[I just have to put my answer to this question out there, because although the answer is obvious, I don’t see it clearly stated all that often.]
What is it like to be dead? — that or something similar is a common enough sort of question. Actually, you already know what it will be like when you are dead, because it will be exactly like it was before you were conceived. Remember what you felt like before you were conceived?
Exactly: it didn’t feel like anything. Before you existed, you didn’t have any thoughts or feelings. That is what it will be like after you are dead, because after you are dead, the brain that generates thoughts and feelings won’t work anymore. Your existence is temporary.
Just as there was no ‘you’ floating around before conception wishing that your mum and dad would get on with it because you were so excited about how great life was going to be, there will be no ‘you’ floating around after death wishing that you hadn’t died.
It’s funny that practically no-one feels a terrible sense of loss about the fact that they didn’t exist for millenia before they came into existence, but lots of people find it impossible to accept that after death they won’t exist any more. It just seems too awful to most people: life is so great; the sense of self is so important; how could it possibly come to an end?
But each individual life obviously does have its beginning and its ending, and the sense of self is contingent upon the existence of that life.What’s more, the sense of self is shorter than life. It does not exist in a non-material soul, it is something that develops quite slowly after birth, and only if the necessary physical components are present and encouraged to develop by a supportive physical environment. The sense of self depends upon the activity of the brain, and only develops as the brain matures. That is why most of us have no memories at all before the age of two years. Similarly, the sense of self can decay and even disappear completely before death. When the brain loses the physical capacity to store and retrieve memories and conduct the other mental processes involved in identity, the self disappears. It is an extraordinary leap of faith to imagine that the self has migrated to some other place. That kind of thing is just wishful thinking.
The thing that makes consciousness truly precious is that it is temporary. Your consciousness is special, not because it will go on and on forever, but because it is so brief. Life is supremely valuable, not because it is the antechamber to something else, but because it is essential to consciousness, and all-too-easily extinguished.
© 2018 Craig Bingham
 “The capacity for self-awareness starts to emerge during the second year of life, when children first demonstrate a range of abilities that appear to presuppose self-awareness, including self-related emotions (e.g., embarrassment; Lewis, 1993, 1995; Lewis, Sullivan, Stanger, & Weiss, 1989), the ability to recognize oneself in a mirror (Amsterdam, 1972; Bard, Todd, Bernier, Love, & Leavens, 2006; Harley & Reese, 1999; D. B. Johnson, 1983), and using first-person pronouns and pretend play (Lewis & Ramsay, 2004). Wheeler et al. (1997) suggested that the development of self-awareness in childhood paves the way for full autonoetic consciousness and therefore episodic memory (see also Vandekerckhove, 2009); however, the precise relation between present-moment self-awareness and autonoetic consciousness (i.e., temporally extended self awareness) has not been elaborated (e.g., Keenan et al., 2000).” Quoted from: Prebble SC, Addis DR, Tippett LJ. Autobiographical memory and sense of self. Psychological Bulletin 2013; 139(4): 815–840. This article refers to a wide range of literature about the sense of self, its origins and also the conditions of its dissolution.
 The idea that the self passes on to some new life after death is imaginable in the abstract, but becomes tenuous when considered in relation to actual cases. In the case of people whose sense of self decays slowly, are we to imagine that the migration of self to the afterlife has taken place in instalments? In the case of people whose sense of self is radically transformed by mental disease before death, are we to imagine that it is the diseased self that lives on after death, or that an earlier self is somehow restored by death? If death occurs before the sense of self develops, what then? These difficulties leave aside the problem that after death, the body that has always been the person is no longer functional, so that a continuing self apparently lacks any what, where or how to be.
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Thanks for commenting. I haven’t seen your parents for years, but I remember them as brilliant people. I’m curious about your memoir writing. Maybe I’ll see it one day?
Love and best wishes,
Thank you Craig for this beautiful opinion piece. How timely it was to read, both in terms of our heightened awareness of human fragility in the times of pandemic, but also as we all click over the 60 year mark and move into our last couple of decades, more or less.
My clever and science based mother explained this to me when I was very young. I have found it such a comfort to know; that the universe has existed, reaching back into forever before I was born, and that it will continue, into infinity after I have gone. She also taught us very young that dead is dead. We were nothing before. We will be nothing after. We only have this life.
(My father, always more the humanist, would add that the purpose of this life is to work to make the world a better place, and to care for your family and community)
It’s nearly always such a pleasure to read your writing and So thanks for sharing it widely.
I am still writing memoir. I enjoy it. Mostly. Sending love.