The JW teach that only 144,000 chosen people (who are all JW) will go to Heaven, and the rest will completely perish after Armageddon unless they have been dutiful Jehovah’s Witnesses. Those fortunate people will be resurrected and live in a perfect world where the lion will lie down with the lamb, there will be no more suffering, and blah, blah, blah. The point is that in order to have an existence after death, you must have been a Jehovah’s Witness in life. I suppose that from ages 2-10 I wasn’t afraid of death; I really don’t remember. However, after we left the JW their brainwashing stayed with me for years and years. I was terrified of dying, because I thought that there would be nothingness afterward. I believe my dad once described it as a light switch being turned off. I couldn’t grasp the idea of “nothingness”. What would that be like? Well, it wouldn’t be like anything. I couldn’t accept the idea of me ceasing to be. And what about my family – especially my parents: When they died I would never see them again. It was all too much to fathom, so I did my best to just not think about it, but my dad had a heart condition from a fairly young age, so the prospect of him dying was always in the back of my mind. I always felt that when the first parent to go was gone, I’d have a nervous breakdown and have to be hospitalized. I wouldn’t be able to deal with it. Luckily I would overcome that terrible fear before my dad finally succumbed to a massive heart attack.
I’ve written about my discovery of Joseph Campbell, the Comparitive Religion professor. His ideas helped me realize that death is only a transition from one state of being to another, but it was another experience I had that really tipped the scales, so to speak. I was working in a hospital as a secretary. My supervisor, who happened to be my dad’s ex-wife, was very friendly with the resident Pathologist at the hospital. One day she came to me and said, “Would you like to see an autopsy? I can arrange it”. I’ve always been fascinated with the macabre, so I immediately said yes. It wasn’t until the day of the big event that I realized exactly what I’d gotten myself into. I was going to be in a room where they were cutting up a dead body! I’d been to funerals, but this was different. This was death up close and personal. My initial excitement gave way to nervousness, and I wasn’t even sure I could go through with it. The autopsy was scheduled for later in the afternoon, after my shift was over. As I walked to the morgue offices, I still wasn’t sure I could do it. They gave me some scrubs, latex gloves, and a face mask to put on. I left my clothes on a chair in the secretary’s office, and she escorted me to the morgue. She pointed to a room and I walked in and looked around. It was a much smaller room than I expected. There was a table, sink, and shelves of instruments and jars of hideous looking things in formaldehyde. Someone had placed a chair in front of the shelves for me to sit in while I watched. The pathologist’s assistant came in and introduced himself. Then he opened a large metal door located at the rear of the room. I felt the cold air before I saw that it was the refrigerator. He pulled out a stretcher with a body on it covered with a sheet. He maneuvered the body onto the table. It was a very old man. Then he left the room!!! I thought, you have got to be kidding me! I was alone with the body! I just about flipped out. I couldn’t move; I just sat there staring at the body, telling myself over and over that everything would be okay – just stay calm. Finally after what seemed an eternity, the assistant and the pathologist came in. They started the autopsy and explained things to me as they went along. For example, before making the initial incision, the pathologist explained that typically they make a Y-shaped incision: a slit beginning below each clavicle and traveling down to the pelvic area, but instead he was going to make a U-shaped incision. Before long the entire torso was open. I sat there watching, on the verge of a major panic attack, when suddenly it hit me: it was just a shell. Whoever that man had been, the essence of him, was gone. It was in another place. What was lying on that table was just a shell, and outer casing. I instantly felt calmer, and stood up and walked over to the table to get a better look at the organs. I started asking questions. (The kidneys really do look like kidney beans, and the gallbladder really does look like a lime.) I even touched a section of his small intestine to see what it would feel like – it felt like a bratwurst. I watched the rest of the autopsy with great fascination and wonder. I was no longer afraid. By the time they were finished the secretary had left for the day and locked her office, so I was unable to get my clothes. I had to go home in scrubs that had “Morgue” written on the back.
I am grateful to have had that experience. I no longer fear death. I don’t exactly welcome it to come around, but it no longer has the powerful hold over me it once had. When my dad’s time came to leave this physical plane, I was able to handle it. It was tough, but I got through it. I know that I’ll see him again – where and when I don’t know – but I know I will.