Tag Archives: life after death

Fiction: From Long Barrow to Museum

(In a new departure for this blog, I thought I’d share this short story which explores time, change, wishes, and the uses of West Kennet Long Barrow. Content notes: death, burial, human remains.)

I was expecting to be visited. When my daughter moved my bones into this little side-chamber, after I’d been staring at the sky for a month while the red kites and the ravens took the flesh from my body, I was expecting that she, and her boyfriend, and my son and his wife and their children and hopefully one day their children’s children, would visit me in the way I visited my parents. I remember my father bringing the long bones of his family out from the tomb every year. His people are gathered together in a pile, in this same side-chamber with me, and because he brought them out to spend time with them every year their thigh bones and skulls are jumbled up with their arms bones and all their smaller bones have been lost to the cracks in the stone floor. 

They are still here, too, of course. They don’t talk much. My father used to talk about his mother and father by name, but further back than that he just called them ‘ancestors’, so now I’m here with them I don’t know what to call them. My father is here and sometimes I tell him that I expected my son and daughter to visit. “I didn’t expect you to arrive so soon,” he says to me, every time. I hoped I wouldn’t arrive so soon, either, but to be honest I worried about it from the moment I realised I was pregnant again. A woman with an almost adult son who carries another pregnancy… it’s always risky, you always get close to death when you give birth, in fact I thought I was going to go both times before, and this time I was right. 

My children did visit for a while. The ones who lived, that is. The baby is almost here. I never met her in life but I feel her next to me sometimes, or maybe she crawls around. I hear her crying. My father says, “Hello, baby,” when that happens. I’d like to comfort her but what can I do? The worst actually did happen. I can’t feed her, we don’t sleep. I’m not sure we’re really awake, either, though. To begin with the daylight would come down the passage on my right and my bones would be touched by it, not much but a little indirect light, and I’d remember that days and nights come and go. That was when my daughter would visit. But they stopped bringing everyone’s bones out, and my bones stayed mine, instead of mixing in with the other ancestors.

“You’ll join us soon,” my father says, but I won’t if my daughter doesn’t come and look after all her ancestors. 

The daylight doesn’t come in any more. I think they blocked up the entrance – there’s darkness, and no air movement, and no visitors. My bones are just resting here. My baby’s bones are next to me, but they’re almost gone, and my father’s bones and his ancestors’ bones are in the pile to my left. There are other chambers in the tomb, other families, but we have to shout to speak to them and there’s nothing to say. 

At first we heard ceremonies outside. The visiting stopped but the singing, the dancing, the fires, went on. I wasn’t the last in, either – they brought someone into one of the side chambers on the other side of the entrance – but it’s been a long time since then. I hoped it meant that nobody had died, that everyone was healthy and happy. But I think it means they buried them somewhere else. It’s been too long. 

It’s been much too long, actually. With no days and no movement, no sleep and no meals, time slips away from me unmarked, but I know it has passed. Soil has settled into all the gaps around the stone which blocks the entrance. Water seeps through when there’s a heavy rain, and sometimes the root of a plant or a little earthworm comes and goes, somewhere in between the huge stones of the roof. Nobody visits. I assume the sun rises and sets. I wonder if the stars still turn above us. Recently I started to hear humming – sometimes almost a buzzing or a whine, something a distant drone. Maybe it’s an insect, or some sort of music, far away.

Well, this makes for a change. I do get visitors now. I’m not sure where I am anymore, but most of my bones are still here and my baby’s bones beside me, and people come to see me. The lights seem very bright and the air is dry. I was in a stone-walled room, in the tomb, and the air was damp with the rain from above and the water in the chalk underneath. Here I’m in… I think it’s a large room, I can’t see it all, and there’s something strong and clear around me. Visitors who lean towards me can’t touch me. I haven’t been put in with the bones of my ancestors, although I sometimes hear them nearby. I hear my father asking where we are. 

At first I thought we were in another tomb. Maybe we are, but people have changed their ideas about death since our day. They have lights on around us, almost every day, and they’ve put a lot of our cooking pots and things in another box with a clear front where I can see them. That seems weird. They aren’t usually supposed to be in tombs. And there are things I don’t recognise – pots with odd designs. 

