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.

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18 Responses to Endings

  1. Rain says:

    Do you ever think that sometimes ideas go out in the universe and many of us pick them up? So much of what you were writing about here I either have recently or have a set of blogs to post when I finish my thoughts on them and they are so like yours here. Like it’s in the wind and some of us latch onto it. I don’t have an answer to the question but it does make me wonder.

    I like visiting old cemeteries. I won’t be in one though as I like the idea of cremation with no grave and certainly no urn! I do think about it though, the idea of my body being changed into something different. I even considered if the energy usage of cremation was too much given how we have to do it but it seems like in the end it probably also averages out. I certainly like the idea of ashes better than ‘mouldering’ in a grave and embalming really seems unappealing. A nice clean flame seems as appealing as any; of course, giving up this body isn’t real appealing period but as you said, it’s the end for us all

  2. Annie says:

    I’ve been reading about past civilizations too, and it is very interesting all the ancient cultures that are no more. But we could say that about the worlds we grew up in, our grandkids would hardly recognize the cultures and technologies (or lack thereof!) we knew as kids.

    I read that Mesopotamian culture did not so much collapse as get superceded by the more modern Greek culture, it was more exciting for Babylonians to take up Greek forms than to hang onto the boring old Babylonian culture. We humans, we just love the new stuff! But for every new thing, we give up something old. Next thing you know it’s in a history book or museum somewhere.

    I read and think about those ancient cultures in an effort to see where we have all come from, where we might be headed. I’m guessing us older folk get interested in that kind of thing now that we are ourselves looking at personal endings. I can sympathize with those Incan rulers and their mummies, even if it was a rather misguided attempt at immortality. It’s hard to think that we might disappear without a trace, without having left a mark for future humans to remember us by.

  3. dale says:

    I think the most valuable thing my Buddhist practice has given me is a real — though shifting and unstable — understanding that what I designate as “me” is arbitrary and conventional. Where do I go when I die? Well, nowhere: “I” wasn’t here in the first place. It sounds like sleight-of-words, and without a meditation practice, that’s all it is: but after much practice I can sometimes feel how cramped and ill-fitting this “I” is, what a silly compounding error it is. And then I don’t look forward to its disappearance with much dread.

    Like falling asleep: I fight it sometimes, fearing the loss of — what? At some point, from inside the sleep, maybe — I realize, oh, there’s nothing here to lose, there’s nothing going away, not really.

    Anyway — another lovely post!

  4. Hattie says:

    What a nice meditation. My yoga teacher reminds me that all that exists is the now. To me it’s time itself that fascinates. That’s the mystery.

  5. Betty says:

    Beautifully said. I take my ipad and my Josie to bed … listen to Will Durant’s The Greatest Minds and Ideas of All Time and itunes u lectures because I have little formal education. Its lovely but at times a warm body would be better! Josie never laughs out loud!

  6. Your post triggered off different responses in me. It was very well written and it encompassed everything I love about life: the wonders and mysteries of it.

    Sometimes I catch myself thinking; “But I’m an atheist! How can I believe inthe after-life?” But part of me does. At least the spiritual side of us floats around in empty space, waiting to reincarnate in someone else.

    What a wonderful post. Many thanks.

    Greetings from London.

  7. Mage B says:

    It’s good to see you writing again. I’ve missed you. Did you take lots of pictures of the cement mausoleum? Visual me would love to see it. Are you painting?

    I’m moving on to Travels with Ben. 🙂

  8. Brighid says:

    So glad your writing again. I often come here for a spot of grounding.

  9. Duchess says:

    When she worries about the energy usage of cremation Rain might be comforted to know that one city in the UK has decided to connect the crematorium to the local leisure centre so that the waste energy from burning bodies heats the swimming pool.

    There was mixed reaction to this. The local government official blamed it on the recession, saying that in the current economic climate we couldn’t afford waste.

    I was a little taken aback at first, but decided that a last(ish) contribution that kept laughing, splashing children warm was not so bad.

    Good post, Old Woman, as ever.

  10. Darlene says:

    Such deep thoughts. I don’t believe in a hereafter and am going to be cremated. When my ending comes it will truly be an end. Perhaps an atom or two will be carried by the smoke from the crematorium or will survive in the bone fragments. I don’t worry or think about it because I will be no longer know what is happening any more than I knew before I was born.

