What Happens When We Die

Maria Popova shares wonderful and intriguing thoughts in The Marginalian.  Today I read her thoughts on how we deal with death. She quotes from Alan Lightman’s book Mr. g: A Novel about the Creation.

Alan Lightman: 

A woman dies.  At that moment, there were 3,​147,​740,​103,​497,​276,​498,​750,​208,​327 atoms in her body. Of her total mass, 63.7 percent was oxygen, 21.0 percent carbon, 10.1 percent hydrogen, 2.6 percent nitrogen, 1.4 percent calcium, 1.1 percent phosphorous, plus a smattering of the ninety-odd other chemical elements created in stars. 

In the cremation, her water evaporated. Her carbon and nitrogen combined with oxygen to make gaseous carbon dioxide and nitrogen dioxide, which floated skyward and mingled with the air. Most of her calcium and phosphorous baked into a reddish brown residue and scattered in soil and in wind.

Released from their temporary confinement, her atoms slowly spread out and diffused through the atmosphere. In sixty days’ time, they could be found in every handful of air on the planet. In one hundred days, some of her atoms, the vaporous water, had condensed into liquid and returned to the surface as rain, to be drunk and ingested by animals and plants. Some of her atoms were absorbed by light-utilizing organisms and transformed into tissues and tubules and leaves. Some were breathed in by oxygen creatures, incorporated into organs and bone.

He continues on and I tempt you into reading her whole article, and then the book with these words.  

And the individual atoms, cycled through her body and then cycled through wind and water and soil, cycled through generations and generations of living creatures and minds, will repeat and connect and make a whole out of parts. Although without memory, they make a memory. Although impermanent, they make a permanence. Although scattered, they make a totality.


Because of the response to my post on death, I’m remembering back.  I always go to the ocean when someone I love passes. When my father passed in 1969, I went to the ocean in San Diego, found comfort there.  With my mother I went to Pierce Point in West Marin where I could walk out on a piece of land with the ocean on one side, and Tomales Bay on the other.  I knew my mother was there. I figured my brother would be at a surfing beach so I went to Mavericks Beach near Half Moon Bay and watched the waves as they broke on meeting the shore.  

Watching surfers, I wondered if the wave notices when it carries the weight of the surfer who hitches a ride while standing on his or her board.  Is there a sense of pride for the wave, or acceptance, or nothing noticed or changed at all? 

With that I wonder how each of us carries the weight of grief.  Where do we find support? How, and for how long?

As the caterpillar doesn’t recognize when a butterfly flutters by, that, it, too, will one day fly, so, too, we can’t seem to comprehend, or maybe we do, in some wider way, just as we know the wave is part of, and encompasses, sea and land.  

June 2019: Looking Out toward Mavericks