Background for non-transhumanists:
Transhumanists are not fond of death. We would stop it if we could. To this end we support research that holds out hope of a future in which humanity has defeated death. Death is an extremely difficult technical problem, to be attacked with biotech and nanotech and other technological means. I do not tell a tale of the land called Future, nor state as a fact that humanity will someday be free of death – I have no magical ability to see through time. But death is a great evil, and I will oppose it whenever I can. If I could create a world where people lived forever, or at the very least a few billion years, I would do so. I don’t think humanity will always be stuck in the awkward stage we now occupy, when we are smart enough to create enormous problems for ourselves, but not quite smart enough to solve them. I think that humanity’s problems are solvable; difficult, but solvable. I work toward that end, as a Research Fellow of the Machine Intelligence Research Institute.
This is an email message I sent to three transhumanist mailing lists, and a collection of emails I then received, in November of 2004. Some emails have been edited for brevity.
Update, at bottom, added May 2005.
Date: Thu Nov 18 22:27:34 2004 From: Eliezer Yudkowsky
My little brother, Yehuda Nattan Yudkowsky, is dead.
He died November 1st. His body was found without identification. The family found out on November 4th. I spent a week and a half with my family in Chicago, and am now back in Atlanta. I’ve been putting off telling my friends, because it’s such a hard thing to say.
I used to say: “I have four living grandparents and I intend to have four living grandparents when the last star in the Milky Way burns out.” I still have four living grandparents, but I don’t think I’ll be saying that any more. Even if we make it to and through the Singularity, it will be too late. One of the people I love won’t be there. The universe has a surprising ability to stab you through the heart from somewhere you weren’t looking. Of all the people I had to protect, I never thought that Yehuda might be one of them. Yehuda was born July 11, 1985. He was nineteen years old when he died.
The Jewish religion prescribes a number of rituals and condolences for the occasion of a death. Yehuda has passed to a better place, God’s ways are mysterious but benign, etc. Does such talk really comfort people? I watched my parents, and I don’t think it did. The blessing that is spoken at Jewish funerals is “Blessed is God, the true judge.” Do they really believe that? Why do they cry at funerals, if they believe that? Does it help someone, to tell them that their religion requires them to believe that? I think I coped better than my parents and my little sister Channah. I was just dealing with pain, not confusion. When I heard on the phone that Yehuda had died, there was never a moment of disbelief. I knew what kind of universe I lived in. How is my religious family to comprehend it, working, as they must, from the assumption that Yehuda was murdered by a benevolent God? The same loving God, I presume, who arranges for millions of children to grow up illiterate and starving; the same kindly tribal father-figure who arranged the Holocaust and the Inquisition’s torture of witches. I would not hesitate to call it evil, if any sentient mind had committed such an act, permitted such a thing. But I have weighed the evidence as best I can, and I do not believe the universe to be evil, a reply which in these days is called atheism.
Maybe it helps to believe in an immortal soul. I know that I would feel a lot better if Yehuda had gone away on a trip somewhere, even if he was never coming back. But Yehuda did not “pass on”. Yehuda is not “resting in peace”. Yehuda is not coming back. Yehuda doesn’t exist any more. Yehuda was absolutely annihilated at the age of nineteen. Yes, that makes me angry. I can’t put into words how angry. It would be rage to rend the gates of Heaven and burn down God on Its throne, if any God existed. But there is no God, so my anger burns to tear apart the way-things-are, remake the pattern of a world that permits this.
I wonder at the strength of non-transhumanist atheists, to accept so terrible a darkness without any hope of changing it. But then most atheists also succumb to comforting lies, and make excuses for death even less defensible than the outright lies of religion. They flinch away, refuse to confront the horror of a hundred and fifty thousand sentient beings annihilated every day. One point eight lives per second, fifty-five million lives per year. Convert the units, time to life, life to time. The World Trade Center killed half an hour. As of today, all cryonics organizations together have suspended one minute. This essay took twenty thousand lives to write. I wonder if there was ever an atheist who accepted the full horror, making no excuses, offering no consolations, who did not also hope for some future dawn. What must it be like to live in this world, seeing it just the way it is, and think that it will never change, never get any better?
