21 Grams

Some fold under the pressure depressed by heavy drugs
Some get the load off their chest with lead slugs
Some let their best years pass, stressing for tons of cash
Then pass away with nuttin’ but 21 grams ~Looptroop

In 1907, six terminally ill patients in Haverhill, MA (as an aside- was I the only one who had to memorize the state postal abbreviations in elementary school?) were placed on a specially rigged bed during the end stages of their battles with their illnesses. This bed (as quoted from the 1907 NYT article, “Soul Has Weight, Physician Thinks”) was placed “upon one of the platforms of a pair of scales made expressly for the experiments, and then to balance this weight by placing  an equal weight in the opposite platform,” the device was constructed so delicately as to be sensitive to weights of less than 1/10 of an ounce.

Dr. Duncan MacDougall, a physician, had hypothesized that, if the soul existed, it would have some measurable mass, a mass that would leave the physical body upon its death. So he rigged up this experiment to test his idea.

MacDougall found that, at the moment of death, the body did, in fact, lose a minuscule amount of mass. 21 grams on average.

“The instant life ceased the opposite scale pan fell with a suddenness that was astonishing- as if something had been suddenly lifted from the body,” MacDougall said in regards to his experiment.

Today, MacDougall’s work is considered rather ridiculous, having little or no actual scientific merit. But you have to give him credit for attempting to wrestle with that weighty question (see what I did there?):

Do we have souls?


Just to be clear, we’re not really debating that question today.


I have said before that religion has its roots in our uncertainty about what happens after death. To clarify that, religion is built around the concept of the soul and what happens to it upon the body’s death.

The afterlife of each religion is a unique realm, with its own rules, inhabitants, decor, and entrance requirements. Heaven, Valhalla, Elysium. The names change, but at their center, they remain the same. They are the resting places of the righteous, the reward beyond life, or, as they would say in The Dark Tower series, the clearing at the end of the path.

And those religions without an afterlife tend to believe the soul is destined for reincarnation, such as in Hinduism. Either way, there is this grasping for some sort of “eternal soul” that will live on beyond this mortal coil.

One of the big obstacles between real understanding between the religious and atheists is the fact that atheists don’t believe in any sort of afterlife. There is no Creator. No heaven. No eternal soul looking for a resting place.

Yes, that’s the kicker. Most atheists have a rather apathetic view toward the concept of the soul. And why wouldn’t they? What we consider a soul is nothing more than the way our neurons fire, our brain chemicals react. Our soul, our self, is an illusion. A finely crafted illusion in our brains, but an illusion regardless. Neuroscience has repeatedly shown the concept of the self to be a construct of the brain. If, somehow, we had the technology to do a full and proper 3-D image of your brain, then reconstruct it exactly (every connection replicated), that new brain would be you. It would have your memories, your personality… everything. What you think of as your soul is nothing more than an illusion.

Of course, that’s a hard concept for people to swallow. Thus why I think so many people continue to cling to their faith, even if they doubt most of its teachings. Its easier to cling to the hope for something better than to resign oneself to a reality where there is only what you have now.

Anyway, there’s a point to all this.

Sort of.

An interesting fact is that most religions require that the body of a deceased individual be treated with reverence and respect. They are cleaned, prepared, displayed, wept over, and then disposed of in some reverent manner (usually burial). What makes this so interesting, to me, is that all this fuss is being made over an empty vessel. The soul that these folk believe in has already departed the body. The person is gone. The body is nothing now. It’s no more than a shell… right? The reverence, the honor, should be reserved for the spirit of the person, the actual “force” that was them. Anything else seems akin to worshipping a false idol.

You would think that these religions would be more likely to embrace cremation. The body houses nothing. The soul is in a “better place.” So wouldn’t it make sense to dispose of the body by fire? It’s cheaper, it’s easier, and, in the end, what does it matter? The body shouldn’t mean anything. If the body was your temple, it only was so while the spirit of God (aka you) resided in it. After that, it’s just another moldering building. Scrap that shit.

On the flip side, you would think atheists would display that deep reverence for the body upon its death. After all, the body was the person. Though the brain has stopped firing, though the neurons are dead, though the heart has stopped, the body was the person. The framework of that individual remains. And though they’ve died now, there is no soul that has moved on. This is your loved one. You’d think, then, that they would have a deeper respect for the body upon death.

Despite what I think is rather basic logic, it doesn’t seem to matter. Some people get cremated, some don’t. Religious or not, it doesn’t much matter. Unless the religion has expressly forbidden it, the choice lies with the person, and it doesn’t seem to have a strong tie to their beliefs about the afterlife.


The only ones who seem to be doing it right are the Indian religions. They require open-air cremation of the body… which makes sense, as they believe in reincarnation. Thoroughly destroying the body supposedly hastens the soul along its path to its next life, as there is no longer a physical link for it to cling to.

Way to go, India. You’re the only ones who make any goddamn sense.


I started this post two days ago, and I’m pretty sure the original idea for it was much better than the end result. I had all these ideas bubbling around, a whole structure planned… Somewhere along the way, I forgot it all. While I still touched on some of what I wanted to say, I’m fairly certain I lost something vital.

Sorry, galleons.


For further reading in the general area of the afterlife, I highly recommend David Eagleman’s “Sum: Forty Tales From the Afterlives.” Forty stories set in various afterlives, all of them intriguing, all of them haunting. Like most of my favorite short story authors (Brockmeier, Calvino, and Carlson), Eagleman’s words tend you linger with you long after you’ve put his book down.

Speaking of Keven Brockmeier, his book City of the Dead is another great story about the afterlife. Check it out.

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