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.

Reverence for (Some) Life

reverence for the world

Celebrating life

Here is a tug-of-war.

At one end of the rope is our common conviction that life—our life, other lives, life in general—is a good thing. For many, this conviction is little more than a cliche, a toast, an instinct for self-preservation that includes just familiar faces. For others with a religious orientation, the concept of life is much more vast, one face of the cycle of birth and death, a name for both flesh and spirit. Both groups, though, lean hard towards life and away from the state of dust and stones. We all ally ourselves with being alive and, in the abstract at least, with all things that are alive.

But pulling hard at the other end of the rope are the distinctions that we make every day between lives that we value and those we value very little or not at all. We favor people who are similar to us, we belittle others, and we are indifferent, sometimes fatally so, to many others. We accept abortion but oppose capital punishment, or vice-versa. We cuddle some animals, save others from extinction, eat a few, exterminate many. We value plants for providing us with food or a desirable environment, but the life of an individual plant in and of itself has no status for us. When it comes to actual living things, we have favorites and losers, the innocents, the inconvenient, and the unacceptable, with life and death consequences.


Despised pests.

In this tug-of-war between reverence for all life and differentiation among lives, it’s differentiation that usually wins. This isn’t surprising. We must draw distinctions each day in order to stay alive, deciding who to align with and who to oppose, what to eat and what to cut down, spray or ignore. Most people go through most days with no interest in revering life universally. We toast our health and long life and then eat our chicken dinner. We wake up in the morning feeling glad to be alive, we send a contribution to help poor children, we call the exterminator, and we pull dandelions. Even the conscientiously devout weed their gardens. None of that seems contradictory.

You might expect that after declaring that we value life above all else, we would place being alive above any other feature of a thing, and we would care for that thing because, no matter what else it is, it is alive. Insects might be repulsive, but they would be precious because they live. Plants might be so abundant that lawns and streets could be overgrown but their right to life would be defended while we starved from trying to subsist on dead animals and fallen fruit. Obviously this is not how things go.

Perhaps tug-of-war is not the best metaphor. Compartmentalization might be a better label. Reverence for life and preference for some lives are not strictly incompatible (we may hasten the death of a beloved relative to stop their pain) but mostly we put them in separate compartments.

marraige equality

Better lives. Marriage equality, June 2013. (

And what we also do is take reverence out of its compartment every so often when the time seems right and try to move society a step in its direction. We join forces to extend a better life to those of other ethnicities or social classes or genders or sexual orientation—as well as to some animals, to fetuses, to endangered plants. Protective reverence for all life may be beyond our reach, but we put it to powerful use when we are able. We may draw grim, unfair distinctions among other lives too easily, but as long as we remain a little uneasy that we do so, reverence for all life remains a cause that can be advanced.