Yehuda’s death is the first time I ever lost someone close enough for it to hurt. So now I’ve seen the face of the enemy. Now I understand, a little better, the price of half a second. I don’t understand it well, because the human brain has a pattern built into it. We do not grieve forever, but move on. We mourn for a few days and then continue with our lives. Such underreaction poorly equips us to comprehend Yehuda’s death. Nineteen years, 7053 days, of life and memory annihilated. A thousand years, or a million millennia, or a forever, of future life lost. The sun should have dimmed when Yehuda died, and a chill wind blown in every place that sentient beings gather, to tell us that our number was diminished by one. But the sun did not dim, because we do not live in that sensible a universe. Even if the sun did dim whenever someone died, it wouldn’t be noticeable except as a continuous flickering. Soon everyone would get used to it, and they would no longer notice the flickering of the sun.
My little brother collected corks from wine bottles. Someone brought home, to the family, a pair of corks they had collected for Yehuda, and never had a chance to give him. And my grandmother said, “Give them to Channah, and someday she’ll tell her children about how her brother Yehuda collected corks.” My grandmother’s words shocked me, stretched across more time than it had ever occurred to me to imagine, to when my fourteen-year-old sister had grown up and had married and was telling her children about the brother she’d lost. How could my grandmother skip across all those years so easily when I was struggling to get through the day? I heard my grandmother’s words and thought: she has been through this before. This isn’t the first loved one my grandmother has lost, the way Yehuda was the first loved one I’d lost. My grandmother is old enough to have a pattern for dealing with the death of loved ones; she knows how to handle this because she’s done it before. And I thought: how can she accept this? If she knows, why isn’t she fighting with everything she has to change it?
What would it be like to be a rational atheist in the fifteenth century, and know beyond all hope of rescue that everyone you loved would be annihilated, one after another as you watched, unless you yourself died first? That is still the fate of humans today; the ongoing horror has not changed, for all that we have hope. Death is not a distant dream, not a terrible tragedy that happens to someone else like the stories you read in newspapers. One day you’ll get a phone call, like I got a phone call, and the possibility that seemed distant will become reality. You will mourn, and finish mourning, and go on with your life, and then one day you’ll get another phone call. That is the fate this world has in store for you, unless you make a convulsive effort to change it.
Since Yehuda’s body was not identified for three days after he died, there was no possible way he could have been cryonically suspended. Others may be luckier. If you’ve been putting off that talk with your loved ones, do it. Maybe they won’t understand, but at least you won’t spend forever wondering why you didn’t even try.
There is one Jewish custom associated with death that makes sense to me, which is contributing to charity on behalf of the departed. I am donating eighteen hundred dollars to the general fund of the Machine Intelligence Research Institute, because this has gone on long enough. If you object to the Machine Intelligence Research Institute then consider Dr. Aubrey de Grey’s Methuselah Foundation, which hopes to defeat aging through biomedical engineering. I think that a sensible coping strategy for transhumanist atheists, to donate to an anti-death charity after a loved one dies. Death hurt us, so we will unmake Death. Let that be the outlet for our anger, which is terrible and just. I watched Yehuda’s coffin lowered into the ground and cried, and then I sat through the eulogy and heard rabbis tell comforting lies. If I had spoken Yehuda’s eulogy I would not have comforted the mourners in their loss. I would have told the mourners that Yehuda had been absolutely annihilated, that there was nothing left of him. I would have told them they were right to be angry, that they had been robbed, that something precious and irreplaceable was taken from them, for no reason at all, taken from them and shattered, and they are never getting it back.
No sentient being deserves such a thing. Let that be my brother’s true eulogy, free of comforting lies.
When Michael Wilson heard the news, he said: “We shall have to work faster.” Any similar condolences are welcome. Other condolences are not.
Goodbye, Yehuda. There isn’t much point in saying it, since there’s no one to hear. Goodbye, Yehuda, you don’t exist any more. Nothing left of you after your death, like there was nothing before your birth. You died, and your family, Mom and Dad and Channah and I, sat down at the Sabbath table just like our family had always been composed of only four people, like there had never been a Yehuda. Goodbye, Yehuda Yudkowsky, never to return, never to be forgotten.
