In Christian tradition and hagiography, the day a saint dies is considered his/her birthday. In this view, earthly life is, literally, no more than a trial-run before the Real Thing. God gave each of us an immortal soul at our first birth, and an appointed number of years to prove, before our death, that we are worthy of pie in the sky when we die. Whether we led a righteous life or not and ended up as sheep or goats, we will live forever. Up there in Heaven, or down there in Hell. In a world without end. Eternal reward or eternal punishment. Perpetual celestial feasting, including all-you-can-eat caviar (or prawns on the barbie for Australians) and T-bone steaks done the way we like them. Or we ourselves on the barbecue, well-done being the Devil’s preference.
As I celebrate this month my 77th birthday, I am conscious of the little time I have left before my supposed Real Birthday, the day I die. Give or take five, within fifteen years my earthly life will be all over. The prelude will have been played, the Overture will be over, and it’s “When the Saints Come Marching In” or “Dies Irae, dies illa”. Heaven or Hell. Jesus, by the way, was far more explicit about Hell than about Heaven. In Matthew’s Gospel (“GOOD News” ?), He warns us ominously : “The angels will hurl them (people like me) into the fiery furnace where they will wail and grind their teeth” (13:42), repeated word for word, in case you missed it, a few verses later (13:49-50). Scandalizing children (He could have added clerical pedophilia) will be punished by drowning à la Al Capone with a millstone around the neck, a variation on the Capo di Tutti Capi’s feet in concrete (18:6). To top it off, we have the prospect of an eternal home in “fiery Gehenna”, a putrid, flaming garbage dump outside Jerusalem (18:9) after the black-capped Judge’s sentence : “Out of my sight, you condemned, into the everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (25:41). All in all, Jesus was a nasty, vindictive despot whom fans of the Beatitudes and of the Good Shepherd tend to turn into a softie (or the Sacred Heart with those gentle eyes and the nifty logo on His chest). Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde ? Or Dr Jerry and Mr Love ?
Putting such nonsense aside, some people don’t specially want their earthly life to end. They would like not only to live a long time but, if they could, forever – here on earth. They would prefer to skip that “birthday” that is either the beginning of an after-life, for better or for worse, or the definitive end of existence. They would prefer not to die but they know they must. They are hoping – some are even confident and put their money where their fantasy is – that they can beat death by being resuscitated after being in the deep-freeze for as long as it takes, until science discovers a way to bring them back to life. They have purchased Prolonged Life Insurance from companies that offer either cryogenization, the conservation “sine die” of their corpse or at least their brain, or the conservation of skin-cells that could one day, before they die, be transformed into spare-parts to replace worn-out, defective organs, so that they can have, literally, a new lease on life (subject of a recent posting). Neither process is cheap : $200,000 for cryogenization of corpses performed by the Foundation Alcor, or $85,000 for the spare-parts solution offered by a biotechnology company called Cellectis.
Even if I could afford it, I wouldn’t bother trying to prolong my earthly existence. One of the spokemen for Cellectis has recently gone on record as saying : “I am certain that the first person to live 1000 years has already been born.” We’re talking tomorrow, folks ! Even if biotechnology succeeds in restoring or extending life, I will be quite happy to have had my four score and ten, give or take half a decade, and then pack it in. I find overpopulation is already a problem. It will soon be time for me to leave a little room for others and stop being a burden on Social Security. I leave to the wealthy self-centered eccentrics the pipe-dream of a longer life on earth, and to credulous non-atheists the illusion of an after-life. Meantime I’ll just continue to carpe the diem and enjoy life for as long as it lasts, or for as long as I decide to let it last … My good non-atheist friends, you can keep the faith, and immortality; I don’t need either.