The stories we are told as children make a difference: are other people basically kind or competitive? Is everybody beautiful or am I never good enough? Is death friend or enemy? I was told from an early age that while I would probably live to old age, I might get run over by a bus so I should value each day.

My parents were Christians but they didn’t worry about death and they didn’t believe in hell. The focus was all on how to live this life.

So, that’s cool. I have always known that death waits at the end of the road and sometimes nips up on you like a joker. Friend then, rather than foe. My nonchalance ended when my 92-year-old mother became very ill and entered a nursing home. She is lonely and confused. I am sometimes overwhelmed by sadness at what her life has become, and I fear it for myself. It is fear of dying rather than death – I know death is the end of consciousness and a welcome relief for an old body – but they are imaginatively connected. If dying means losing freedom and control, it sounds like being dead but alive enough to experience it, which is scary!

I aspire to grow old as Bertrand Russell advised: like a river which flows more quietly and eventually merges into the sea, not lost, just dispersed. We all influence and change each others’ lives in an endless evolution. Our moment passes but future generations stand on our shoulders. I hope the values I hold in life will serve me in dying – thinking of others as well as myself, making myself busy with lovely or helpful things, not off-loading too much on others – though at the age of 60 I still need lots of practice!


As a confirmed humanist, I understand that when my body finally decides that enough is enough there will be no pearly gates; no paradise; no reunion with my loved ones long gone. That said, I must admit to a degree of envy of those who do believe that their end is not the end. How comforting that must be. However, for those of us who live in the real world, we must plan for the inevitable.

I have tried to live my life according to my humanist principles and so was thrilled when I found a way to extend those principles beyond the grave. When I die, my body will be whisked off to a designated medical school to be used for anatomical examination. How great to be able to contribute to medical knowledge for the benefit of mankind even in death. For me, death is about legacy – what we leave behind.

Life is about love, and death is about legacy. But how to combine the two?

Many years ago I took my lunch on a park bench that had carved into the backrest some words that have since provided me with the courage to face my inevitable death:

‘To live on in the hearts of those that love you is not to die.’

I am blessed with a loving, supportive family who, I know, will always remember me with a deep love and affection. Moreover, I have no doubt that our daughters and grandchildren will continue long after our deaths to adopt the humanist values that my wife and I hold dear.

If that is my legacy, I will die a contented man.

Thoughts About My Own Mortality

It’s been a huge relief to find my home in humanism. No more myths and legends masquerading as truth. No more just going along with what others think, taking the easy way. No more avoiding the big issues. A Damascus Road experience in reverse.

So now, when I come to think of my own mortality, there’s no reckoning, no divine judgment, no heaven, no hell, no purgatory, no future, no reuniting, no passing, no better place. Just nothing.

I will leave a fading, once bright, imprint on others who knew me. Maybe that will last a couple of generations. I hope I’ll be remembered fondly. I think I will. I’ve done my best to achieve that.

That’s fine. I’ll settle for that.

I’ve been lucky so far. A good, long, and healthy life. I must make the very most of what’s left. I’m unique. No one can do it like me. I’ve got things to join in. Things I can’t join in. Others to think of. Challenges to meet. Experiences to enjoy. Time alone to reflect. People to love. Plenty to think about. Highlights and dark times. That’s life. I must get on with it.

My nana (a key figure in my life) died when I was 13 and I found myself thinking about ‘heaven’ – a place people talked about to reassure me. I found it disconcerting and uncomfortable, imagining this strange place where I could look down on the people I had loved and left but being unable to let them know I was okay and out of pain. People tried to comfort me by saying I would not be bothered by this loss, because this was heaven and all earthly worries would fade. I found this even more horrific! All my care, and love, and free will removed from me so I didn’t feel? I wanted nothing to do with it!

Looking back at 13 year-old me, I recognise the start of me really understanding what it meant to be human, and this eventually led me to appreciate living now rather than for an afterlife. I only have the moments I stand up and can choose to be kind, curious, passionate, joyful, as well as sad, angry, anxious and all the other amazing gifts of being human in these moments. After death, I lose those gifts: I will not feel, as I am not here, but I find comfort in knowing those gifts will be enjoyed by others and some of their gifts might even be connected to me and my actions. Having no ‘heaven’ means using my gifts now, living, feeling and maybe even improving some moments for other people. At 55, I know I have fewer moments ahead than those behind me, and I can use my gifts to treasure them all – regrets as well as accomplishments – then at the end of my life I release them, glad to have lived them.

All animals are the products of natural selection and it is unsurprising that one of the most important tasks of any nervous system is to identify circumstances leading to death or injury and to avoid them. Yet, as far as we can tell, humans are the only animals that are aware that death is sooner or later inevitable.