Date: Thu Nov 18 22:55:24 2004 From: Gina Miller
I am so sorry to hear of this news. I know what you are going through Eliezer, when I was fourteen I lost my sister who was 19. I always wonder what she would have become.I stood amid my family saying things like “God takes the good” or “God has something for her to do” and sensing their calming effect in the belief system that I did not embrace. I too, was wide awake to the truth of the matter, and I wanted her here. To this day I am struck by the biological errors that mother nature has dealt to us, leading to disease and finality, and of course also the importance of theories and research needed to overcome these problems. As you know, my husband is currently undergoing chemotherapy so I grapple with the frustration of advanced technologies such as nanotech and others, not yet being readily available to avoid this type of suffering. The concern also grows when I see the fear well up in the general population when it comes to current advances such as stem cell research.
As far as the religious afterlife (or other) comfort, I think the problem is, no one has cheated death yet, so the meme continues (at least for some – well probably most) as a way to propagate suppressing the fear of the end. When we show scientific immortality is possible as opposed to religious immortality, there may be more for them to contemplate. I can’t wait for the day that death is not inevitable. I am deeply touched by your words and emotions and I completely validate you. The emotions won’t go away, but it will at least become more bearable over time. Perhaps what remains will help guide you even further down the road you have already begun to travel, with all of our future(s) in mind. I’d like to thank you for that. My condolences to you, as well as my constant support for humanity to move beyond this barrier.
Again, I’m so sorry, warmest regards-
- Gina “Nanogirl” Miller
Date: Thu Nov 18 23:53:15 2004 From: Samantha Atkins
I am extremely sorry for your [/our] loss. Death utterly sucks and humanity would be much better off never pretending otherwise.
When I was 14 my cousin who was 17 died. He was in a motorcycle accident and lingered for some hours. We were told to pray for his healing. We prayed. He died. “It must not have been God’s will” we were told. Or “we lacked sufficient faith” to pray effectively. I remember how twisted up inside I felt hearing these things, how helpless and how very angry. How could it be “God’s will” to snuff out this wonderful young life? How was it up to us to twist ourselves into pretzels somehow in order to save my cousin Virgil or anyone else who need not have been put through such suffering to begin with if a “just” and “good” God was in charge as we were always told? How could the people say these expected things and be all somber and then immediately pretend nothing had happened a mere few hours later? How could they not scream and cry out as I screamed and cried inside? Were they all zombies?
If more people stopped making pious or otherwise excuses for the horror of death and disease then we would finally move to end this suffering. When I was 14 I didn’t know it was even possible to do so. Many people do not know it still. We must make sure they know. Many more who do know act as if it isn’t so.
We must never forget our dead and never ever resign ourselves, those we care about or anyone to death. We must truly embrace life not by acceptance of death but by extending life endlessly and without limitation.
- – samantha
Date: Fri Nov 19 15:08:40 2004 From: Adrian Tymes
It is probably no condolence that there will be many more – *far* too many more – before we finish implementing a way around it. But at least there is a way to calculate it: multiply this tragedy by the several million (billion?) between now and then, and one starts to appreciate the magnitude of the horror we seek to strike down.
I wonder if this is something like the fictional Cthuluoid horrors: a terror so deep and profound that most people can’t even acknowledge it, but just go ever so slowly insane trying to deal with it.
Date: Sat Nov 20 21:41:13 2004 From: Matus
Thank you for your words, and I am sorry for the tragic event which has brought them out.
You have captured what makes me an extropian and I think you capture the motivating principle behind each of us here. We love life, and we want to live it. Whatever we all may disagree on, it is only the means to achieve this end. We love life, and we hate its cessation.
There is no greater horror or travesty of justice than the death of someone. All the intricacies of the universe can not compare to the beauty and value of a single sentient being.
I have seen enough death of friends and loved ones myself. Everyone who will listen I try to convince them to be cryogenically suspended, on the premise that they want to live. But most grope for excuses not to, disguising their disregard for their own existence with appeals to mysticism or dystopian futures.
All ideologies prescribe these self delusional condolences and practices, it can be no more clear than what Adrian said: a terror so deep and profound that most people can’t even acknowledge it, but just go ever so slowly insane trying to deal with it.
