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June 12, 2013

What Happens When We Die?


Many of you know I spend much of my time discussing philosophy, specifically the meaning of life and whether or not there is an afterlife.

This is probably because I surround myself with extremely intelligent people -- scholars, of course, but also scientific types.

If it weren't for time restraints we might spend hours in animated arguments about whether, for example, heaven really exists, or is the afterlife merely the accumulated wisdom of every mind that ever existed? Unfortunately, the debate is usually cut short when the chips and dips come out and the game begins, especially if there are beer commercials on, which invariably feature – speaking of heaven -- scantily clad women.

When I'm not getting all up in philosophical banter with the guys, I often discuss these things with Karen. Saturday was such a day – after shopping at King Kullen, cooking for two hours, and cleaning up after dinner, I was forced to watch some silly BBC thing chosen by my wife rather than a baseball game.

It was at that point I introduced a statement for the two of us to ponder: "Maybe this is actually hell, and I already died?" I wondered aloud. This drew a sharp rebuke from Karen, who pointed out that from her perspective it was more likely heaven we were existing in. After all, she had lounged at the pool, and was served a wonderful dinner replete with an expensive bottle of wine, and then lounged in the den while the table was cleared and the dishes were washed.

"I was thinking that if I go to heaven someone will wait on me," I said.

"Do you want me to cook for you?" Karen asked earnestly. How could I tell her that doing so would prove my contention that I already live in hell?

In Catholic school we were taught we live our lives with a singular goal: to get to heaven. To achieve that, one had to live a chaste, moral life, go to church every week and pray regularly.

The nuns also told us you had to be Catholic to get to heaven. This concerned me no end, since in the third grade my best friend in the neighborhood was Howie Levine.

"He'll make it to heaven, won't he Sister?" I asked Sister Mary Assumpta in a quivering voice. "He's my best friend."

She leaned down and looked me squarely in the eye, her kindly face sporting a thin smile. Then she slowly began shaking her head back and forth. "I'm afraid your little friend is doomed to hell," she said. And then she cackled ever so slightly.

Hell, as we all know, is an inferno, the flames burning the skin off our rotting carcasses while serpents sneer. But it doesn't just mercifully end after we are burned to a crisp. As one pundit once said, take eternity – all the years that have ever passed and all the time still to come, then multiply that by 10. That time will represent a tiny grain of sand on an ocean beach compared to our life in hell.

Damn, that's one slow roast, that's for sure. Must be more like a smokehouse than an inferno.

And then there's limbo. Limbo is a place kind of like heaven except God doesn't live there. The way it works is when you die St. Joseph and John the Baptist hold a pole up and you have to pass underneath by dancing to Caribbean music. They keep lowering the bar, one inch for every time you had an impure thought. If at any point you can't pass under it – boom! You're in limbo. Hell, I'd have to be a snake to make it under.

OK, I made that story up. The only good explanation I've ever heard about limbo came from my first grade nun, Sister Mother Superior. She said if a newborn baby, too young to have committed a sin but not yet baptized, were to suddenly die, the child would go not to heaven but to limbo.

I thought about that for a long time. Basically, what sins can a newborn baby commit? I mean, they can't commit adultery; I suppose they could covet their neighbor's crib or something like that. No matter how you slice it though, there must be a lot of dirty diapers in limbo, which is probably why God never visits there.

"Could maybe Howie get into limbo?" I asked Sister Grace Maureen, who was a kindly sort and hardly ever cackled.

"Maybe if you pray enough," she answered gently. That night I prayed until three in the morning but then I had impure thoughts so they probably negated each other.

The best explanation of heaven I ever heard was from my late brother, who said, "I don't really believe in it but I pray just in case I'm wrong."

Amen to that.

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