Death might just be the end

Ok, I’ll admit, this is far from my cheeriest title, and just a little morbid. I had considered using the excuse of Halloween being just six weeks away as the reason behind my choice of title, but I cannot pretend this is my rationale.

Neither is this post a philosophical discussion of the existence or otherwise of an afterlife. We all, I am sure, have our own views of life and what happens after it ends, I know I certainly do. Whether it is based on religion, culture, science or nothing but a guess, holding a belief in what happens after we die can bring comfort or fear in equal measure. If you are either certain in your beliefs or question what you think and feel, this post is not an attempt to change your mind.

No, this post is not about what happens to us (by which I mean our conscious self) after we die. Rather, here I wanted to think about the memories of ourselves we leave behind on Earth after we are gone.

All the people who have ever lived

Our population is growing, rapidly. When I was born in 1987, I was one of approximately five billion people on Earth. As I sit here writing this post, I am one of approximately 7.7 billion. Population growth in the last hundred years has been unprecedented, and I think it is this explosion in growth which has led to a commonly held belief about the human population. You have probably heard a version of it yourself; there are more people alive today than have ever lived. In other words, the number of people alive outnumber the dead. It’s a tempting idea, the only problem, it’s not true.

Having a 100% accurate number of the people alive today, never mind the number of people who have ever lived, is close to impossible. This does not stop people trying to estimate the population, and from those estimates they have been able to come up with the total number of human being approximately 105 billion (granted this study was from 1995, so add a few people to this figure). Clearly, even accounting for a little growth since ‘95, the dead outnumber the living by a large margin. Assuming the population alive will peak (currently felt to be around nine billion in the middle of the century), this will always be the case.

I was reminded of this idea while I was reading The Boundless Sea by David Abulafia. Attempting to chart the history of humanity and our relationship with the seas (minus the Mediterranean which he had covered in a previous book), Abulafia’s book is as well researched as it is ambitious, and rightly winning a lot of awards.

I am currently on the chapter about the history of the Atlantic Ocean in the Bronze Age. Given the limited archeological evidence and complete lack of written records, Abulafia, like other historians, has to draw his conclusions with a healthy dose of caution and a scattering of supposition.

One particular paragraph deals with the changes in dealing with the dead noted between the Neolithic (New Stone) Age and Bronze Age. During the former period, large burial mounds are commonly found across Europe, in the latter, burial mounds almost entirely disappear. Abulafia assumes (I suspect quite rightly) there was a shift to cremating the dead, the ashes of which are then scattered in special places much like today. Given the lack of burials, this is a fairly safe assumption to make.

It was this point which got me thinking about what we leave behind when we die. Assuming Abulafia’s assumption is correct, the people he writes about have left next to nothing about them as individuals. No remains, no written records, only a scattering of artefacts from which we must attempt to draw conclusions about society as a whole, but not so much the individual person.

If the figure of 105 billion people to have lived is correct, then I don’t think it is an exaggeration to suggest 104.999 billion people have been forgotten to history.

The good, the bad and the forgotten

Try making a list of all the people you can remember from history. Keep it to people you know by name, and for which you know at least one additional thing about them. For example, you could have Julius Caesar on your list, Roman General and arguably the first Roman Emperor (and before you get uppity I know he was not technically an emperor, but still, in all but name…). As well as the famous, you could also include family and friends who have died, but for reasons which will come apparent keep these people separate.

Doing this, I suspect you will get around one thousand names (it might take you a while but I’m sure this is manageable). If you are a history buff or genealogist you might have more. If everyone alive was to then do this and we combine the names on the list, after removing duplicates, I suspect we would have a list of maybe tens of thousands of famous people (the good and the bad) and possible a list in the billions of family members and friends.

This first list you could argue is collective history, the people remembered by society as a whole, people who have been deemed to be significant to world history is some way. The second list is the personal history of those alive today. Some of the people on the personal list will make it to the collective history list, but most will not and only be remembered by those who knew them personally. With time, this list will be whittled down as relatives and friends also die, and the memory of those who have gone before is forgotten.

In his fantasy/sci-fi novel The Brief History of the Dead, Kevin Brockmeier includes a central concept of a city of those who have died, where people (possibly not the right word) remain for as long as they are remembered by at least one person on Earth. The more famous the person (like Julius) the longer they would remain, in theory indefinitely if they remained in the collective consciousness. (It should be noted, this idea appears to stem from the East African concepts of Sasa and Zamani via the work of James Loewen, with artistic licence applied by Brockmeier along the way).

