Margaret Drabble: “I am not afraid of death. I worry about living”
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We are often told that in earlier times all cultures had a concept of the afterlife – that “everybody” believed in some form of life after death, be it a journey over a river to a dark land, an eternity of hellfire and torment, a paradise with angels and ambrosia, or a reunion with loved ones. We have created many metaphors to carry us across the Styx. Some cultures believed, and believe, in rebirth and the migration of souls. In 21st-century Christian countries, orthodox religious services still routinely profess faith in the resurrection of the body. Painting and poetry and mythology offer us visions of heaven and hell, some horrific, and some, like Stanley Spencer’s, reassuring and comforting. But I’ve always suspected that most of us, even in the pious, priest-dominated Middle Ages, didn’t really believe what we said we believed. Most of us knew that when we were dead, we were gone. We went nowhere. We ceased to be. That’s what we didn’t like about death – not fear of hell, but fear of nothingness.
This is, historically, anthropologically, a heretical position to hold, and when I try to argue it I am usually shouted down. I’ve got no historical imagination, I am told. Things were different then, scholars insist. Human nature was different then.