When faced with the death of a loved one, most people get through it by hiding reality, by doing whatever they can to *not* think about the obvious. Death is eternal and final, and when faced with such a thing people can not come up with any answer that goes beyond any self doubt. To take the pain of death away, they must devalue life. One is faced with a choice, acknowledge you love life and death is abhorrent, be indifferent to life and thus indifferent to death, or despise life and welcome death, there are no other alternatives, the view of one precludes the inverse on the other. There seems to be an active effort to create and spread a nihilistic world view. Consider the Buddhist mantra of ‘life is suffering’ consider it’s widespread modern appeal, and then consider its negation, ‘death is joy’ Indeed, Nirvana is the absence of a desire for existence. This nihilistic movement is not acting volitionally, its scared and confused and stumbling through philosophy. All they know is they don’t like death, and through its stumbling come to find that to deal with that it must not care about life. Socrates last words come to mind “I have found the cure for life, and it is death”
I think this is a major part of the reason we have such difficulty spreading our ideas and values. Why in the very secular European area of the world does Cryonics have little to no support? If people accept our worldview, that life is good and technology can help us extend it indefinitely, then they must come to full terms with the finality and horror of death. That is what they have difficulty in doing. I think at some level they know that, it is the logical extension of their beliefs, and as such is manifested as a very negative emotional visceral reaction to our ideas, because of our implied valuation of life.
But just as many of us here put up a great deal of money and effort for a non-zero chance of defeating our first death through cryonics, we need to acknowledge the non-zero possibility of doing something about past deaths. In this I am very fond of Nikolai Fedorovich Fedorov’s “The Common Task”. Even though it is derived from his religious background, the motivation, a deep appreciation for the intrinsic value of life, and the goal, bringing back the past dead with technology, I share. The application of science to ‘resurrect’ the past dead. Is it possible? If it is, it should be our ultimate goal. Some here devote their efforts to the development of a singularity AI, and others toward defeating aging biologically; I devote my efforts to the great common task. It is my ultimate goal to find out if it is possible, to learn everything I need to know to determine that, and more, and then to do it, one person at a time if necessary.
I can find no words to offer to ease that suffering, there are none, and it is not possible. I can only say that it is my life goal, and I think others, and eventually the goal of any sentient being who loves life, singularity AI or otherwise, to do what they can to accomplish this common task, if the laws of physics allow it.
- Michael Dickey
- Aka Matus
Date: Fri Nov 19 02:31:58 2004 From: Russell Wallace
I’m so sorry.
I hadn’t heard of the Jewish custom you mention, last time I received such a phone call; but it has that quality of requiring explanation only once, and I’m going to act accordingly.
Someday, children won’t fully believe that things like this really happened. We’ll work towards the day when they don’t have to.
- – Russell
Date: Fri Nov 19 03:58:17 2004 From: Olga Bourlin
Eliezer, I’m so sorry to hear this – there are never any real words of consolation.
For what it’s worth, my experience with people in my family who have died is – well, I have thought of them from time to time, of course (but have been surprised at how unexpectedly and powerfully these thoughts have been known to strike). And, also, I have dreamt of them – for decades – as if they never died.
The death that struck me the most was when my mother died. I was 40 years old then (she was 65), and I was “prepared” for her death because she had been an alcoholic for a long time – and yet, when she died it hurt so very much. I was completely unprepared for the emotional pain. At that time I was married to a man who played the piano, and he played Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5 in E flat Op. 73 ‘The Emperor’ – 2nd movement (‘Adagio un poco moto’) over and over again. That particular movement – it’s so lovely and sad – something in that music let me just take in the experience and reflect about being human.
I cannot imagine how you must feel – losing a beloved younger brother. When I had my children (the two happiest days of my life, bar none) – I also realized that with the love I felt (and still feel) for them came a kind of vulnerability I never felt even about myself – the potential, incomprehensible pain I know I would feel if something were to happen to them. And I knew I would never have the “net” of religion to help break my fall.
Date: Fri Nov 19 15:08:25 2004 From: Kwame Porter-Robinson
As opposed to Michael Wilson, I say we shall have to work smarter.
- Kwame P.R.
Date: Sat Dec 4 13:30:35 2004 From: Harvey Newstrom
I am not even going to try to say something helpful or profound. There is nothing anyone can say to help or to lessen the loss. This is a meaningless tragedy that too many of us have faced. A more extreme and sudden example of the human condition. And I hate it.
Date: Fri Nov 19 16:11:04 2004 From: Aikin, Robert
You’re not going to ever ‘get over it’ so don’t bother deluding yourself that you might. You know what you have to do, so do it. Finish what you started. Stay healthy, be safe.
Date: Fri Nov 19 16:59:37 2004 From: Bill Hibbard
I am very sorry to hear about the death of your brother, Eliezer. Your reaction to redouble your efforts is very healthy. When my brother, father and mother died I also found it helpful to get plenty of exercise and eliminate caffeine.
