When I was 15, my father's parents bought each other matching tombstones for Christmas. My grandparents were flinty New Englanders, not much given to sentimental gestures. They were by then already in their 80s and wanted to be ready. On a visit that year, my family and I were taken to the little country cemetery where my grandparents planned to be buried. They showed us the plots they had picked out. Being 15, I was completely appalled. My immediate family lived far away in the Midwest, and I had not grown up around old people. Death was hardly more than an ugly rumor to me then, and I did not know what to make of such matter-of-factness on the subject. Now, after nearly 60 years, I am beginning to understand.
For any self-respecting 15-year-old, to live is to want to live forever. As yet, 15-year-olds do not know what it is to live with pain and infirmity or to outlive family and friends. They are still greedy for life, and many of us never outgrow that. We punish ourselves with diet and exercise so we can play tennis rather than shuffleboard in old age. We replace worn-out body parts. We have ourselves embalmed long before the mortician gets hold of us in order to retain the bloom of youth. When the mortician's turn does come, we have ourselves injected with liquid nitrogen rather than formaldehyde so we can be thawed out and revived once a cure is found for the particular malady that did us in. When all else fails, we may be consoled by the thought that we will live forever in the hereafter.
Mark Twain, for one, found little consolation in the prospect of immortality. Twain had become embittered late in life over a series of financial reversals and the death of his wife and a beloved daughter. Like Job before him, Twain railed against God's capriciousness. But unlike Job, he often did so with scalding wit. A favorite target was what he once described as the "trying splendors of heaven." In his Letters from the Earth , which was perhaps wisely left unpublished in his lifetime, Twain adopts Satan as his alter ego. At one point, God's old adversary expresses astonishment that mankind has conjured up a heaven consisting exclusively of diversions they care nothing about on earth, while omitting everything they find truly delightful, like sex. And why would anyone want to rub shoulders throughout eternity with races and classes of humanity they wouldn't dream of associating with in their mortal life? "His heaven is like himself," Satan concludes, "strange, interesting, astonishing, grotesque."
Heaven, as usually depicted, suffers from a curious want of imagination. In mathematical terms, it is mostly the product of subtraction. Heaven is all the joys of life, minus the heartache and the red tape. So far, so good. But then, since this is heaven, you also have to get rid of all our guilty pleasures, which may not leave very much, unless you really like singing in the choir. By default, heaven winds up being a lot like sitting in church all day, every day, forever. And, as Mark Twain pointed out, sitting in church on Sunday mornings is more than enough for most folks.
Where do these intimations of immortality come from? Not from the part of us that fears death, strangely enough. We are simply too wound up in the mortal coil to truly imagine anything beyond; hence, the cardboard cutouts that pass for eternal life. To find the source of this yearning we must go deeper -- not to a place "beyond" but to a place that lies within, closer than anything we can imagine, closer than any thought, closer than our own breathing. There is no fear in this place, certainly no fear of death. To dwell in this place is to know neither birth nor death but life everlasting.
Mark Twain, Letters from the Earth; Captain Stormfield's Visit to Heaven