While I don’t think this concept is something we are likely to experience after we die, it is a clever idea which demonstrates in a way through story telling the idea of collective history. Importantly, it reminds us most people are neither the good or bad of history; they are the forgotten.

Hatch’em, Match‘em and Dispatch‘em

If I asked you what the British Empire did for the world (either good or bad, this is not a post about the morality or otherwise of empire) you might say something like spread the use of English, or brought train travel to places like India. If pushed, you might come up with a love of bureaucracy.

Far from the inventors of paperwork and records, the British Empire, and subsequently the United Kingdom which was left behind, has taken the keeping of records to an unparalleled obsession. With the likes of the General Register Office (affectionately known as the Hatch‘em, Match‘em and Dispatch’em Office) recording details of our births, marriages and deaths, through to the likes of the DVLA and HMRC keeping records of our ability to drive and history of paying taxes respectively, it is likely there is more information written out us as an individual now than half the list of famous people from history combined. Assuming these records are kept long after our death, it is possible the number of people remembered from history in the future will be significantly larger than those we remember now.

Added to this, a desire to be remembered, to be famous, and I think it has become the norm for a sizeable percentage of the population to spend their time (consciously or otherwise) taking steps to be remembered after they are dead. From headstones in the cemetery to autobiography’s and the like, more and more people are able to leave behind a legacy which once would have been forgotten in a generation or two.

The question I have been asking myself, is all this effort actually worth it?

Being remembered or being remembered

Before I continue, I am not questioning whether writing an autobiography or the like is worth it. While they are not my choice of genre, I can see the appeal, especially if someone has an interesting story to tell, and sharing their personal experiences can be cathartic for them and informative for the rest of us.

Rather, I am wondering here whether doing these things for the purpose of being remembered is worth it. For many the idea of being gone and forgotten might seem horrifying, but for the majority of people who have ever lived, that is just what has happened, and I wonder whether for the collective good of future generations it might well be necessary.

Consider just for a moment the vast numbers of people alive today, and the individual stories they have to tell. Those stories are, I have not doubt, fascinating, but on the whole the interest is personal to them and their loved ones. Occasionally people, through design or by chance, find themselves at an historical event of significance, and then the story becomes interesting to the wider public as well.

But if, as I think the goal can sometimes be, we set about recalling and retaining the histories of everyone alive, or even just a sizeable proportion, future generations are quickly going to be swamped by an avalanche of information. Trying to sift through the quantity of sources need to write Abulafia’s book must have been a monumental task. If every single sailor on every boat he writes about also had a record available, I would argue it would be an impossible task to complete.

I write this in the full knowledge I am a person who is interested in documenting and recording personal history in more detail than may be necessary. A few years ago I had a stab at researching my family tree. Over the course of a couple of months, using only what was available on line or what I knew from speaking to living family members, I managed to discover the names of a couple of hundred ancestors, some born as early as the 1700s. It is an interesting record, at least to me and my family, but it also has a glaring flaw which cannot be ignored; it is just a list of names.

Without anyone particularly famous in my family (and thankfully no one infamous as far as I can tell), the best I could manage about the relatives born before my grandparents were the dates they were born and died, and if I am lucky when they were married. The list shows connections between long dead relatives, but beyond this tells me nothing of them as people. Their individuality has been lost to time, they remain only as a name on a list, and as sad as this may sound, I think this is probably a good thing.

Being lost to history can seem like a scary thing when you sit here alive and well, interesting stories to tell, a personality unique to you. But I wonder whether for the most part being forgotten is what we should hope for. Not immediately of course, but with time. In doing so, we leave space in the collective consciousness for those who come after us, as we also leave space physically for our children and grandchildren.

Death is the final word

I said at the start this post is not an exploration of the philosophy of life after death, and I hope for the most part I have kept to my word. But I would like to finish on one final thought. If, by some chance, Brockmeier turns out to be correct in his novel, and a place after death exists where we remain as long as we are remembered, then I for one would like the chance to explore this world, but I’m not overly keen on remaining there forever. After all, to paraphrase a certain J.M. Barrie; forever is an awfully long time.

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