We can conjecture that when our ancestors first discovered this, it must have caused a debilitating fear. But to spend one’s life worrying about its end would not contribute to survival and reproduction, so mechanisms were selected to avoid this. The first is that we have acquired a wonderful ability to not think about it, despite its massive importance. The second is that we lower our critical judgement to accept fanciful stories about an afterlife.

Of course, the second of these adaptive mechanisms created an opportunity to practice the trade of shamans and priests. This is probably hundreds of thousands of years old, but I suspect that it became more organised when humans began to live in settled agricultural communities over 10,000 years ago.

We humanists have figured out that the priests’ stories are without evidence and the knowledge that we are the products of evolution makes it certain that animals simply cease to exist when they die. So what will it be like to be dead? It will not be like anything to not exist. If you would like to think what it was ‘like’ during the millions of years before you were born, that should give you an idea.

As I write this, I am approaching my 82nd birthday. I am using the defence of not thinking about it too much, and I will try to use whatever time remains as usefully as possible.

I’ve never thought I am immortal, so I have always accepted mortality as a given. Who would want to be immortal anyway? Imagine your friends and loved ones all growing old and dying, while you still lived on. Imagine the world changing to such an extent that you could no longer cope with what it required. No, we live our one life, then our lives end and we leave room for others.

I was brought up by atheists and largely avoided churchgoing and religious dogma, even though I went to church schools. Heaven and hell were not for me, though on my first day at primary school I was told I would go to hell because I hadn’t been baptised. We were a tiny family – me, my parents, and one childless aunt. This was my adoptive family. The first time I saw a blood relative was when my daughter was born when I was 39. Thirty years later, she has decided that she will not have children, because of the state of the world and the environment. So, I struggle to even recognise that there is a kind of immortality, in the memory of others, or through our genes. When I’m gone, I’m gone.

As a young child in a family of practising Roman Catholics I remember lying in bed at night worrying about dying. Death was something to be feared. I can still feel the echo of that in the pit of my stomach as I write this piece.

Since then I have encountered death in many ways but now it no longer has that grip on my heart. I understand that we are part of a changing and evolving universe where, for me, the gift of life is a random event, so I feel beholden to make the most of my existence while I am still a living, breathing being in our world.

This was most reinforced for me when my previous partner was killed in 2013. Suddenly losing her with no forewarning was an extremely painful event. It led me, however, to understand that I could die at any moment. Because of this, and also to commemorate my partner’s passing, I resolved, wherever possible, to do good in the world for as long as I am able.

Knowing one day that I, as a conscious, living entity, will no longer be part of our human existence, also makes me more determined to make the most of every day I am gifted life by our universe. To take time to encounter the world; to acknowledge the troubles, worries, needs and desires of my human companions on this planet. To allow the natural world to impact me; whether it be insects in the ground I am digging; birds flying above me when I am outside; or the rich variety of trees, plants and all life forms sharing our existence.

Accepting my mortality means that I am committed to living my life to the full and to helping others do the same. It is as simple as that.

I was aware of mortality from a young age, due to the loss of people close to me, but found my grief was managed and directed by others. I was told ‘they are in a better place’, ‘you will get to see them again’, ‘they are watching over you’. Whilst the intention behind these sentiments was good, it did nothing to help me move on, accept the grieving, and take comfort in the best memories of those I had lost.

When I was old enough to challenge my beliefs, and really think about the ‘end of life’, I found much more comfort in living for now and not some idea of anything after this life. I don’t have any fear of death or dying. Losing someone you love is still heartbreaking but focusing on what you shared whilst they were alive, the experiences and memories, that makes grieving less painful. It also makes me more determined to make the most out of every moment.

Now I am in the position of guiding my children through difficult times, I can understand the tendency for people to fall back on what they see as paths of hope and reconciliation that may be perceived as easier for children to comprehend. But honesty is much better in the long run. Explaining that people believe many different things but nobody can give a definitive answer gives children the opportunity to find a path through grief which works best for them. I don’t know if there is an afterlife, but I believe there isn’t, so concentrate on now and live life to the fullest. I think about how I want people to remember me the most, and that is laughing, learning, loving and finding joy in everything I do. That is enough for me.

‘I do not fear death’, said Mark Twain. ‘I was dead for billions of years before I was alive, and it caused me not the slightest inconvenience’. For me, the idea that my own mortality is something I have to ‘come to terms with’ is an odd one, like saying one has to come to terms with the fact that night follows day.

