What have we not done to live forever? My research into the endless ways we’ve tried to avoid the unavoidable is released today as The Book of Immortality: The Science, Belief, and Magic Behind Living Forever (Scribner). Every Monday for the next six weeks, this chronological crash course will examine how humankind has striven for, grappled with, and dreamed about immortality in different eras throughout history.
We’ve always had a thing for sequels. The suggestion of a second act is built into the fossil record. Tens of thousands of years ago, Neanderthals were already digging premeditated grave sites. They intentionally buried dead kin in fetal positions, indicating some hunch about posthumous rebirth. By Neolithic times, when we’d gotten the hang of agriculture, food started being placed alongside entombed bodies—presumably so they’d have snacks for their journey to the spirit realm.
Our terror and awe of mortality can be traced back to prehistoric nothingness. Every story about immortality since then has been a story about the meaning of death, an attempt at warding off our innate fear of finality. As soon as we figured out how to write, we started jotting down consolatory tales about living forever.
The cuneiform tablets of Nineveh, among the earliest written documents, tell of King Gilgamesh, whose best friend dies. He is stricken with grief. But he is the omnipotent king of Uruk, the one who gazed into the depths—the one who slayed the Bull of Heaven!—surely he’s almighty enough to bring dead loved ones back from the grave. Mute with sorrow and pride, he buries his friend beneath a river and sets out to find eternal life. The scorpion people, whose knowledge is fathomless and whose glance is death, warn him about dangers ahead. A lady of the vines tries to console him, telling him that love is the closest mortals can come to immortality. Crossing the Waters of Death, he discovers a marvelous underwater plant that contains the secret of perpetual youth—the watercress of immortality, as the clay etchings call it, or the “never-grow-old”—but, alas, a serpent promptly steals it away. History’s prototypical protagonist fails, yet his story ends the only way it can: with acceptance of reality. Of mortality. Read More