A TGB READER STORY: The Big Yellow Pot - A Story of Love in the Kitchen
It's a Wonderful Life

Dying, Death and Spiritual Questions

A reader named Elizabeth Kurata left a comment with these questions last week:

”I don't think I've read anything about this subject on your blog - your own spiritual beliefs, about what happens after death, in your opinion, or at the moment of death.

“Do you believe in heaven & hell? Do you believe they are places? Do you believe in a Soul? What about Consciousness? What do you think happens after death?”

Well, Elizabeth, I am pretty sure you've found a topic I have not, in 15 years at this blog, written about. One reason, the biggest reason is that I don't think there is anything at all more private and personal in life.

Also, it is undoubtedly too difficult a subject to carry on in this arm's-length kind of written forum where direct response to one another is difficult.

Also, in the realm of spirituality and religion, people believe what they believe and often hold so fiercely to those beliefs that there is nowhere to go with a discussion.

People are free to believe whatever they want and we in the United States should know that better than some other places. It is a large part of how we became a country.

Me? I am nominally Jewish but don't do anything about it except light yartzeit and Hannukah candles. I've always suspected that I just like candles.

But what is important about yartzeit is all that day, every time I see the flame, I think about that loved one, keeping them alive in my heart year after year after year, never letting go. I think it is a beautiful ritual for anyone, Jewish or not.

Mostly, in regard to the questions inherent in religion, spirituality, souls, the great hereafter, and all that goes with it – I am agnostic. I have no beliefs in those areas. Does individual consciousness survive death? I suspect not but who am I to say.

Although I generally have no religious beliefs, I do believe that the ancient sacred texts of religions are mostly good blueprints for how to live a good life. And the language of some can be breathtakingly beautiful – the King James Bible and The Book of Common Prayer are two that are worth reading again and again even if you are atheist, agnostic or of another religion. Plus you might learn something about living.

What I do believe is that most of us, most of the time, with or without belief in a higher power, live by our better instincts that are innate. Except on days when I don't believe that.

I have no idea what happens after death. Maybe I will be pleasantly surprised. But what I do know is what astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson tells us in a statement that makes me weep with awe and joy: “We are all stardust.”

Take a listen to him:


Fair question. Spectacular answer.

In an NBC TV interview that he gave just weeks before he died, in 1972, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel — theologian, scholar, spiritual teacher, and civil rights activist replied to Carl Stern's question: "What do you think is going to happen to you after you die?" Heschel: "I have so many things to worry about while I'm alive, I'll let God worry about what happens to me after I die."

> I think about that loved one, keeping them alive in my heart year after year after year

Like you, Ronni, I am an "ethnic" but not religious Jew. Jewish is the personal history I identify with rather than that of the European countries from whence my ancestors fled.

I have a menorah that I inherited from my mother. Life gets in the way and most years I don't get to light it every day of Hanukkah. However tonite, the fourth night, it will glow brightly as it does every year. Our family lore is that my Dad was born on the fourth light. He is gone forty years... but not forgotten. Tonite's menorah is both a reminder of Jewish history and a yartzeit for my father.

It has been written that a person is not truly dead until nobody speaks their name. My father still lives in my memory and my heart.

Growing up I sang in a children's choir, attended my church services (the peacefulness and intimacy of candlelight was sublime as a teen), and memorized all the spoken parts, right up to the moment one Sunday morning when, having forgotten some parts, I earnestly began reading them. In an ironic moment, while searching for guidance and comfort during a difficult personal time, I was gaping at the words so readily spoken and questioning them. That was the beginning of life without structured religion as I'd known it.

Using parts of various religious rituals is something that resonates well. If ever I'm in the South, I'd like to attend services that have gospel singing. And the candles for loved ones in the Jewish ways is beautiful. I think I'll read up on and adopt it, lovingly.

