I've spent a week thinking about death. Some strange thoughts about it.
For instance, death sounds peaceful. Like falling asleep. An end to the endless sense of urgency this planet plans for every day of my life. Death sounds like "my turn is finished, now someone else can have a turn."
Death doesn't correlate with afterlife for me. Death is an ending. A finality. A moment in time from which to mark time and move forward. Afterlife is something else - a "heavenly" fiction (in the best sense of the word). Afterlife is open for debate, speculation, freaky near-death experiences, fantasy, imagination, spaces and places unknown, one-sided conversation with the ones who've "gone to the other side." Afterlife keeps a cushion around what death represents: final painful loss.
When I was little and heard about heaven, I didn't know what could possibly be a better place than this life - this little tract home in Canoga Park with two parents, a brother and a sister, a boxer named Casey and a jungle gym. One week in church, trying to picture my soul resting in heaven, the best I came up with was an image of a heart muscle wearing wings perched on the clouds. I decided I preferred the jungle gym.
By high school, I no longer believed in heaven. I remember distinctly trying to comfort a friend afraid of dying by saying rather glibly at the time: "Listen, when you're dead, you're dead. You won't know that you're dead so it won't be a big deal. Just live now and when you die, you won't even know it happened."
That didn't comfort her, but it sure made sense to me. I found it possible to live that way without any anxiety at all. I was, naturally, 17.
Within a couple years of that declaration, the Christians in my life came up with an entirely different description of the nature of death (there was not just physical, but spiritual death too) and the afterlife (heaven, hell - pick heaven, smart people do) and expected me to accept it. (I pretended to for about two years.) The truth is, I joined up with Jesus Christ not for life after death, but for life while living. But if they needed me to pretend that heaven existed, well, I could sing along.
Then Keith Green died.
Until someone as close to God as Keith somehow missed the Holy Spirit's insistent tapping on his back, "Hey Keith! Don't get in a seven seater plane with eleven people or you'll die!" I didn't think about death.
Suddenly I had to. I had to answer the question: Where was Keith now?
And on a dime: I believed. Heaven. It was the only thing that made sense.
That's when my daily practice of sharing my faith began. I could not bear the thought of anyone going to hell. Just. Like. That. So for a good long while, I believed in heaven and hell, even saving Muslim souls before it was in vogue to do so.
I tallied it this way: Eternity is a really, really, really long time. This life is nearly pointless next to that terrifying stretch of non-time. Better make sure no one goes to the bad place.
But one day I woke up (after years of theological wrangling and deconstruction) and didn't believe any of it any more. Belief in the afterlife evaporated as quickly as it had come. I didn't miss it.
So when Heath Ledger died last week, my only thoughts about him had to do with our collective loss, his family, his last moments. I don't wonder where he is. I do wonder why and how he died.
Theories about where he is now, though, are a big part of the grief process for his fans (maybe his family too). Some speculate that Heath is able to hear and receive all the love being expressed somewhere in the invisible universe where his soul is attentive and peaceful. Others talk about the grand reunion he will have with one of our forum friends who died the same week. There are theories related to numerology that suggest he "had to die" that day. Nothing he could have done about it. Someone else suggested writing Heath a letter, putting it inside a Bible and then asking an angel to take it to him.
The apartment where Heath died has been showered with flowers, posters, memorials, candles, letters, poetry, and flags. All directed to Heath, as though he is still near, hovering to catch the last glimpse of this life before he ascends over the city of New York like Neo in the Matrix. A final exit, not quite made yet.
As I read the heartfelt remembrances and the hopes that Heath is at peace, knows inexplicably that he was deeply admired and loved, as speculations about life after death smoothed the rough edges of loss, I found I could easily wish for all of it to be true, whether or not it is fact.
Perhaps heaven and hell are for us, the living, to help us cope with the losses that death brings. Perhaps thinking about afterlife helps us to live this life more peacefully.
I also know what any of us thinks about it doesn't matter really. No one knows what's on the other side. But the hope of heaven or spiritual life may comfort. And with the short supply of options available in grief, hoping for heaven isn't such a bad one.