The classical-era Greeks imagined three mythological figures -- the Moirai (often translated as "The Fates") who followed every mortal life. Clotho spun the thread of life. Lachesis measured out the amount of thread allotted to each individual, that is, the length of the life. At the time it was fated to end, Atropos cut the thread.
It sounds fanciful, but we are no closer than the ancient Greeks to understanding the inner meaning of a lifespan. Why are we born? Why do we live? Why do we die?
The last question -- together with its corollary, what is death? -- has perhaps puzzled mankind most of all. Some cultures have elaborate explanations. Others are, at least on the surface, casual about the business. For most of the ancient Romans, death gave them yet another excuse for the ceremonies they loved, but aside from some philosophers and a few thinkers such as Cicero, didn't provoke much questioning.
But in most Western cultures, Atropos has been a dark wraith -- even in the spiritually centered Middle Ages. We fear her, develop ways of trying to avoid her eye. In his novel The Gift, Vladimir Nabokov recalls the look of an Edwardian-era funeral parlor, like a hospital designed for those struck by the ultimate sickness: "The infernal black beauty of oaken caskets in a palm-decked display window. ... Thus a world of handsome demons develops side by side with us, in a cheerfully sinister relationship to our everyday existence ... ."
Still it's hard to say whether the old waxy corpses taking their ease in satin-lined display boxes are more revolting than our modern-cool memorials, ashes of bone contributed to the deceased's favorite body of water, urns on the shelf next to the porcelain unicorns, fruit-colored balloons released in a gesture seemingly designed for children including dead octogenarians.
But there are those who say that Atropos is not to be shied from: she is the doorkeeper to another, beautiful and welcoming world on the other side of death. Some have been there and returned to describe their experience.
Last weekend, I attended two of the four days of the annual conference of the International Association for Near-Death Studies (IANDS) in Arlington, Virginia. Work commitments and cost made it impracticable for me to be there every day, but Thursday and Sunday brought me into an atmosphere that I rarely encounter -- hundreds of people who not only reject reductionist materialism as an account of reality, but in many cases have met or are in touch with the "dead."
One presenter asked for a show of hands -- how many present in the largest conference room had themselves undergone a near-death experience (NDE). The organization refers to them as "experiencers," an awkward term, but I can't think of a better alternative. I (not an experiencer) looked around at the assembly, and it appeared that a little more than half of the people in the room believed they had visited the Other Side.
I don't know if the organizers originally planned it that way, but it turned out that many of the speakers in the presentations and workshops chose as their topic ADC, or after-death communication to the living from those who have passed on. I was glad for the additional variety.
To be continued in the next posting.