Word for word, I'm with you on this subject, Ronni, and appreciate the lightness you put in. You're such a terrific writer, says someone often captivated and found feeling and thinking of my own attitudes, choices and convictions as a result.

Thank you Ronni...a difficult subject, and those of us who have worked with those who were dying learned to listen well to what they believed, rather than put our own beliefs onto them. It is the only way to support someone else who believes differently.

A wise and beautiful answer to Elizabeth's questions, Ronni.

There are so many different religions in the world and the believers are convinced that theirs is the true one. I find many similarities in religious teachings and many dissimilarities. One religion borrows traditions from others and incorporates the belief as their own; therefore there are blended religions.

If that isn't confusing enough, more wars and cruelty are done in the name of religion than any other belief. All in the name of brotherhood and good works.

My own conclusion is that we all latch onto what makes us feel comfortable and that fills a need to believe in something. This is as true of atheism as it is of organized religion. As for me, I love the knowledge that we are all stardust and part of the beautiful Cosmos.

So your religion is a private belief and probably should remain so. At least, that's what I have concluded.

I’m so glad I found your blog. Your writing has that quality of the eternal, the universal. And thank you for introducing me to the idea of the yartzeit. I’m married to a converted Jew, yet never heard of this. A beautiful idea.

I don't worry about not knowing what will happen after death. I assume life after death will be like life before birth.

What I worry about surviving the dying process. I want to leave this existence with a minimum of fear and a maximum of dignity. I want my last thoughts to be of thanks and gratitude for the opportunity of having existed.

I really liked your sincere and skilful answer, Ronni. With you all the way!

Something you are obviously unaware of is that where you go after you die is determined before you due. God sent His Son, Jesus Christ, into the world to endure God's wrath for our sin when He died on the cross. When God makes you aware that you are a sinner and separated from God because of your sin, you are given the option of accepting the sacrifice that Christ made on the cross for your sins before you die. It is your choice. If you don't, then you automatically set yourself up for God's wrath after you die.

Ronni, you picked my favorite commentary on life and death. We are all star dust, and after death, sooner or later, will become star dust again. Works for me.

The loveliest contemplation I've heard. Thank you, Ronni.

Ronni, thank you for including us in this final thesis of your life. One of your greatest gifts is that you took the risk to ask and answer the questions that you have ... and hopefully will as you are able.

Yes, Ronni, your comment and video exemplify your always - thoughtful nature. My motto has always been, "well everybody will do it or has done it, guess I can/will be able to do it, too." Being returned to stardust is very beautiful, though. Thank You.


Willene Spicer, I don't mind your having your own beliefs, but I do resent your trying to impose your mythology on others...! Thank you for sharing, Ronni. As I had gathered in the past, we are totally 'same page'! Tamar, I love the Heschel quote!

stardust, that is beautiful

Thank you, Ronni, and all commenting. Not much one can add to your great topic, thoughts, and reader comments.
I can share something I learned from a young Indian man living in Mumbai that wrote to me on Elder Wisdom Circle wanting to know about Americans, 5 or 6 years back.
He was in his early 20s.

Acronyms can be confusing to my aging brain now, yet this on is a keeper. His take on religion in general was "a BELIEF". Be Ever Loving In Every Form." I still think about this exceptional young man once in while, and feel he will do fine in life due to his attitude. ....the one thing we CAN control.

Thank you for sharing the Neil deGrasse Tyson video. I love that concept that we are all stardust.

My dad used to say that heaven and hell are not places we actually go, that we create our own heaven or hell here on earth. If we live in such a way that we are remembered with love and fondness after we die then we are heaven for as long as our name is spoken. If we are were hateful or scorned or quickly forgot by others then we are in hell.

Thank you, Ronni, for your wonderful blog. So glad I found you. I think of you as a friend I never met.
I love my Jewish culture but I’m not a religious person.
My Catholic husband loves the tradition of lighting the menorah and saying the prayer with me.
I just finished reading Stephen King’s Elevation which promotes the idea of stardust brilliantly.

