How Language Encourages Belief in an Afterlife

People believe in life after death for many reasons. A contributing factor, one that goes unnoticed, are certain characteristics of nouns and verbs in English and other languages. Essentially, the way nouns and verbs work help make it easy for us to imagine and talk about the dead as if they still lived.

One characteristic is that nouns don’t indicate whether the thing they name exists physically or not. Nouns do show other differences quite clearly, such as a difference in number: in English, for example, many nouns are plural if they end with an s sound and are singular if they are without it. But nouns don’t change in any way to show the difference between items that exist and those that don’t. Nouns and names (which are a type of noun) can, with no change at all, refer to objects and people right in front of us (Please meet my sister) or out of sight (my sister in Chicago) or existing only in our imagination (I wish I had a sister) or no longer alive (My great grandmother’s sister).

As a result, a sentence such as “Aunt Mary went to college when she was 16” sounds normal and clear even though the statement leaves out an important piece of information: we can’t tell from it whether Aunt Mary is living at this moment or not. In general, in fact, when we remember the lives of those who have died, we can—rather weirdly—think and speak about them with the same words we might have used when they were alive. In our imagination and conversation, thanks to the way nouns work, such people easily remain alive-in-the-past-tense.

A second bizarre characteristic is that even explicit assertions that a person has died have their own peculiarities. “Aunt Mary is dead” seems to leave no uncertainty about her current state. But not only is the noun phrase Aunt Mary by itself neutral about whether she exists now or not; the verb in the sentence, is, is in the present tense, not the past. The result, as I hear the sentence, is a subtext that allows us to imagine Aunt Mary retaining some of her reality in the here and now although she is deceased. After all, except for the last word, the statement is no different from countless statements that began with “Aunt Mary is…” when she was alive, such as “Aunt Mary is upstairs.” So, for speakers and listeners who were fond of Aunt Mary, the statement that she is dead can subtly suggest or leave open the possibility of  her other-worldly continuity as the same time that it delivers the hard message.

Finally, consider the other form of the same message: “Aunt Mary died.” No present tense verb here; “died” means died-in-the-past. But here the contradictory hint of her continuing animation is that she is the actor of the verb. Normally, the dead don’t do  things. Aunt Mary did something, so how dead can she really be? This is all very strange, but I think that such sentences tell us one thing and hint at something else. Despite the literal meaning of “Aunt Mary died,” the sentence, one might say, is whispering that she is still active. As a result, especially if we ourselves hope to live in some form after we die, we might feel quite comfortable with such statements as “Aunt Mary died. She has gone to heaven and continues to watch over us.”

Language is our human tool. It has no more or less accuracy and flexibility than we give it. We can talk about what is real and what is not real and we may not always need to be precise about the difference. One consequence is the ease with which we can “speak” the dead to life.

The Walkers

Sometimes when I’m waiting in a lobby or near a sidewalk, I’m drawn for a few moments to imagine that all the people strolling by me are doing so even though I have died and am not actually there. I’m imagining that even without me alive and present, the people around me are doing just what they are doing right now. Some audiences like to watch the zombies on The Walking Dead. My preference is for watching the walking living.

This mode of people-watching seems a bit morbid, but it doesn’t feel that way. It’s reassuring—for reasons I don’t fully understand. It’s a reminder that all these other lives will carry on easily without me, and that’s a cheering thought. It does of course have a sad side—I’ll be missing out on the life that others still enjoy. But for me, the idea of death comes with a twinge of anxiety about obliteration, about a calamitous end-of-everything. Watching others walking seems to relieve that. Maybe it’s because walking is so sustained and purposeful (even for zombies).

Most of the time, when I’m feeling reasonably healthy and upbeat, it is extremely difficult to believe that I will die. I can contemplate the constancy of change and the brevity of life all I want, but a gut-level conviction of my mortality does not come easily. And I’m not sure I really want it to. I think most living things are geared for staying alive, for “not going gently into that good night,” for resisting death. But I can raise my level of acceptance a little as a ghost watcher of the walking living.