Book: "Raymond or Life and Death"

Author: Sir Oliver Lodge FRS

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- (Part 3) - Chapter 3 - Life and Death -

Death and Decay


"All, that doth live, lives always!"

Edwin Arnold

          CONSIDER now the happenings to the discarnate body. In the first place, I repeat, it is undesirable to concentrate attention on a grave. The discarnate body must be duly attended to when done with; the safety of the living is a paramount consideration; the living must retain control over what is dead. Uncontrolled natural forces are often dangerous: the only thing harmful about a flood or a fire is the absence of control. Either the operations must be supervised and intelligently directed, or they must be subjected to such disabilities that they can do no harm. But to associate continued personality with a dead body, such as is suggested by phrases like "lay him in the earth," or "here lies such a one," or to anticipate any kind of physical resuscitation, is unscientific and painful. Unfortunately the orthodox religious world at some epochs has attached superstitious importance, not to the decent disposal, but to the imagined future of the body. Painful and troublesome to humanity those rites have been. The tombs of Egypt are witness to the harassing need felt by the living to provide their loved ones with symbols or tokens of all that they might require in a future state of existence,- as if material things were needed by them any more, or as if we could provide them if they were.(1) The simple truth is always so much saner and happier than the imaginings of men; or, as Dr. Schuster said in his Presidential address to the British Association at Manchester, 1915,- "The real world is far more beautiful than any of our dreams."

'It is rash to condemn a human custom which has prevailed for centuries or millenniums, and it is wrong to treat it de haut en bas. I would not be understood as doing so, in this brief and inadequate reference to the contents of Egyptian tombs. Their fuller interpretation awaits the labour of students now working at them.

In the same spirit I wish to leave open the question of what possible rational interpretation may be given to the mediaeval phrase "Resurrection of the body"; a subject on which much has been written. What I am contending against is not the scholarly but the popular interpretation. For further remarks on this subject see Chapter VII below.

What is the simple truth? It can be regarded from two points of view, the prosaic and the poetic.

Prosaically we can say that the process of decay, if regarded scientifically, is not in itself necessarily repugnant. It may be as interesting as fermentation or any other chemical or biological process. Putrefaction, like poison, is hostile to higher living organisms, and hence a self-protecting feeling of disgust has arisen round it, in the course of evolution. An emotional feeling arises in the mind of anyone who has to combat any process or operation of nature,--like the violent emotions excited in an extreme tee-totaller by the word 'drink': a result of the evil its profanation has done; for the verb itself is surely quite harmless. Presumably a criminal associates disagreeable anticipations with the simple word 'hanging.' The idea of a rank weed is repulsive to a gardener, but not to a botanist; the idea of disease is repellent to a prospective patient, not to a doctor or bacteriologist; the idea of dirt is objectionable to a housewife, but it is only matter out of place; the word 'poison' conveys nothing objectionable to a chemist. Everything removed from the emotional arena, and transplanted into the intellectual, becomes interesting and tractable and worthy of study. Living organisms of every kind are good in themselves, though when out of place and beyond control they may be harmful. A tiger is an object of dread to an Indian village: to a hunting party he may be keenly attractive. In any case he is a lithe and beautiful and splendid creature. Microscopic organisms may have troublesome and destructive effects, but in themselves they can be studied with interest and avidity. All living creatures have their assuredly useful function, only it may be a function on which we naturally shrink from dwelling when in an emotional mood. Everything of this kind is an affair of mood; and, properly regarded, nothing in nature is common or unclean. That a flying albatross is a beautiful object every one can cordially admit, but that the crawling surface of a stagnant sea can be regarded with friendly eyes seems an absurdity; yet there is nothing absurd in it. It is surely the bare truth concerning all living creatures of every grade, that "the Lord God made them all"; and it was of creeping water-snakes that the stricken Mariner at length, when he had learnt the lesson, ejaculated:

"O happy living things! A spring of love gushed from my heart, And I blessed them unaware."

