Monday, May 13, 2013

The Physicist and the Funeral

It's been making the rounds, and on some levels, I resonate with it.

It's a bit from NPR a few years back by commentator Aaron Freeman, about how you want a physicist to speak at the funeral of a loved one.  It's a riff on conservation of energy, on the interplay of light and matter, on how no particle of a loved one is lost.

Its almost mystic in its articulation of the interconnectedness of all being, and in that, it has a sort of beauty.

But I wonder, frankly, two things.  First, the author is not a physicist.  He's a performer and writer.

I've been at family funerals where a physicist has spoken about someone they loved who had just passed.  Here's what was important:  that person.  Not the matter, not the energy, not the stuff of our universe that comprised that person, but that peculiar and ineffable interplay of those things that brings a self into being.

If you ask a physicist to get up and talk about someone who has just passed, they will remember that person.  They will remember their laugh, their strength, their boldness, their gentleness.  They will tell stories of life, some wistful, some joyful.

That's what we do, we humans, when the breath leaves one of us.

But second, I wonder at what comfort can be had in the talk of what happens to our bodies.  Amid talk of conservation of energy, Freeman says: "You need not have faith."  Freeman, speaking in the voice of the scientist, reaffirms this.  "You should not have faith."  That the material being of one's loved one is dissolving into the fabric of spacetime should be comfort enough.

What strikes me as peculiar about this is that we have never, not for a moment, not known that our bodies return to earth.  As long as we've been self-aware, this has been true.  That is easily observable, even for bronze age semi-nomadic cultures.  Dust is dust, be it on the ground beneath your feet or in interstellar space.

That you can spin that vision out into the cosmos is all well and good, but what we miss about a person is not the mechanics of their existence.

It is not the body, not the meat and bone and sinew.  When you see another human being die, you know this.

What we mourn and what we miss is them, their awareness, their sentience, their soul, their spirit.  That was woven up with the star-stuff of which they were made, sure.  But it both was that stuff and was not that stuff.

For all the beauty of our cosmos, it is better to remember the person, I think.  And to have hope that on some fundamental level, that ineffable self, that light behind their eyes, that sentience, that too has not been forgotten.  

There, faith still does come in handy.