My younger brother died of cancer in 1997. When he died he looked like a holocaust victim and it occured to me that if all the Americans dying of cancer were being killed by an evil dictator, our society would be totally mobilized against that enemy. Disease and death in general deserve at least that commitment. Both collectively, to support medical research and care, and individually, to get lots of exercise and eliminate tobacco (my brother’s kidney cancer was probably caused by his smoking) and unhealthy foods. My parents lived to 85 and 87, but their diseases were clearly linked to diet, smoking and lack of exercise. They could have lived longer and better with different habits.
I am with you, Eliezer, that it is maddening that so many people in our society cling to ancient religous beliefs that council acceptance of death and disease, and in some cases even council opposition to efforts to defeat death. What madness.
Date: Fri Nov 19 22:19:21 2004 From: Thomas Buckner
I am sorry to hear this. Such a short life. Nineteen years is a blink, not enough time to learn much more than the rudiments of life. My daughter Heidi is a year older than he was.
George Gurdjieff, a very great Russian philosopher, said the human race needed a new organ, which he whimsically named the kundabuffer, and the purpose of this organ would be to remind us each minute of every day that we would die, that we had not time to squander.
My parents and grandparents are all gone. Almost all the optimism I once had for the human race is gone. At present, I see only one bright spot on the horizon. It is your work and that of the others in this community (I am only a kibitzer).
re: Your statement “What would it be like to be a rational atheist in the fifteenth century, and know beyond all hope of rescue that everyone you loved would be annihilated, one after another, unless you yourself died first? That is still the fate of humans today; the ongoing horror has not changed, for all that we have hope.” In a commencement speech of last year, Lewis Lapham mentioned a “French noblewoman, a duchess in her 80s, who, on seeing the first ascent of Montgolfier’s balloon from the palace of the Tuilleries in 1783, fell back upon the cushions of her carriage and wept. “Oh yes,” she said, “Now it’s certain. One day they’ll learn how to keep people alive forever, but I shall already be dead.”
- Tom Buckner
Date: Sun Nov 21 23:55:10 2004 From: gabriel C
- I wonder if there was ever an atheist who accepted the full horror, making no excuses, offering no consolations, who did not also hope for some future dawn. What must it be like to live in this world, seeing it just the way it is, and think that it will never change, never get any better?
That would describe me, before I stumbled upon this list in 1999. Facing certain extinction, I was alternately terrified and depressed. I still am, but now with a tiny thread of hope. Otherwise I think I would be insane by now.
Date: Fri Nov 19 15:08:28 2004 From: MIKE TREDER
I am deeply sorry to hear about your brother. The random cruelty of life knows no bounds. As you correctly suggest, the only rational response is to challenge the dreadful process called death and defeat it, once and for all. Sadly, that takes time — too much time for your brother, Yehuda, and too much time for my dear sister, Susie, who was struck down unexpectedly by cancer just a few years ago. Too much time, as well, for 150,000 more of our brothers and sisters who will die today, and tomorrow, and the next day.
Still, the transhumanist response is not simply to shake our heads and mourn, but to stand up in defiance. We aim to overcome death through human science and technology, and you and others have taken on that challenge directly. For that, we all should be grateful and supportive.
But your essay also accomplishes a different — and equally worthy — objective, which is to reach out and connect with others who suffer. This is the humanist response, to affirm that we are all in this together, that there is no God or deity either to revere or to blame. Death separates us, permanently (at least until we know that cryonic preservation and revivification can succeed), but in life we can come together to help each other.
- Mike Treder
Date: Sun Nov 21 13:10:32 2004
I am sending you my condolences Eliezer on the death of your brother. I lost my first wife in an accident suddenly, she was 23. Like you I can only rage and weep that her beautiful singularity was lost, one among the millions who died on the day she did. Likewise Yehuda, one potentiality irretrievably missing from the human future.
I worked with the dying for many years and attended in all 122 deaths, all were special in their own way and all represented a dying of a light that had shone for a while.
Unlike you I am religious but not to the extent of closing my eyes to the reality of loss and the evil that sometimes causes it. When my first wife died my grandfather said to me ‘Peter, dying is our fate, we can do nothing about it, but we can ask what does this death enable me to do for the world than otherwise I might never have done’. All through the forty five years since that death I hope her memorial has been the one I could give with the way I have spent my own life.
