Jerry took me and the poodles to San Juan Island this weekend. That is where he lived before we were married and he has friends there he likes to see. He also checks his brother’s property — a little house and airplane hangar beside a private airstrip at Roche Harbor. The property is near a mausoleum and an old grave yard that has been designated a National Historical Site. Jerry said I should see it and I reluctantly agreed. The word mausoleum has an unpleasant sound — it has sounds like the words nausea and maul and it brings to mind coffins and dead bodies. It was a wet, chilly, dismal day. But the poodles needed a walk so we set out through the woods of the old grave yard to have a look at the mausoleum.
The woods had that extra dead look they sometimes get just before spring begins. The graves were littered with sticks and branches that had blown down in winter storms. They were surrounded by little picket fences with peeling paint. Some graves were missing stones. There were grave markers of young children that said “Asleep in Jesus;” one of a woman who had died at 39 years of age which said “Gone, but not forgotten.” Many were too worn to read. They were all more than 100 years old.
I had no idea what the mausoleum would be like and I was slightly apprehensive. It turned out to be sad and rather silly: a rich man’s eccentric reach for immortality. It was a lime-stone cement construction, built in the 1920‘s, I think. It is a memorial to the family of John McMillin, the founder of the lime kiln and cement factory in Roche Harbor.
Steps led to a raised round pavilion with a cement canopy open to the sky held up by seven fluted columns. One of the columns was incomplete, and this was supposed to symbolize man’s unfinished work on earth. A cement table in the middle of the pavilion was surrounded by cement chairs, each with the name of one of those buried there. The cement had been colored. The colors were fading and the cement was chipped and cracked. There were names of 2 women and 4 men carved into the chairs. The women’s chairs had only their names and dates on them, but the men’s had, in addition, carved into the chair backs the things (a metal plaque informed the visitor) they believed in and thought were important: things like “Elks” “Sigma Xi” “Methodist” “Knights Templar” and “Republican.”
I had been thinking about writing a post about endings. Seeing the mausoleum fit right into my train of thought.
When Jerry and I go to bed at night I read to him until he gets sleepy. The book we are reading now is Age of Wonder. It is a history of science in the romantic era, the end of the 18th and beginning of the 19th centuries. It combines a discussion of scientific discoveries with biographies of important scientists of the time in the cultural milieu of romanticism. That time is past, those people are gone.
Just before we get in bed we sit together on the sofa, with our poodles, and watch a lecture from the Teaching Company. Almost all the lectures are about the past — the history of the earth, the history of science, the history of countries and governments, of culture and art. It’s all about beginnings and middles and ends. About origin, growth, decline, collapse and death.
Our current lecture series is called the origin of civilization. It is about vanished civilizations of the past. Nothing is left of them save the artifacts that archeologists dig up and study. Some of the cultures the lecture course covers lasted for a thousand years or more; even so, now they are gone. The people left their houses, abandoned their gods, neglected the lessons of their ancestors, forgot how to write, and died. Many things happened to bring this about, some known, some only guessed at. Volcanoes erupted, droughts and famines arose, pestilence came or war broke out. Perhaps there were earthquakes and tsunamis. Perhaps dictators’ rule elicited civil unrest; perhaps the land was exhausted by intensive farming.
But no cultures survived.
Oh, certainly, some people survived. There are Mayans living today on the Yucatan Peninsula. But the Mayan culture is long dead.
Then I think about the dinosaurs. The books and lectures we went to sleep on a few months ago were about the history of the earth and the history of life. What happened to the dinosaurs? Was it a meteor, climate change, disease? I look out the window as I sit at my computer, see my bird feeder and wonder whether birds are the tiny survivors of the dinosaurs. They probably are, and if so, should I think of them as dinosaurs, or have they changed so much that they are completely different entities. Well, they are what they are. Hans Larsson is trying to reverse engineer chicken DNA to make a dinosaur. We’ll see.
What about woolly mammoths. Did the people who migrated across the dry land of the Bering Strait in the ice age kill them off? Could somebody get mammoth DNA to grow, say, in a buffalo’s egg ,so we could see a real live mammoth?
Everyone is aging. Everyone will die. Now that I am in my late 70’s I see changes every day, and I know the end is not far away. The substance of my body is atoms and molecules in a particular relationship to each other. The atoms will still exist when I die but their arrangement will change. They will find their way into other things; the atmosphere, the water, the soil, perhaps some other creature or plant. What makes me an entity is the particular relationship of my molecules to each other, and their history; that is, the life I have lived has been imprinted on those molecular arrangements as memory, as usage, as wear and tear, as habit, as consumption and elimination.
During my long life many, if not most, of my atoms have been replaced, exchanged, reorganized, rearranged. But there is a core relationship, DNA, present in most of my cells, that remains a constant. In addition, there is an identity of me, Anne, that is not reproducible. Even if my DNA were re-grown into an individual identical to me it would not be me. It would be my identical twin. There is no way to reproduce my experience or consciousness. When I die what will be gone is the sum of my experience together with the arrangement of my molecules.
Life perpetuates itself. It just works that way. It’s natural to ask why, as if there must be a conscious purpose to keep going. The teleological question — why — has no answer, however, because questions of purpose make no sense scientifically. Someday, perhaps, scientists will understand the physical force that makes life self-perpetuate — or maybe that will be part of the unfinished business of humanity when it vanishes from the earth as it inevitably will. Because, of course, life will lose the struggle in the end. It will cease to exist on this planet. The earth will end. The sun will die.
People have purpose, however. They try in all sorts of ways to outwit fate and convince themselves that death is not an end. They try with mausoleums, embalming, ceremony, sacrifice to the gods and prayers.
The Incas embalmed their dead rulers and the ruler’s wealthy descendants served as his courtiers, displaying his mummified body on ceremonial occasions. Over time there came to be many of these mummified individuals, paraded about in a ritual display with many followers. A living ruler had to amass enough wealth in his lifetime to do the same after his death. By the time the Spaniards came to conquer them the Incas were weakened by the economic drain of having to maintain courts for all those dead mummified rulers. They were trying to outwit fate. Trying not to be forgotten. The Spaniards destroyed the mummies and their trappings.
In one way or another the end is there from the beginning. Last night Jerry and I began to watch a new lecture series about evolution, and it starts with a discussion of deep space and deep time. Deep time refers to time spans so vast as to be incomprehensible compared to a human lifetime.
Life evolved over time, and in time everything ends.