Charlene....what a lovely thought. We should all strive to have that be true in our lives. Willene, you are a bit “preachy” with your comment.

Ronni, I hope that you will be pleasantly surprised with whatever you experience during and after death.

I totally agree with you Ronni. I love the "stardust" concept. When I was a child back in Hungary ages ago, I asked my grandmother about death, and she always said to look up at the stars, they were people who passed, looking down on us. What a lovely thought that echoes the respected scientist. Thank you so much for sharing this with us.

Well! That triggered a lot of comments. Ronni, you’ve hit the proverbial nail directly on the head. Let’s all do our best to make our various accumulations of stardust as peaceful and heavenly as possible.

Those people who are so very certain they know what happens after we die... are those who need to have that certainty as a shield against fear. I would never want to take support away from anyone who needs it. Nevertheless, no matter how emotionally satisfying the many different stories about life after death might be, we have no hard evidence that any one of them is true.

I think good people pick out the good parts of organized religion, and it helps them be better people. Damaged people can be helped to recover by those same good parts.

Unfortunately, every organized religion also includes parts which have all too often been construed by bad people to justify the worst sorts of cruelty. The good decent people have no defense against their co-religionists, because "You've got God wrong!" is always countered with "No, you've got God wrong!"

The only way to sort this out is to realize that it's all a human invention, every bit of it. You can't understand human beings without taking gods into account -- not as external entities, but rather, a set of stories that we feel compelled to tell ourselves. The traditions associated with a scripture or holy book reflect multiple human cultures -- not only the culture of origin, but also every succeeding culture that it has been transmitted through. So of course they're all going to include both nuggets of wisdom that are still true, and plenty of ideas we can now find very repellent.

A quote I read in the last year (sorry I am paraphrasing and I dont recall who said it):

"Why should I worry about what happens to me when I die? It's not going to happen in my lifetime!"

Thank you, Ronni, for your comments to my questions. It was a great video too!

A great spiritual guru named Anandamurti said, "You are never alone or helpless. The force that guides the stars, guides you too." Somehow when I think of that, it comforts and grounds me.

Sending you love & peace.

Great post. Stardust we will become--love it! If/when a label is required (very rarely), I'd probably describe myself as an "atheist-leaning agnostic". Folks who would foist their religion on me? In the spirit of the season, bah, humbug!

Thank you for sharing of yourself in so many ways, Ronni. Wishing you peace and comfort on this journey.

An excellent post and wonderful comments.

Thanks again, Ronni, for speaking on a topic that is worthy of all our consideration, and for the way that you do it. I so love that we are stardust, the universe is us, and we are it!

What happens after dying? No idea, I'll know when I get there.

And Willene, honey? Put some sugar with all that salt!

Thank you, Ronni, for this wonderful response. Thank you for bringing up Neil deGrasse Tyson and his stardust -- what an absolutely wonderful image, from the words of a scientist whose description of what we humans are made of is both precise and glorious.

As always, I benefitted enormously from the comments to your wonderful, thoughtful piece. There are so many respondents whom I wish I could meet and talk more with. I wish that boat could somehow accommodate all of us so that we could carry on endlessly.

My trek through religions has had me a Methodist [my mother was one], then a Presbyterian [after my mother had a car accident and wrecked her car and could no longer make it to her church], then I left that church quite on my own, fed up with what I viewed as the utter hypocrisy of the minister - and moved on to the Quakers, where I learned to be quiet, to listen mostly, and to love that phrase about holding someone in the light. There were stops now and then at a Congregationalist Church. But I think in the end I am most at ease with the Quakers, their quiet, their generosity, and not least their pacifism.

Now I begin to wonder if I shouldn't seek out something that has Stardust as its base. Its basis. Since we've now learned that we are indeed made of it.

Oh Ronni, I've been thinking of this so much lately - and of you. These words are so beautiful and I feel so close to all those responding. Thank you.