My consciousness and personality clearly cannot survive the death of my brain and the rest of my body. It’s obviously impossible. How could the various atoms and molecules which comprise my dead body somehow reform themselves into a version of myself and continue living in some way? And would I really want them to? Equally, the notion put forward by religions that human consciousness survives death in some ‘spiritual’ form can only ever be a matter of pure speculation and imagination. There is no evidence for it: on the contrary, all the evidence is that death is the end of the individual.

So I accept that after I am dead I will no longer exist, any more than I existed for the first 14 billion years following the Big Bang. The truly amazing thing is that I am alive right now, looking out of my conservatory window as I type this, watching the sparrows on the bird feeders, and admiring the snowdrops on the rockery as the weak February sunshine slants across them. For me to exist a certain sperm had to meet a certain egg. My parents had to be born and survive long enough to meet each other, as did their parents and their parents, and so on back (almost) ad infinitum. Being alive is so remarkably unlikely, statistically speaking, that it needs celebrating every moment of every day. So the answer to my own mortality is simple: I try to live healthily so as to postpone my death for as long as possible; and I try to live well and be happy while I am here.

Growing up, I seemed to think about everything more than my friends did. I often thought about dying, or being dead. It may be explained by the Friday night meetings I got taken to by well-meaning Plymouth Brethren Christians. They collected us in their cars (no child protection or safeguarding back then) and took us to a small hut in the local village which was owned by the highly respected Postmaster. There, we were fed sweets whilst simultaneously reciting bible verses, and gustily singing choruses that spoke of black hearts; the blood of the lamb; and hell, fire and damnation. To my 9-year-old sensitivities it was all completely horrific.

Those early experiences shaped me irreparably until, in my forties, I became aware that I had been afraid my whole life, and that what I had been taught back then about my life and my inevitable death had coloured everything I’d been told since. I found the strength eventually to begin to unravel the belief that I would be judged when I died and hopefully go to heaven. I had long since reckoned that hell was a fantastical and outdated notion. I was still however left with the highly unsatisfactory idea that I would have to eternally worship an unfathomable God-type figure.

Finally, aged 47, I stepped away and no longer believed what I had been told as a child. I lost friends, and even my identity for a while, but finally I was free and no longer afraid.

One day I was half listening to an interview on Radio 4 when the women speaking announced that she would be compost when she died. My ears pricked up, what a wonderful thought, that I would simply be compost when life’s breath left me. My mortality is no longer a concern.

In my teens the Magic and Spirits of childhood coalesced into the Christian Trinity and later disappeared altogether. Life seemed pointless. I saw the meaning of life aged 27, when my first daughter was born. I now search for the why in the universe but no longer the why in my life.

My life is the tiny bit of time allotted to me but what is time? When I was young I thought of time as Newton’s clock ticking throughout the universe. But my perception is that one minute is just a proportion of the minutes I have lived. Recently, I read that time is merely our perception of chemical changes – there is no such thing as a universal time. Maybe a mouse’s two years of life feels the same length as my 70 years. Maybe my 70 years feels the same as a yew tree’s 1000.

So is an 80 year lifespan enough for me? I have been parented, I have been a parent myself, and my children are parenting my grandchildren. We haven’t changed the world but we did well enough. I have had a good life so, although I don’t want to die, I am not afraid of death. I am content that my atoms go back into the earth and my genes live on. I get pleasure from nature, family, and friends but I think they are the results of programs running in the biological computer called ‘my brain’. Passing on my genes was what made me feel complete.

Suppose I was given an afterlife? I would have to be me for all time. I am a better person than I feared I would become when I was younger but I am far from perfect. I don’t want to be me for eternity.

Death? I’m terrified by death; my to-do list is too long for death. As a humanist, death is a sign of the finality of my being. The end of me. I struggle with the idea of no more internal dialogue. Nothingness. It seems hardly credible, let alone possible. But it is so. I do occasionally feel jealous of my religious friends, with their presumed self-assurance of immortality in another realm. Humanism brings with it rather a cold, harsh reality of life: the end of me really is the end of me.

But, humanism brings a way to deal with this harshness: make the best of my only life. Okay. I’ve become vegan. I have walked the wards of hospitals as a pastoral supporter. I imbue critical thought in others; how to spot snake oil from palm oil. I’ve started a charity that aims to tackle inequality. I look to treat everyone I meet with respect and warmth. To build bridges and not walls. Especially with people who have very different outlooks on life to myself.

If death comes sooner rather than later, I may not finish my to-dos. But I know I am making the best of the life I have. If I am unable to continue with my projects, maybe others will pick up the batons I leave behind; maybe change for the better will occur after my demise.

Humanist mortality is harsh, but it offers the means by which to make the best of it. I must bring meaning to what I am and what I do. By following humanist principles, I can meet my finality, safe in the knowledge that I did what I could with the time I had and maybe, hopefully, make the world a slightly better place in the process.