Date: Thu Nov 18 23:53:03 2004 From: Michael Roy Ames
Thank you for telling SL4 about Yehuda. I am unhappy to read such an email. Right now you appear to be pretty fired up about doing something; your email was reminiscent of some of your earlier, more outraged writings. Do what you have to do to keep that fire burning. Experience has taught me that it is easy to become complacent, it is the default tendency. I participate in specific activities on a regular basis that force me to looking at disease & death closely enough so that my fire is stoked. It is a rare individual that can rely on rational thinking alone to maintain enthusiasm. Do what you need to do, and know that you can ask for help.
- Your friend,
- Michael Roy Ames
Date: Sun Nov 21 13:10:37 2004 From: Joe
I feel your sadness as I have lost loved ones, though not as close as a brother. Anger and sadness sometimes lead one into action. So, I agree that there is nothing wrong to experience this type of pain. Since pain is uncomfortable most of us attempt to alleviate that pain through various means. In the case of death organized religions have their ways of doing this. As you indicated this kind of escape is often counterproductive, because it supports a “do nothing” approach. However, if you think about how long humans have been able to comprehend death and the loss which occurs, compared with any technological advancement to fight death, you can get an appreciation for the role religion, and a belief in an afterlife, has played.
But I agree with you. The time has come that we need to move past acceptance of death (belief in an afterlife) into a mode of activism against it. We are just beginning to have the technology available so that we can make visible progress. You hit upon an excellent idea that a contribution to an organization actively engaged in research to postpone or eradicate death in the name of a loved one who died is a very useful way to promote this progress.
Date: Mon Nov 29 17:03:47 2004 From: Danielle Egan
I’m very sad to hear about your brother’s death. (Tyler sent out an email.) I respect you for putting your thoughts down on it because so many times we start writing about it later and like you say, by that point we are already moving on and can’t be honest. I want you to know that I am mad too that life ends in this way. When my grandma died recently at the age of 90, a few things really disturbed me: that she’d been dead for over 8 hours before I heard the news and I was just going through my life as usual, clueless that she had gone; that she died in an old age home, sick, with early stages of dementia so there was no dignity in her last year of life; that because there is no dignity we impose it in the form of religious or funereal services and those kinds of things and it’s too late to do a damn thing about it for them but somehow people try to trick themselves into believing these things are done for the dead person; we do everything for ourselves and really what does that come to when we remain unfulfilled?
Most of all though is that death is such a horrible shock even when the person is old and has been sick and you’ve been preparing yourself. You can never prepare for something this abstract. It seems like such a terrible twisted crime when they are so young, like your brother. I want to offer you my condolences in the form of anger. I am angry right now too about his death and it is a motivating thing. The corks are symbolic. Maybe you should keep one as a reminder to get angry and then continue on in opposition of the way we live.
(Danielle adds: “Perhaps you could note that I am not a transhumanist, if you decide to include bylines with the letters. I think it’s important for transhumanists to understand that we don’t have to be of the same persuasion and ethos to have similar emotions around death.”)
Date: Fri Nov 19 15:08:44 2004
From: James Fehlinger
‘Edoras those courts are called,’ said Gandalf, ‘and Meduseld is that golden hall. . .’
At the foot of the walled hill the way ran under the shadow of many mounds, high and green. Upon their western side the grass was white as with drifted snow: small flowers sprang there like countless stars amid the turf.
‘Look!’ said Gandalf. ‘How fair are the bright eyes in the grass! Evermind they are called, simbelmynÃ« in this land of Men, for they blossom in all the seasons of the year, and grow where dead men rest. Behold! we are come to the great barrows where the sires of ThÃ©oden sleep.’
‘Seven mounds upon the left, and nine upon the right,’ said Aragorn. ‘Many long lives of men it is since the golden hall was built.’
‘Five hundred times have the red leaves fallen in Mirkwood in my home since then,’ said Legolas, ‘and but a little while does that seem to us.’
‘But to the Riders of the Mark it seems so long ago,’ said Aragorn, ‘that the raising of this house is but a memory of song, and the years before are lost in the mist of time. Now they call this land their home, their own, and their speech is sundered from their northern kin.’ Then he began to chant softly in a slow tongue unknown to the Elf and Dwarf, yet they listened, for there was a strong music in it.