    Not only have civilizations ended, but governments have died out too. Life is never stagnant and moves from one period to the next.

    I think I first thought about such matters when I visited the ruins of Knossos and realized that I was walking on the same paths that ancient people had trod. Knowing their culture, religion and lifestyle were gone while some of their crumbling buildings and artifacts survived gave me an eerie feeling. I was aware of how truly impermanent life is.

    My philosophy is to enjoy the here and now because in the final analysis, that’s all there is.

  11. wisewebwoman says:

    And what truly fascinates me is that time is merely a human construct. There is no such thing as “time”. I also ponder on all the dimensions, some of which we cannot grasp in our mere humanity.
    Excellent post Anne, got everyone thinking, I see.

  12. lawyerdaughter says:

    Having been a history major in college, I always appreciate it when you write on the subject. As far as your musings on the practice of religion because of fear of death or “buying” some kind of ticket to the afterlife, I suppose some people might do so, but most people I know who are truly in touch with God are not motivated by this.
    My connection with God informs my life in the here and now. The Holy Spirit gives me peace, joy, and direction. This connection gives me the strength to strive to be the person of love and decency I should be on this earth.
    My attendance at religious services help keep ever present in my mind my obligation to love others of this earth, a duty easily forgotten as we struggle though a life rife with problems and worldly cares that tend to pull us away from a life of love with our fellow travelers. My receiving that sacraments is a source of strength and love.
    I am not saying non believers are not capable of lives of virtue and love. Frankly, I think those atheists known to us who do so are supported and surrounded by God, but do not recognize it. I do not think they are going to be locked out of heaven because they have not bought their “ticket”.
    I realize this does not agree with Catholic orthodoxy,(for those who do not know, I am a very liberal Roman Catholic) but thankfully, I am a post Vatican II Catholic, and I can go through the process of discernment to determine truth, even if that truth disagrees with the Vatican. There are many issues I take issue with in my own church as well as other sects of Christianity and indeed other faiths. I think this is probably true of most people who identify with a certain faith.
    I just know that in my own experience my ability to commune with God, personally and through my faith community, makes my life so rich, and my ability to serve others so much more likely. I wish I could give this gift to all, especially those I love, because I know what it has meant to me. However,I make no effort to proselytize, 1) because I believe my path is not the only path to God, and 2) I am fairly certain this gift is found, not given.
    I do believe in the hereafter, I have no doubts. However, if I were to discover that the end truly was the end, I would not change what I am doing one whit, past, present, or future.

  13. Natalie says:

    Anne, a very interesting post.I agree with much of what you daughter wrote on this subject. I too believe that death is not the end but my belief is more of an instinct and not informed by what I was taught in (Catholic) religious education, nor is it wishful thinking. I don’t think there’s a heaven or hell or that those concepts mean anything at all in a dimension we know nothing about. Much of what is considered rational thinking operates within limits that one doesn’t necessarily have to abide by. Just because there’s a fence around a field doesn’t mean one can’t climb over it!

  14. susan says:

    I came by via Martha’s blog and glad I did. This is an excellent piece and very beautifully written. We’re here for such a short time but in a way every day is eternal.

  15. pauline says:

    Such a well written and thought-provoking piece. I like the Tibetan practice of taking the deceased’s body to a lonely mountain top to feed the vultures and other creatures who survive on such matter. Everything is connected, in life and death, and on my own change-form day I both hope I’m aware and don’t mind if I’m not.

  16. A beautifully written, well balanced piece. It is good to hear others — you and many of those commenting — who believe as I do about death and no afterlife. Also good to see so many have an interest in ancient cultures which I’ve always had. The sense of being in a continuum of civilizations is satisfying. Your evening routine sounds very peaceful — loved that book too. So glad I’ve found your blog, thanks to As Time Goes By listing.

  17. I’ve been thinking a lot about beginnings and endings lately too. I think I must be going through what others would call a mid-life crisis. My parents have just turned 80. A man I nearly married in my twenties has recently “found” me through my blog and initiated contact … bringing back all sorts of memories of a younger me. Life … it is a funny thing, isn’t it?

  18. Lavenderbay says:

    Your description of the mausoleum put a smile on my face. What a great way for the cement tycoon to advertise his wares! “If it’s good enough for our family’s hereafter, it’s good enough for your front walk.” Brilliant!

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