The people who come to visit carry odd things. They have shoes in interesting colours and clothes that rustle like no fabric I’ve ever known – more like the leaves in the trees in autumn. They have little boxes which glow on one side. I don’t understand what they say. I recognise the children, of course. Exploring, poking in the corners, staring at my bones wide-eyed. That’s normal. That’s how my eldest was, always wanting to go a few steps further than I’d like. She fell in the stream once. I thought of that the other day when a little one carrying a carved animal – teeth like a wolf but the skin had been painted greeny-brown, more like an adder – anyway, this little one with his strange toy wanted to touch everything. He couldn’t touch the pots, and he couldn’t touch my bones, and he couldn’t touch the stone knife they’ve displayed on the other side of me, and he wept bitterly over every one of those things. I thought of my daughter wanting to touch the water and falling in. I thought of her wanting to touch my bones, but the big old tomb being shut up, and my bones left separate with the family pile just over there.

I can’t touch them from here, either. My father and my ancestors are gathered within sight, but these clear boxes in this new tomb separate us.

A woman who came to visit was very sad to see me here. She didn’t want to look at my bones at first. She turned her back, looking at the pots again and again, but eventually she looked at my skull. When she did, she looked and looked. She looked at the little squiggles on the side of the clear box, where they all look to start with, and then she looked at my bones for a long time. I wondered if she wanted to touch them.

She used the glowing box she held to show a friend who was with her a picture. She held the picture over my box and I could see it – and I recognised it. The trees have changed but the outline of the hill and the tomb are much the same. It was the place I was buried. I could see the big stones at the entrance, the new ones which closed the tomb, and the curve of the soil which covers the tomb. You see it against the sky from some places, and that’s the picture this woman was showing to her friend.

They looked from the picture to me, mouths downturned. I realised what they thought. They don’t want to touch my bones. They want me to go back to the old tomb. They think I should stay where I was put.

They did look at the pile of bones of my ancestors, but I’m not sure they understood. The picture disappeared and didn’t come back. They spoke, but the language has changed so much and I don’t understand them. I wish my daughter could visit me. I wish someone would bring out my bones every year, the way my father did, and put them back in a jumble with the other ancestors. I don’t mind this new tomb – at least there are visitors – and I’m glad my baby is with me, but I miss the whispers of the rest of my family.

Liberal Quakers and Life after Death

At a conference last week, I got chatting with some colleagues about life after death, and various views on it. (Tasia Scrutton is organising a philosophy of religion conference on death and immortality, hence her interest.) “Quakers don’t have anything to say about that,” I said, and she replied, rightly, that an absence of interest can in itself be interesting.

It also isn’t strictly true that Quakers have never had anything to say. Previous generations of Quakers have often accepted a traditional Christian picture of the world, including life after death. Today, many Quakers outside the liberal tradition would still take that position. Even within Britain Yearly Meeting, the Quaker Fellowship for Afterlife Studies make it clear that they take a realist view of this topic. Most Quakers in Britain, though, do not seem to believe in an afterlife, and it doesn’t come up as a topic for discussion: instead, like Christian Aid, we believe in life before death.

Spending some more time with this idea, including during Meeting for Worship, I realised that I actually have a strong intuition¬†against¬†there being any form of life after death. Not only do I not think that any life which may or may not occur after death should affect my actions now (I don’t do things because I want to get into heaven or generate good karma for my next life, and nor do I accept eschatological verification), I actively think it’s unlikely, even impossible, that such a thing exists. Why is that? Quakers not talking about it, or a brief A-level module on all the options, seem unlikely to be enough to produce such a strong intuition.

Part of it comes from my picture of what people are: physical bodies which manifest consciousness through the interactions of cells, electricity, and chemicals. Part of it comes from my picture of what God/dess is like: loving not judging, engaged in the world’s processes not watching them from outside, expressed in manifold ways rather than pinned down to one creed or moment. And perhaps part of it comes from experience or the lack of it: although I have heard many accounts of the sense of someone ‘reappearing’ or ‘visiting’ after their death, when I have had this feeling I has always been clear that it was a psychological event or an act of my (vivid and well-exercised) imagination. I think people continue to influence us after their deaths, through our memories and through the repercussions of actions they took during their lives – but it’s also true that events influence us after they finish, so even a memory in the mind of God is not a ‘life after death’ but a life before death.

I think this position is consistent with other Quaker views I hold, but so could a lot of other views on life after death. Quakers: Do you agree with me? Do you have some other intuition, and if so can you trace where it comes from? Do you have no intuition, or only a rational answer, or one based on experience?