‘That, I guess, is the language of the Rohirrim,’ said Legolas; ‘for it is like to this land itself; rich and rolling in part, and else hard and stern as the mountains. But I cannot guess what it means, save that it is laden with the sadness of Mortal Men.’
‘It runs thus in the Common Speech,’ said Aragorn, ‘as near as I can make it.
- Where now the horse and the rider? Where is the horn that was blowing?
- Where is the helm and the hauberk, and the bright hair flowing?
- Where is the hand on the harpstring, and the red fire glowing?
- Where is the spring and the harvest and the tall corn growing?
- They have passed like rain on the mountain, like a wind in the meadow;
- The days have gone down in the West behind the hills into shadow.
- Who shall gather the smoke of the dead wood burning,
- Or behold the flowing years from the Sea returning?
— J. R. R. Tolkien, _The Lord of the Rings_
Book III, Chapter VI, “The King of the Golden Hall”
I am sorry.
- Jim F.
The day is May 8th, six months and one week after the final annihilation of Yehuda Nattan Yudkowsky. Today I am going to visit my little brother’s grave, with my family, to watch the unveiling of his Matzevah, the stone that is set in the ground to mark his grave. This is a warm day in Chicago, springtime, with trees blossoming, and a bright blue cloudless sky. Nature does not mark the passing of our dead.
We drive for an hour and arrive at the cemetery. The last time I was here, for my brother’s funeral, I choked up when I saw a sign with an arrow, to direct cars, bearing the hand-lettered name “Yudkowsky”. This time there is no sign, for Yehuda or anyone. There is no funeral in this graveyard today. There is only one cemetery employee with a map, to direct the visitors to graves. We drive to an unremarkable section of the cemetery. The last time I was here, there was a great crowd to mark this place, and a tent for the mourners, and rows of chairs. This time there is only grass, and metal plates set into grass. I could not have found this place from memory. I look around for landmarks, trying to remember the location.
I remember (I will never forget) when I came to this cemetery for my brother’s funeral. I remember getting out of the car and walking toward a van. I looked inside the van, and saw my brother’s polished wooden coffin. The box seemed so small. I didn’t see how my brother could fit in there. “What are you doing here, Yehuda?” I said to the coffin. “You’re not supposed to be here.” My grandfather, my Zady, came toward me then, and held me.
I remember (I will never forget) the phone call I got in Atlanta. My cellphone’s screen identified the calling number my parents’ house. I said “Hello?” and my aunt Reena said “Eli -” and I knew that something was wrong, hearing aunt Reena’s voice on my home phone line. I remember having time to wonder what had happened, and even who had died, before she said “Your brother Yehuda is dead, you need to come home right away.”
That was the previous time. I don’t feel today what I felt then. There’s a script built into the human mind. We grieve, and then stop grieving, and go on with our lives, until the day we get another phone call. Probably one of my grandparents will be next.
I walk along the gravel path that leads to where my family is gathering, looking down at the metal plates set down by the side of the path. Rosenthal… Bernard… some plates are only names and dates. Others bear inscriptions that read “Loving husband, father, and grandfather”, or “Loving wife and sister”. As I walk along the path I see a plate saying only, Herschel, my love, and that is when my tears start. I can imagine the woman who wrote that inscription. I can imagine what Herschel meant to her. I can imagine her life without him.
How dare the world do this to us? How dare people let it pass unchallenged?
I stand by the foot of my little brother’s grave, as my relatives read Tehillim from their prayer books. The first time I came to this cemetery, I cried from sadness; now I cry from anger. I look around and there are no tears on my mother’s face, father’s face, uncle’s and grandparents’ faces. My mother puts a comforting hand on my shoulder, but there is no wetness on her face. Such a strange thing, that I’m the only one crying. Tears of sadness we all had shed, but tears of anger are mine alone. My relatives are not permitted to feel what I feel. They attribute this darkness to God. Religion does not forbid my relatives to experience sadness and pain, sorrow and grief, at the hands of their deified abuser; it only forbids them to fight back.