What a wonderful frank discussion of your beliefs. I have very similar thoughts but often feel I don’t want to advertise them. People can be so adamant about the truth of their religious beliefs.
As a rabid atheist, raised as a secular or cultural Jew it is only as I aged that I came to value the teachings of different religions and the importance of ritual. It is still difficult for me to understand how people can be so positive in their belief of rigid religious dogma and doctrine.
You are again doing a great service by being so open.

So many thoughtful insightful comments. I like the stardust idea.
I am also Jewish and once wrote a poem explaining yahrseit candles and saying the kaddish prayer.
It had a similar connection to the stars and the idea that we live on as long as our name is remembered.
If I may quote just the last part.

I light the candles, pour my memories
into words, fashion the words into poems.
When I am no longer here to light candles,
let my poems take their place.
Let them roam the universe like stars,
eternal lights of remembrance.

TGB readers carry your name in our hearts.

Greetings, all. I love these comments. I call myself a hopeful agnostic.

Beautiful comments all. We will each make our own way. There are as many paths as there are people.

This blog today and these comments are so helpful and so needed! Everyone should be able to experience this. I wish we were all in a cozy room together with candles and big windows to the sky.
Thank you Ronni for making this possible!

I believe we will become star dust once again. And worm food. And memories for our survivors and friends.

Love your comments re candles.
Thank you for providing an amazing answer as to how I will mark you in my heart once only one of us is still here to light them. xx

I always believe the definition of religion regardless of its title is: One's firm belief in where they came from, what their purpose is on this Earth, and where they all go once they pass beyond consciousness.
I believe too that heaven and hell are simply symbolic places of conscious - even to meant to be mythical.

Well said, Yellowstone.

From Agnostic to another ... thank you for this blog.

The finest explanation I have ever seen or heard was in one scene from the movie Houseboat (1958) where widower Cary Grant explains to his three children who had lost their mother where people went when they died. He scooped a glass of river water from the river on which their houseboat sat and said words to the effect that this was an individual in this glass that never existed before, an individual like their Mom. Then he poured the water back into the flowing river and essentially said that this is where you go when you die -- back into the flow of the universe. In all these years I have never forgotten that scene. It has carried me through some very rough patches.

Happy Hanukkah

Once again, thank you Ronni and the TGB community for reassuring me that there is a community out there whose values are so much like mine. It’s good not to be alone in the universe, so to speak. Willene’s comment only served to remind me of why I am not a Christian. Thanks also for sharing the beautiful Neil DeGrasse Tyson video. I love thinking of my body as having come from stardust and perhaps returning to stardust some day. I sent the video out to members of my family.

First, I have to share my mother’s idea of religion, which was that you could only sing Christmas carols starting a week before Christmas. I never asked her how she came up with that.

I think about death now and then, am planning to write my own obituary before the end of the year, don’t believe in an afterlife, and try to make the best of every day of my life.

Ronnie, you’re an amazing woman.

Am with you all the way Ronni. Emma Jay and Salinda Dahl, I like your gentle comments re Willene's contribution.

What a nice thought that when we die, we go back into the flow of the universe. I've always said throughout my life when I've thought about death, that that's where I'll go and as a bonus it would be marvellous to join the green in the rainbows. I remain open minded and curious. xxxx

I’ve enjoyed following your blog for many years and dying is something that’s been on my mind more as I age. I love what you are posting as you go through the final leg of your journey. It’s very helpful to people.

I also love the stardust idea which really began with the wonderful Carl Sagan. I also like the new idea of green burials, in which you return quicker to Mother Earth to become part of the whole again.

Sadly, Willene misses many of the fine nuances of an open curious mind in awe of the possibilities and wonder of the universe and our small but significant place in it, rather than a judgemental dogmatic belief in a fantasy.

I think I once posted here that some days I believe in an afterlife and other days I don't. When I was twenty I had this whole universe thing completely figured out, today I have no effing clue.

