Ted Ottinger: Pondering death from different perspectives

Ted Ottinger

By Ted Ottinger

I think most of us, after a certain age, worry about dying. This is very normal and one of the curses of having such highly developed brains. Our dogs and cats, as far as we know, don’t worry about mortality.

Most of us want to hang around as long as possible, unless we are experiencing great emotional or physical pain. A large percentage of us believe that once the sheet has been pulled over our heads, it’s all over. Poof!

Only in science fiction and in many religious tomes has anyone who was really dead come back. Before my 80th birthday, I thought that the older a person became, the more welcoming of death they would become. Now, I’m not at all certain about this.

At the deaths of two beloved elderly aunts, I shared my grief with a Buddhist nun. She looked at me with a most serene smile and said, “Old people die. That’s what they do.”

As far back as we have records or artifacts, our ancestors weren’t too excited about death, either. Those with royal blood assumed that with their status on Earth as being descended from gods, their deaths would just be a temporary inconvenience. Therefore, like going on a long trip, everything that they or their descendants thought would be needed for the next place were entombed with them, including slaves. Sadly, the slaves had to be killed before embarking on this trip with their masters. Many tribes had similar beliefs.

When Christianity came along, its major appeal was that Christ had died and came back, and if one believed this, they, too, would come back. Few historians or those with any medical knowledge ever believed Jesus came back. Forced to forgo food or water, being tortured and then nailed to a cross pretty much assures that those crucified didn’t recover.

Many Christians told this story and it became a wonderful tool for proselytizing and for getting money flowing into the collection plates. Catholics really capitalized on this and came up with a truck stop-like place called purgatory. To get a loved one out and back on the heavenly road, one only had to pay a priest.

Some afterlife believers view heaven as a giant family get-together where you’ll get to meet all of your kin going back forever. Well, not all of your kin, because some of them may have broken some of God’s laws or some church rule. Of course, it is quite natural that we of the still living want to believe in a heavenly reward for ourselves and our loved ones.

Printed obituaries tell of loved ones being greeted by deceased relatives and getting bear hugs from Jesus.

At my uncle’s funeral, the minister said that my uncle, a road contractor, was now building roads of gold in heaven. At a neighbor’s housewarming, a Mennonite pastor said that most of us would never have a home as nice as the one we were gathered in (even though it had only one bathroom). We would live in mansions in the next life.

African slaves in America, and slaves around the world, as well as people imprisoned, could only hope for freedom in heaven.

One summer, when I was teaching a class of those with physical disabilities, I noticed the female students having a discussion in the back of the room. Curious, I walked back and asked what they were discussing. One of them told me that they were wondering if they would be able to walk when they got to heaven. This was no time to tell them of my atheist beliefs. I told them that I hoped not only did I think they would walk, but also skip, jump and dance.

Perhaps there is no harm in ministers, as well as friends and relatives, assuring the bereaved that their loved ones are now in a better place. But is this not unlike telling children about Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy? Of course, the difference is the ages of those being told the stories. 

Christians fundamentalists, including Mormons, believe that those embalmed or cremated or buried 6 feet under will come blasting out of their graves on that fateful day when Jesus returns with the rising sun. The deceased going back forever will be really looking good as any disfigurements will be erased, along with signs of aging or any physical or mental disabilities. All of this, of course, only applies to the “good”” people, who probably went to your church. As for the “bad” people, you really don’t want to know. Some believe that only spirits go on. This really baffles me, as I think of spirits as steam rising from the kettle.

Few people of today believe in elves, fairies or witches or that evil spirits cause diseases. Alchemy is no longer taught in science classes, and yet many people still believe that Jesus is going to show up. If you find it difficult to wait in line at the DMV or to get through security at the airport, waiting over 2,000 years will be a real challenge!!

The Mormon afterlife has always been quite puzzling to me. So, I called the Temple Square in Salt Lake City. After several minutes on the phone (and after being told repeatedly that I was provoking the LDS spokesperson), I became more confused than ever.

In one of the Mormon heavens, it is much the same as other Christians’ heaven, as far as Jesus coming back, etc. However, this Mormon afterlife is more like a good ole boys’ place. Married women can only get in when their deceased husbands reach out and call the widows by their secret names given at the LDS marriage ceremony. When I questioned what would happen if the old man couldn’t remember a secret name from so long ago, I was assured that among the many miracles of the next realm, all memory challenges are healed.

Single Mormon women are not left out, as a married Mormon man can get the unattached woman in as his second or third wife. As if all of this isn’t confusing enough, the Mormons have other heavens in a far distant galaxy, which contains the planet that only Mormons have discovered. The planet is Kolob, which houses its own god on a big throne.

Now, be warned that if you ever masturbate (even once), you can’t get into even one of the lower heavens, Also, not tithing will also keep the pearly gates closed. As I understand, if you tithed for many years before leaving or being kicked out of the fold, you are not entitled to a refund. I almost forgot: If a Mormon man goes to one of the outer heaven planets, he will be responsible for populating the barren globe by copulating around the clock with virgins. I would think this would be a full-time job with little time left for planting trees, engineering water systems and myriad other duties.

Women of the Mormon belief system, who are married to abusive Mormon husbands, are frequently advised by their bishops to “suck it up and remain married.” This may seem cruel, but the bishops are only looking out for the wives’ eternal rewards.

Ted Ottinger is a retired special education teacher, a humor columnist and political activist. He lives with his wife in Utah.