Imagining the Afterlife: Reviewing Sum, by David Eagleman

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A few days after my mother died I called T-mobile to cancel her line and to have the family plan moved over to my father’s account. The person I spoke with at T-mobile told me that my mother had to be the one to close and transfer the account. I explained that my mother had died, but the man insisted that only my mother was authorized to make the transfer. I eventually spoke to three supervisors, all of whom had the same thing to say: my mother had to call. At the time, nothing would have made me happier than a phone call from my mother, and I remember thinking that there probably wasn’t good reception underground, and anyway, we hadn’t buried her with her phone.

The phone situation was eventually straightened out (confession: I eventually called pretending to be my mother), but since then I’ve done a lot of thinking about the afterlife, and what it all means. We have a whole section on MyJewishLearning about tehiat hametim, or the post-apocalyptic revival of the dead, and how various Jewish thinkers and texts have dealt with the idea of life after death. Within Judaism there isn’t just one view–there are many that diverge slightly from each other, as if our faith is trying to hedge its bets.

david_eagleman_covers.jpgBy far the most thought-provoking and beautiful take on the afterlife that I’ve ever read is in a new book called Sum: forty tales from the afterlives by David Eagleman. This is a slender volume, with chapters that are rarely more than two pages long. Each chapter imagines a different way that the afterlife might work. Perhaps God (a she) has decided to let everyone into Heaven, with disastrous consequences. Perhaps after you die you hang out with all of the potential versions of yourself, if you had moved to Panama, or quit your job, or spent more time at the gym. You see yourself for who you could have been, or narrowly escaped being. Perhaps God is a microbe, and it is not God who is pulling the unfathomable strings of the universe, but us, humans, moving microbes about in so many ways, who are in control. Perhaps the afterlife has been privatized. Perhaps when you die you become the background characters in other people’s dreams.

These stories–and as someone with an MFA, I’m not sure they qualify as stories, since they don’t have characters, or plots–glitter on the page. They are so carefully crafted it is heartbreaking at times. You will feel, as you read all of these possibilities, as if you are reading the options to a multiple choice exam, which is life.

You can listen to some excerpts from the book here, but listen, take my advice and go out and find this book in a bookstore or library immediately. Read any three stories. If that doesn’t make you want to take it home and pour over it like the body of a new lover–well, then you’re doing something wrong. Very wrong.

Posted on March 19, 2010

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One thought on “Imagining the Afterlife: Reviewing Sum, by David Eagleman

  1. Ron Krumpos

    Your story about your mother, as sad as the circumstance was, was also hilarious. Conversely, there are stories about people whom Social Security said were deceased. When they called to say they had not died and keep sending the checks, they had to prove they were alive.

    An excellent book on religious concepts of afterlife is: “Life after Death in World Religions,” edited by Harold Coward (Published by Orbis Books 1997)

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