Andy de Llano
Concern for the afterlife is as old as civilization itself; what happens to us when we die? Countless religions have answered the question and many claim that these answers are the only thing lacking in modern day science.
But science does explain what happens to us after death and, moreover, it gives us the reasoning behind why we must all eventually perish.
We’re all familiar with the food chain. Grass absorbs energy from the sun, a cow grazes on that grass, then humans use the cow’s milk or kill it and ship its meat to the local McDonald’s or grocery store. We eat, the cow eats, the grass grows and none of this would work if any one of us had everlasting life.
The food chain cannot end with humans. However long we live, whether it’s 30 times as long as an ant will live or half as long as a Galapagos Tortoise, we all end and return to the food chain. According to Scientific American, while we’re living we’re filled with “bacterial colonies from our skin to the deepest recesses of our guts” which continue living after our death, eating the dying tissue and slowly breaking down our bodies. We all know about decomposition, but how often have you thought of the small ecosystem of creatures that thrive on your death? It may sound macabre, but one human being benefits from the deaths of hundreds of animals and plants within just one year of a long lifetime. Most living organisms on earth live and thrive in this way. We all have to eat, right?
The law of conservation of energy states that energy in a closed system is constant. If we were to consider our entire planet a closed system, then we could consider the consumption of living organisms a simple method for energy and matter to transform itself from one form to another. Is a rabbit really gone when it’s been eaten by a snake? Or has its energy been transformed into the fuel that, as the snake grows and sheds its skin, is re-born into a new organism? The snake is still a snake, but every time it grows a new skin it is not the same snake it once was.
In a similar form a human’s skin is renewed every month. Skin cells die one by one, being replaced by new cells, until the newest cell that was “born” at the beginning of a given month dies and falls off by the end of the month. The same process of cell death and renewal happens throughout our entire bodies, so that every living cell that is currently in your body will be long dead 10 years from now.
Technically speaking, the you of 10 years into the future will be a collection of cells that are all the grand and great grandchildren of your current system of cells. All of these cells are fueled by the energy you consume every day. Through the death of all that you eat, your cycle of life is continuously born.
What will be the point of all that work if you eventually die anyway? If you’re searching for meaning on the individual level, science may not have the answers you want to hear, but as a collective every single death has meaning. It contributes to the lives of all the creatures on Earth that continue after you’re gone and allows new life to continually be born.