awareness at all.
I’ve heard a lot of theories about why every known group of humans throughout history has had belief in some sort of spiritual realm. Some theories suggest that perhaps evolution favored people who were religious, others posit that the wiring of our brains gives us the need to come up with comforting stories about death, and yet others theorize that spiritual belief systems provide means for people to wield power.
Yesterday morning, it was so simple, so clear.
We humans don’t come up with spiritual beliefs because of some complicated interaction of evolved needs and wants. Cultures where illness and death are rampant don’t tend to be more religious because people need nice stories to tell themselves. Humans believe in another realm — and seek religion to find out more about it — because of the fact of the soul, a fact that one only needs to see a lifeless body to be aware of.
I realized yesterday that if I were to have lived my whole life in a cave, that if you stripped away all cultural and educational influences, even my ability to use language to make sense of the world, I would be left with only the most basic, ancient knowledge of only those things that are inscribed on the human heart. And one of those things is that life does not end at death. Even if I’d always lived in the most isolated and primitive of settings, when I saw the body of a deceased human being I would be aware that I was looking at a separation, not an end; that it is only because of the limits of my five senses that I can no longer see the life that once animated this body. I know this not because of books and philosophies, but for the same reason all my ancestors going back to the first man and woman knew it: because we’re human. To be human is to be aware of the soul.
I suppose this story wouldn’t be complete without adding a footnote to tell what happened next, which proves that even the most solemn occasions can be turned into what my husband calls “Jen moments”: I returned to the car to tell my husband about the prayers I had said for his grandfather, and the powerful time that I spent with him. He informed me that we were at the wrong funeral home. That wasn’t his grandfather. (Have I ever mentioned I’m really bad with faces?)
So, to the gentleman with whom I spent a few quiet moments in a little funeral parlor in Waco, TX on a misty Wednesday morning: requiescat in pace. I may not have known you in this life, but may we both end up in the place of peace, and meet again on the other side.
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