One of the things I am sure of is that you are an amazing writer and I always look forward to reading this blog.

Take care Ronni

Happy Hanukkah, Ronni! You've brought plenty of light to this non-theistic Quaker over the years and I'm grateful for every photon. This 12/5/18 post is one of the biggies. You managed to explain why it's a topic you haven't written about, why conversation in this direction is often fruitless and usually better face to face, and then you just dove right in sharing your own clear thinking on the questions Elizabeth K. asked.

Bravo! You've done it again.

Printing this one to save and reread again and again. It gives me peace. I struggle with the ideas of faith and no faith. I believe in the good and unconditional love and so many things the Bible teaches but not the fear, guilt and exclusivity. I bear no ill feelings for those who believe as it can help them through so many troubles and give them peace and a way to be their best. The brief moment in time we have to experience the wonders of living is our one chance to live our best life with our own personal truths.

When I die, I don't think I will learn anything one way or the other. I will be dead, and I am ok with that. In the meantime I don't want to miss the here and now and whatever future I may have.

Thank you, Ronni, you nailed it again.

A final thought from an old folk song fan, like me...."The Highwayman" seems to fit right in here as I read all the interesting comments.

Jimmy Webb said he wrote it after a vivid dream he had touring in England following a night of "professional drinking" with a buddy in 1977.

This song was recorded countless times, even in Europe. (surprising to me). Easy to find on the internet.

The version I personally like is Jimmy Webb himself singing and playing the piano, with a friend on a single guitar. I usually prefer recordings without a crowd of violins as background. Easier for a person to respond to music from a tender more receptive part of the mind is what I believe. Simple music often helps me through difficult times as it says the words I did not know or simply cannot speak.

Perhaps Peter Tibbles will cover the life and times of this remarkable storyteller/songwriter here someday.

Thank you Ronni for posting these thoughts. They certainly opened an interesting thread of shared perceptions. I had constructed a post two days ago and thought I had posted it, but I first got the message that my session had timed out, so had to update my login. That usually works fine, but apparently I did something wrong this time and I did not actually post. So here's try #2.

It was interesting this week following all the coverage of George H.W. Bush's funeral proceedings. I saw the footage of the interview in which he discusses his impending death several times. In that he says he had been worried about death, but was no longer. That he believed there is an afterlife and that it is a good one. This did not surprise me at all. Bush was obviously dearly loved in his life and in death, and, in spite of some difficulties duri9ng war and the loss of a young daughter, he faced life with courage and optimism. His was a life of privilege and support and it was no surprise to me that he expected it to go on that way after his death, too, only better.

I think that we mostly die the way we have lived, that there are no deathbed or foxhole conversions. What happens afterwards is a great mystery. Perhaps the stardust of which we are made (and really, what else could we be made of? -- stardust comprises all the building blocks of this earth and everything on it, and we are certainly of this earth) rearranges and recycles itself into other life forms. Perhaps it lies inert in the great landfill of Eternity. Who knows?

All I know for sure is that, as Charlene shared above from the person who came up with the acronym "BELIEF - Be All Loving In Every Form" is a good one to live by regardless of what the future holds.

The idea of a heaven and a hell scares the heck out of me.
Hell, because of the fire, brimstone, eternal damnation just for breaking a couple of the "rules". And heaven because it just seems so boring with all the 'goodie-goodies'. I mean, can you even get a drink there?

Wow! You nailed it, Ronni!

Ronnie, as you say, who knows what happens after we die? I only know that I'm less afraid of dying after being with my mother and brother when they passed away. And I'm grateful that the memories I have of them are with me every day.

Thank you for sharing the 'we are stardust' clip -- I had heard of the phrase, but did not know how profoundly true it was.