For what can be said poetically about the fate of the beloved body, the poets themselves must be appealed to. But that there is kinship between the body and the earth is literal truth. Of terrestrial particles it is wholly composed, and that they should be restored to the earth whence they were borrowed is natural and peaceful. Moreover, out of the same earth, and by aid of the very same particles, other helpful forms of life may arise; and though there may be no conscious unification or real identity, yet it is pardonable to associate, in an imaginative and poetic mood, the past and future forms assumed by the particles:

"Lay her in the earth; And from her fair and unpolluted flesh, May violets spring!"

Quotations are hardly necessary to show that this idea runs through all poetry. An ancient variety is enshrined in the Hyacinthus and Adonis legends. From spilt blood an inscribed lily springs, in the one tale; and the other we may quote in Shakespeare's version (Venus and Adonis):

"And in his blood that on the ground lay spilled, A purple flower sprung up chequered with white, Resembling well his pale cheeks and the blood Which in round drops upon their whiteness stood."

So also Tennyson -

"And from his ashes may be made The violet of his native land." In Memoriam

We find the same idea again, I suppose, in the eastern original of Fitzgerald's well-known stanza:

"And this delightful Herb whose tender Green Fledges the River's Lip on which we lean- Ali, lean upon it lightly! for who knows From what once lovely Lip it springs unseen!"

The soil of a garden is a veritable charnel-house of vegetable and animal matter, and from one point of view represents death and decay, but the coltsfoot covering an abandoned heap of refuse, or the briar growing amid ruin, shows that Nature only needs time to make it all beautiful again. Let us think of the body as transmuted, not as stored.

The visible shape of the body was no accident, it corresponded to a reality, for it was caused by the indwelling vivifying essence; and affection entwines itself inevitably round not only the true personality of the departed, but round its material vehicle also - the sign and symbol of so much beauty, so much love. Symbols appeal to the heart of humanity, and anything cherished and honoured becomes in itself a thing of intrinsic value, which cannot be regarded with indifference. The old and tattered colours of a regiment, for which men have laid down their lives - though replaced perhaps by something newer and more durable - cannot be relegated to obscurity without a pang. And any sensitive or sympathetic person, contemplating such relics hereafter, may feel some echo of the feeling with which they were regarded, and may become acquainted with their history and the scenes through which they have passed.

In such cases the kind of knowledge to be gained from the relic, and the means by which additional information can be acquired, are intelligible; but in other cases also information can be attained, though by means at present not understood. It may sound superstitious, but it is a matter of actual experience, that some sensitives have intuitive perception, of an unfamiliar kind, concerning the history and personal associations of relics or fragments or personal belongings. The faculty is called psychometry; and it is no more intelligible, although no less well-evidenced, than the possibly allied faculty of dowsing or so-called water-divining. Psychometry is a large subject on which much has already been written: this brief mention must here suffice.

It seems to me that these facts, when at length properly understood, will throw some light on the connexion between mind and matter; and then many another obscure region of semi-science and semi-superstition will be illuminated. At present in all such tracts we have to walk warily, for the ground is uneven and insecure; and it is better, or at least safer, for the majority to forgo the recognition of some truth than rashly to invade a district full of entanglements and pitfalls.


Longfellow's line, "There is no death; what seems so is transition," at once suggests itself. Read literally the first half of this sentence is obviously untrue, but in the sense intended, and as a whole, the statement is true enough. There is no extinction, and the change called death is the entrance to a new condition of existence what may be called a new life.

Yet life itself is continuous, and the conditions of the whole of existence remain precisely as before. Circumstances have changed for the individual, but only in the sense that he is now aware of a different group of facts. The change of surroundings is a subjective one. The facts were of course there, all the time, as the stars are there in the daytime; but they were out of our ken. Now these come into our ken, and others fade into memory.

The Universe is one, not two. Literally there is no 'other' world - except in the limited and partial sense of other planets - the Universe is one. We exist in it continuously all the time; sometimes conscious in one way, sometimes conscious in another; sometimes aware of a group of facts on one side of a partition, sometimes aware of another group, on the other side. But the partition is  a subjective one; we are all one family all the time, so long as the link of affection is not broken. And for those who believe in prayer at all to cease from praying for the welfare of their friends because they are materially inaccessible - though perhaps spiritually more accessible than before - is to succumb unduly to the residual evil of past ecclesiastical abuses, and to lose an opportunity of happy service.



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