I awoke laughing from a dream. The funny thing is, the dream was about death, which is not normally a laughing matter. I was at a funeral reception, a very formal affair with memorial dishware that had been specially prepared in honor of the deceased. The only trouble was, the supposed deceased was neither dead nor departed but instead was mingling amiably with the guests. That's what struck me as funny, and I sensed the dream was using humor to make a point. But what, exactly?
As a young man I worked a brief stint as a hospital orderly, and one of my responsibilities was to transport dead patients to the morgue. We would do this in pairs, using a bare metal gurney. The body was already wrapped in a plastic shroud by the time we arrived at the patient's room. We would slide the body onto the gurney, cover it with a blanket and be on our way. My first time out, I lifted the cadaver by the shoulders from the bed, and the head landed on the metal stretcher with a resounding thunk. My partner snickered at my rookie mistake. I had not thought to support the head, since most people can hold their head up when they are moved. I had learned an important difference between a living person and a corpse.
As it happened, I had attended this person while she was still alive, and I at least knew her name. I don't recall it now, but I remember she was 59 years old when she died and had been an editor at Vogue. I learned this not from her but from reading her obituary a day or two later in the local paper. This became my regular practice as long as I worked at the hospital. It might seem like an odd way to get to know your patients, but often I did not encounter them until they were already wrapped in plastic. I'm still not sure why I bothered; perhaps I wanted to have some sense of them as a person rather than just as a corpse on its way to the morgue.
One of the distinguishing traits of our humanity is our treatment of death. The earliest hominid gravesites dating back more than 70,000 years already show signs of ritual burial. Neanderthals were often found buried in a fetal position with flowers in their hands and their bodies painted red. Their graves contained food, weapons and personal belongings, as if they had been prepared for a journey. Similar artifacts have been found in prehistoric gravesites of our own ancestors. There is no written record of their religious beliefs, but the archeological evidence suggests they did not regard death as the end.
How did such a notion arise? These aboriginal peoples were far more intimately acquainted with the reality of death than we are. Surely there was no mistaking a corpse for someone who was merely asleep, even though the bodies had been tucked into their graves as if for a long winter's nap. There may have been early intimations of immortality, tales brought back by shamans whose vision quests had taken them to the land of the dead. Or perhaps it was the same impulse that drove me to read the obituary page while I worked at the hospital, a desire to preserve some living remnant of the person whose dead flesh had been carted away to the morgue.
Perhaps Freud was right in thinking that our belief in immortality is entirely personal. We can't imagine our own death, and even if we attempt to do so we find we are still spectators at the event. As in the dream that woke me up laughing, the guest of honor at the funeral can't resist schmoozing with the other guests. "All men are mortal," observed the philosopher Martin Heidegger, "but not I."
Woody Allen once wisecracked that he wasn't afraid of death, he just didn't want to be there when it happened. In fact, we're not. Epicurus, who did not believe in the immortality of the soul, pointed this out long ago. "Death, the most terrifying of all ills, is nothing to us, since as long as we exist, death is not with us, and when death comes, then we do not exist." We are so caught up in the nightmare of death that we can't see the whole thing may be an elaborate setup. It turns out the joke is on us. If death is truly the end, we won't be around to hear the punch line. If it's not, we wake up and discover we are safely in our own bed, which is in God.