Though born & raised a Presbyterian, I had my doubts even as a young child. I still have my old Sunday School books that first planted the seeds of disbelief, even though I had a great upbringing as part of the church. It was the story of martyrdom, in particular an old woman forced to eat live coals because she would not renounce her beliefs. I kept thinking, damn, just denounce already & live to fight another day! What kind of God would prefer you to eat live coals!

Anyway, I enjoyed reading your post, and agnostic am I as well. A friend of mine who had a rather spectacular break with Mormonism (and last I knew continues to publish youtube videos on the subject) informed me that Presbyterians were just atheists with a back-up plan. I got a kick out of that one.

I often think of the tremendous influence my older relatives had on me, who are gone now, and how they shaped so many of the things I did, the choices I made. Even though they were gone, I could never do anything that would have been a disappointment to them, particularly in the way I treated others. To me, that is life after death.

Hi Ronnie & her friends -
I am agnostic leaning towards atheism. I don’t understand and cannot acknowledge a God who gives small children brain cancer and other horrible painful diseases. I don’t understand a God who tells his followers they will go to heaven if they are good but refuses to prove it. Thats cruel! Speaking of cruel - I have never read a book as cruel and vicious as the old testament.
To top it off I have always found myself rather afraid of those who have the absolute answer to any belief. I do believe in Mother Nature and I certainly believe in miracles or unnerving “incidents” [was finding this group of people in my 84th year one of them?] .
Agnostic is good - it allows me to ruminate and imagine greeting those gone before me - we have great catchup conversations! I don’t have to worry about going to hell as my mother did for no good reason. Life is a mystery and then I believe it is ashes to ashes and yes maybe we go back into the flow of the universe - that makes sense.
We certainly live more or less forever in the genes of the members of our clan who follow us. I am like my grandmother and my granddaughter is like me. Did anyone see Laura Bushes daughter at the funeral - so like Laura!
An easy death to each of us and especially Ronnie Bennett - my hand to yours across the border. I think of you every morning over my coffee. Hope I can put one foot in front of the other as well as you seem to be doing. You are giving right to the end. Thanks.

When I turned 70, I was shocked to see that I am old, no older, but old. I'm having trouble accepting my end. I have dogs that I love and I see them get old and die. That just about kills me. I have always hated endings. Even the end of a day makes me sad. I suffer from chronic depression. The evenings are always sad for me. I don't worry at all about being dead it the ending and the loose of my life as I know it. It all is just futile and vain. The only thing that gives me peace and comfort is my conviction that I will go to heaven to live a much better life eternally. I was an agnostic until I was 58 years old. I read a book about a Christian family and I was so intrigued that I felt compelled to check out this think called Christianity. I Googled, why I should believe. I got a list of 10 reasons why I should believe. I was so convinced that I have studied the bible everyday since then. I had to wade through so much crazy stuff. But I got on the right track. I suggest you look again, reconsider the evidence. Make your own decision as if your eternity depended upon it, because it does. We have no tasks to complete in order to qualify. We just have to believe the gospel of grace. Please give this you most serious consideration.

Frank, chronic depression is a terrible burden. Each of us has to find our own way to deal with loss and mortality. I am glad that Christianity comforts you.

And, hey... if you're right and I'm wrong, well, there are some people I knew who will definitely be in heaven. When you get there, please say hello to my little brother Donnie who died of bone cancer at age 6, and my mom -- her name was Kay, she lived to 85 -- and my Granny, who was Eleanor... she nearly made it to 100. Get my mom to make you some apple pie, then you'll know you're in heaven!

I'm new to this blog and love the discussion..

I like the concept that G-d is all that is, was, and ever will be. I think of G-d being Energy and that some of that energy has been converted to matter. We are composed of matter but also energy. Some Jewish thinking (Chabad) is that our souls in this world have imperfections that can only be corrected in this world (the world of action). When we die, those parts of our soul return to the ONENESS of G-d and those parts that need more work return to earth for another opportunity. Perhaps we will all be united again.
This idea is consistent with theories physicists.

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