by Lyle Lofgren

July 20, 2010

[I had a defibrillator / pacemaker installed in July. As part of preparations, the hospital sent me a detailed questionnaire about my medical history, etc. One of the questions was:
Are there any spiritual or religious beliefs you'd like us to know about?
It seemed to ask for a Yes/No answer, so I answered "no." Later, I decided to treat the question seriously. Here is what I should have answered.]

One of my favorite poems is not in the anthology books. It's a superb, intelligent, funny poem, Reincarnation, written by Wallace McRae (see

"What does Reincarnation mean?"
A cowpoke asked his friend.
His pal replied, "It happens when
Yer life has reached its end.
They comb yer hair, and warsh yer neck,
And clean yer fingernails,
And lay you in a padded box
Away from life's travails."

"The box and you goes in a hole,
That's been dug into the ground.
Reincarnation starts in when
Yore planted 'neath a mound.
Them clods melt down, just like yer box,
And you who is inside.
And then yore just beginnin' on
Yer transformation ride."

"In a while, the grass'll grow
Upon yer rendered mound.
Till some day on yer moldered grave
A lonely flower is found.
And say a hoss should wander by
And graze upon this flower
That once wuz you, but now's become
Yer vegetative bower."

"The posy that the hoss done ate
Up, with his other feed,
Makes bone, and fat, and muscle
Essential to the steed,
But some is left that he can't use
And so it passes through,
And finally lays upon the ground
This thing, that once wuz you."

"Then say, by chance, I wanders by
And sees this upon the ground,
And I ponders, and I wonders at,
This object that I found.
I thinks of reincarnation,
Of life and death, and such,
And come away concludin': 'Slim,
You ain't changed, all that much.'"

But once I was done laughing at the clever insult, I reflected on the deeper meaning of the poem. Except for a very tiny number of atoms that undergo radioactive transformations, elemental matter does not change. An atom of iron does not change into an atom of oxygen, and neither of them are created nor destroyed in any significant amount. Therefore, every living thing (including me and you) are made up of atoms that once resided in other living things. As McRae intimated, the recycling process usually follows an energy cycle. I'm close to the top of the food chain, which means I take in nutrients that contain a lot of potential energy and, by oxidizing them, produce kinetic energy to maintain life and to move around. The resulting excretions have much lower potential energy, but are still useful to scavengers (see my earlier essay, Why We Are Here). Once the scavengers have gone through my excretions and my remains after I die, and have converted as much energy as they can, what's left are nutrients that plants need to grow. The plants take these nutrients and, through the miracle of photosynthesis, convert the kinetic energy of sunlight back uphill into potential energy that powers another generation of animals.

When I was growing up Lutheran, we recited the Apostle's Creed every Sunday at church. It includes the incredible line espousing belief in "the resurrection of the body." Since I learned it by rote memorization, I gave no thought as to what it meant. Now that I'm an adult, if I have to recite the creed, I mumble through that part, because I can't possibly believe in a literal resurrection of the body. Whether I'm cremated or buried, the recycling process means that my body was once part of millions of other bodies in the past, and will be part of a similar number of bodies in the future. Even if an omniscient, omnipotent God could reassemble all the atoms that once made up my body, how would He decide who owned which atoms? Other people, more devout than I, would likely have claim to the same atoms.

And, if they thought about it, very few Christians would want to be resurrected in a body that was in the same physical condition as it was at their deaths. So what would be resurrected? Some theologians posit an ideal body, whose perfection reflects the perfection of the soul that inhabited it. But we recognize other people more by their imperfections (a mole by one's nose, say, or a facial asymmetry) than by their perfections. So, if one Christian meets an old friend in heaven, how will either recognize the other? By "Hello -- My Name is ..." name tags?

Even if God could somehow adjudicate the atom-sharing question (perhaps by making new atoms so everyone can have an ideal body), the number of devout Christians who have lived in the past and will live in the future means that Heaven will be more crowded than a Tokyo subway at rush hour, a thought that gives a standoffish Scandinavian like me the creeps.

The problem of crowding in heaven is alleviated if the Apostle's Creed has it wrong and only the soul is resurrected. Despite a 20th century experiment that indicated that the human soul weighs 3/4 ounce (see  The Location of the Soul ), I think it's likely that the soul has no substance, but is a way of personifying the profound difference between a live animal and a dead one. It's logical to think of death as an event where the soul as animating principle has abandoned the body, and immateriality solves the problem of the recycled atoms. But what if soul is only a noun representing all the uncountable processes that are necessary for a being to stay alive? How then will the devout recognize their friends in heaven?

Many Buddhists adopt the earlier Hindu belief in reincarnation of souls. If our bodies are made up of recycled materials, it only makes sense that escaped souls should not go to waste either, although if they're truly immaterial, it's unlikely they'll clog up some spiritual sewer pipe somewhere. The soul is our last hope for immortality, if you don't get comfort from the idea of atomic immortality.

Leaving aside the question of how souls are created (by some estimates, more than half the people who ever lived are alive today, so even if all souls were reincarnated, we'd have a shortage), we might ask exactly what it is that's reincarnated? Probably not the personality, since genetics and environment appear to play a larger role in defining a personality than (say) astrological signs or past lives. But if the reincarnated soul contains no personality nor memory of past lives, but only the karmic baggage that you picked up in previous incarnations, it's not much consolation. Almost everyone is doomed to a future involving an unending cycle of the soul searching for nirvana, particularly since, as in the heaven of early Christianity, there's only room for a few thousand souls there. Given the bad luck that some people have, that's a high price to pay for immortality.

I find little comfort in immortality. Instead, I prefer the poetry of Prospero's speech in Shakespeare's The Tempest (Act IV, Scene I):

Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits, and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capped towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on; and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.