I stand there, and instead of reciting Tehillim I look at the outline on the grass of my little brother’s grave. Beneath this thin rectangle in the dirt lies my brother’s coffin, and within that coffin lie his bones, and perhaps decaying flesh if any remains. There is nothing here or anywhere of my little brother’s self. His brain’s information is destroyed. Yehuda wasn’t signed up for cryonics and his body wasn’t identified until three days later; but freezing could have been, should have been standard procedure for anonymous patients. The hospital that should have removed Yehuda’s head when his heart stopped beating, and preserved him in liquid nitrogen to await rescue, instead laid him out on a slab. Why is the human species still doing this? Why do we still bury our dead? We have all the information we need in order to know better. Through the ages humanity has suffered, though the ages we have lost our dead forever, and then one day someone invented an alternative, and no one cared. The cryonicists challenge Death and no one remarks on it. The first freezing should have been front-page news in every newspaper of every country; would have been front-page news for any sane intelligent species. Someday afterward humankind will look back and realize what we could have done, should have done, if only we had done. Then there will be a great wailing and gnashing of teeth, too late, all too late. People heard about Ted Williams on the news and laughed for ten seconds, and in those ten seconds they lost their husbands, their wives, their mothers, their children, their brothers. It’s not fair, that they should lose so much in so little time, without anyone telling them the decision is important.
I did talk to my family about cryonics. They gave me a weird look, as expected, and chose to commit suicide, as expected.
It is a Jewish custom not to walk upon the graves of the dead. I am standing in a path between two lines of graves. Some of my relatives, my uncle David and his children, are standing in the space next to Yehuda’s grave, where another grave will someday go. I think that if a filled grave is ominous, so too is land earmarked for a grave in the cemetery; like standing above a hungry mouth, waiting to be filled. When will we stop feeding our cemetaries? When will we stop pretending that this is fair? When will the human species stop running, and at last turn to stand at bay, to face full on the Enemy and start fighting back? Last Friday night my grandmother spoke to us about an exhibit she had seen on Chiune Sugihara, sometimes called the Japanese Schindler, though Sugihara saved five to ten times as many lives as Oskar Schindler. Chiune Sugihara was the Japanese consul assigned to Lithuania. Against the explicit orders of his superiors, Sugihara issued more than 2,139 transit visas to refugees from the approaching German armies; each visa could grant passage rights to an entire family. Yad Vashem in Israel estimates that Sugihara saved between 6,000 and 12,000 lives. “If there had been 2,000 consuls like Chiune Sugihara,” says the homepage of the Sugihara Project, “a million Jewish children could have been saved from the ovens of Auschwitz.” Why weren’t there 2,000 consuls like Sugihara? That too was one of the questions asked after the end of World War II, when the full horror of Nazi Germany was known and understood and acknowledged by all. We remember the few resisters, and we are proud; I am glad to be a member of the species that produced Sugihara, even as I am ashamed to be a member of the species that produced Hitler. But why were there so few resisters? And why did so many people remain silent? That was the most perplexing question of all, in the years after World War II: why did so many good and decent people remain silent?
For his shining crime, Sugihara was fired from the Japanese Foreign Ministry after the war ended. Sugihara lived the next two decades in poverty, until he was found by one of the people he had helped save, and brought to Israel to be honored. Human beings resisted the Nazis at the risk of their lives, and at the cost of their lives. To resist the greatest Enemy costs less, and yet the resisters are fewer. It is harder for humans to see a great evil when it carries no gun and shouts no slogans. But I think the resisters will also be remembered, someday, if any survive these days.
My relatives, good and decent people, finish reciting their prayers of silence. My mother and father uncover the grave-plaque; it shows two lions (lions are associated with the name Yehuda) and a crown, and an inscription which translates as “The crown of a good name.” Two of my uncles give two brief speeches, of which I remember only these words: “How does one make peace with the loss of a son, a nephew, a grandchild?”
You do not make peace with darkness! You do not make peace with Nazi Germany! You do not make peace with Death!
It is customary to place small stones on the grave-plaque, to show that someone was there. Each night the groundskeepers sweep away the stones; it is a transient symbol. One by one my relatives comes forward, and lay their stones in silence. I wait until all the rest have done this, and most people have departed and the rest are talking to one another. Then I draw my finger across the grass, tearing some of it, gathering dirt beneath my fingernails (I can still see a tinge of dirt now, under my nail as I write this); and then I hammer my stone into the dirt, hoping it will stay there permanently. I do this in silence, without comment, and no one asks why. Perhaps that is well enough. I don’t think my relatives would understand if I told them that I was drawing a line in the graveyard.
In the name of Yehuda who is dead but not forgotten.