A silhouette of an elderly man with a stick walks towards a bright light

A friend told me an intriguing story about a funeral. The dead man’s grandson prepared for the cremation by dressing his grandfather as he had normally dressed when leaving the house: with his jacket, and in the pockets a ten pound note, a mobile phone, some cigarettes and a lighter.

These would all be burnt in the crematorium. Nevertheless the grandson, a man who did not consider himself a religious believer, insisted on dressing him like this. Something must have been going on at a subconscious level.

It made me wonder about prehistoric funeral remains. Archaeologists tell us that all over the world people have been buried together with possessions. The consensus is that the possessions were provided for the dead person’s journey to the next life. All over the world, therefore, societies believed in life after death.

This story made me wonder whether there is an alternative explanation. Could all those prehistoric burials of possessions indicate merely that the grave-diggers had the same subconscious feelings as this grandson had? Could his drive to dress his grandfather in characteristic garb be a universal response to death?

Putting the question like this makes it sound like an either/or set of alternatives. My suspicion is that the truth lies between the two: that there is a complex interplay between the subconscious issues, the ritual actions and the conscious explanations.

Death reminds us that the life we have now will end. If there is no life after death, life before death is not what we usually take it to be. Life before death is full of desires, hopes and feelings. We make sense of them by attributing meaning, value and purpose to our lives. Death challenges them. How can we say that our life has a purpose if everything we do leads up to mere non-existence? If, once we die, our lives have absolutely no meaning, value or purpose, then it seems that any meaning, value or purpose we attribute to our lives before we die is illusory.

This is a real puzzle, which continues to be expressed in countless ways. If in a few billion years the sun will burn up our planet, does this mean life on earth is pointless and irrelevant? The thought certainly gives us queasy feelings. We should not be surprised if the death of a relative gave similar queasy feelings to our ancestors.

I imagine that the interplay between the subconscious, the ritual and the conscious works something like this. Awareness of the issue first arises at the subconscious level. Deep down there is an awareness that if the dead person’s life had completely come to end, the meaning, value and purpose of that life would have been rendered empty; and the same would apply to everyone else’s life too. There must therefore be life after death. The subconscious faces the issue, finds the solution, and expresses it through a strong feeling that the dead person should be given an appropriate send-off.

Of course we cannot go back to our prehistoric ancestors and ask them what they were thinking, let alone what their subconscious thoughts were; but it makes sense to me if they were doing much the same as that grandson. Awareness of the issue first exists at a subconscious level. The solution is that there must be life after death. The issue, and its solution, are expressed as ritual long before the conscious mind articulates them.

Is that what is going on, or do you have a better explanation?