On the Nature of Death

Posted: September 14, 2013 in Piano

I researched my family history years ago, before the age of the internet. I worked on it on and off for twenty years. In addition to researching the names of distant relatives, you also become familiar with their history. My oldest relatives migrated across Pennsylvania and settled in West Virginia around 1770 when that area was occupied by Native Americans. When your research requires that you locate a relative that moved out of the area, it helps to study the factors that caused people to relocate. I read about the lifestyles of the Native Americans because their decisions often impacted the decisions of early settlers in that region of West Virginia.

One of the notable things I read about Native Americans was their view about death. You may recall that their ideas were affected by an understanding best described as naturalistic. The world, and everything in it, was connected. There was a spirit world, and everything in the world was connected to that world.  In simple terms, there is the body that lives with the spirit, and after death, the body ceases to live but the spirit lives on.

I wish I had retained the source material, but there was one explanation about death that I read which has stayed with me. It was the idea that death occurs in stages. Each stage was given a name. I can’t recall the names, but I do remember the logic which determined how the stages were defined.

Stage 1 – If there are people who knew the deceased, then the spirit lives in stage 1. When there are no longer any persons alive who actually knew the deceased, then Stage 2 begins.

Stage 2 – There are no persons who knew the deceased firsthand, but there remain people who knew people who knew the deceased. So this would be like your grandmother who tells you about her grandfather. You did not know the grandfather, but she did. For this reason, his spirit lives in Stage 1 for her, stage 2 for you.

Stage 3 – There are no longer any persons who knew the deceased, and no one lives who knew anyone who knew or heard of the deceased. By this account, the spirit of Thomas Jefferson still lives, but the spirit of my relatives who lived in 1770 have moved on. Their spirits no longer live in a state that we can identify. In this stage the spirit truly leaves this world (of knowing) and finally resides in the spirit world, that “other worldly” place that we believe exists.

So the exercise here is to realize that there is much value in the memory of a departed loved one or friend. In our culture we are taught to accept that death is final. But common sense, and our own experiences, teach us that the finality of death does not align with our own awareness.

When we realize that a person lives in us through our memories, then we accept the idea that we have not defined death accurately. We experience discomfort because we are not taught to understand that a spirit lives among us after a body dies. But in fact, that spirit does live for us in our memories and our daily encounters of the world that we experienced with the dearly departed.

Is the spirit a real thing? Does it really exist? Am I just fooling myself with all these words that twist the understanding to embrace a different notion about death? The answers to these questions are easy to answer if you come to understand that our reality is every bit an illusion as is the understanding of spirits, heavens and hells. There is a limit to what we can know, and if you want to ask questions about things which have no absolute answer, then you will soon discover that we do not know much about anything at all.

Instead, ask the questions a different way. Is the spirit of my father real to me? Does it really exist, for me? Am I just fooling myself with all these words that twist my understanding? Now we have another simple answer. “Yes, for me.” This is a healthy view which helps us build a paradigm that can help us understand why it “seems” that someone who has passed is still with us.

How is he still with us? He is with me because I am aware of the memories of his existence. I am aware of the world in which we walked together. It is not his body that I remember – I accept that the body has retired – rather, it is this “other worldly” state where I find that the essence of who he was, as I remember him, still exists for me.

And with this understanding, you can see that death cannot be so easily defined in absolute terms.  Death (and life)  can be defined in broader terms, based on a more reasonable criteria. The spirit finally rests when all memories of it release their claim upon it.

Much of life is a story. If we hold a ruler to our stories, they often do not measure up. When it comes to stories, throw away the ruler. Death is not defined by others, just as your life is not defined by others. Live your life, enjoy those spirits that live within you, and preserve the memory of those who are now departed. You cannot walk with them now, but you can still hold hands.


  1. hippocampa says:

    It is spot on. My dad is still here, I hear his hearty laugh ringing in my ears, I see the sparkle in his eyes when he’s about to say something funny. I know what he would say to what I would ask him. It is a blessing to have such rich memories of such a fantastic dad. He isn’t really gone. It is just hard that we won’t be making new memories anymore.