AI and the Afterlife: From Digital Mourning to Mind Uploading
As part of Theos’ research on death, Nathan Mladin looks at how the emergence of AI is shaping our relationship with death. 15/02/2024
Lucy Peppiatt on the importance of talking about death. 15/03/2023
My mother lived her whole life with a deep loss. When she was six days old, her mother died after complications in childbirth. Her father remarried when she was 18 months and she was brought up by a step–mother whom she came to love in certain ways but, by all accounts, was nothing like her own mother. This one huge event shaped her life as later in life she became a bereavement counsellor and worked as a hospice and then a prison chaplain. We, her children, were brought up under the shadow of this death as it was such a big part of our mother’s life.
One of the things we lived with that I personally found hard was her constant anxiety that someone she loved might die suddenly. But one of the good things she gave us was bringing the conversation about death and dying right into the heart of the family. None of us ever believed that death was a distant thing or that it might not happen to any of us at any time because for us, through my mother, death was a part of life. We could never forget that one day, we will all die. This was brought home to me with even greater force when with my own family, we lived in Zimbabwe for six years where premature death from sickness, accidents, and violent incidents was commonplace.
It was a strange thing for me, therefore, to realise that for many people in the modern West, conversations around death and dying are few and far between if they are even had at all. Children are often sheltered and protected from visiting deathbeds and going to funerals, (which may sometimes be a good thing), but it may also contribute to the sense of taboo in relation to conversations around death, dying, loss, and grief, which is certainly not good for anyone.
With the prevalence of the elderly dying either in hospitals or in homes, families are sometimes far removed from the cycle of death and birth that in other countries literally happens in the room next–door. The result is we’re able to distance ourselves from the process of dying in a way that other cultures cannot. This too is not beneficial. We know deep down death really is a part of life and so learning to live with death will be a necessity for us all and speaking about it before it happens will help us to process it when it does happen either to us or to our loved ones.
Whenever death comes, it feels like a robbery, something snatched from us that leads to deep grief and mourning. And when it happens prematurely, there is the added sense of outrage that death has come too early mixed with the pain of loss and grief. It is always devastating to lose a loved one whenever and however that happens and so, of course, we fear this more than anything else. And knowing it’s beyond our control adds to the fear. But given that death is totally inevitable for each and every one of us, do we want to live with this fear? Athanasius, an early Christian bishop writes that living with the “fear of death” places us under bondage all our lives (De Decretis §14).
People often apologise for talking about death and dying—it’s gloomy, morbid, sad. But in fact, I would say the less we talk about it, the more it moves beyond our control with the risk of death taking us completely by surprise when it happens. Bringing the conversation about death and dying into the heart of our communities, as it was for me growing up, genuinely helps to face it when it comes.
Whether people have a faith or not, we often hear how the knowledge of an impending death leads people to a far greater gratitude for what they have here and now. When people know they’re dying, they find life richer, sweeter, and more glorious. They talk of a new appreciation of their loved ones, the creation, the colours, smells, sights of the world, the joy of children, nephews, nieces, grandchildren, gratitude for a job they’ve enjoyed, a new delight in food. A wonderful book on the subject of death, dying, and end of life care is Dear Life by Rachel Clarke. Clarke is a palliative care doctor who expresses no religious faith but brings such wisdom and hope to the topic of death and dying.
Quite clearly, we don’t need to have a faith in Christ to love the here and now and to see the richness and the glory in the lives we’ve been given, but Christians, of all people, should be having regular conversations about the reality of death because in the Christian faith there is a unique perspective on death. Christians suffer the pain of loss as much as anyone. The apostle Paul calls death “the last enemy” (1 Corinthians 15:26). It certainly feels like that. And yet, the promise of God is that trusting in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ leads us through death into eternal life, a life free from suffering, mourning, crying, or pain. Death and the pain that death brings is destroyed by a death and a resurrection: a triumph over death.
This should give us great confidence in the face of death and yet even in the church I rarely hear of death and dying spoken about routinely and I’m not sure why. Contemplating death may be sobering, but it’s not morbid. Even more than this, being conscious that this life is not the only one and will not go on forever means we cherish this life even more while we also look ahead to an eternal life free from the pain of this one. Maybe we should ask ourselves, knowing this life will come to an end on a day we might not expect, how does that change how we see our lives now and what will we do with this one precious life?
Interested in this? Share it on social media. Join our monthly e–newsletter to keep up to date with our latest research and events. And check out our Supporter Programme to find out how you can help our work.
Lucy has been Principal at WTC since 2013. She teaches courses in Christian doctrine and in spiritual formation. She holds bachelor’s degrees in both English and Theology. She completed her MA in Systematic Theology at King’s College, London, and her PhD through the University of Otago, Dunedin, New Zealand. Lucy’s research interests are Christ and the Spirit, Charismatic theology, theological anthropology, discipleship, 1 Corinthians, and women in the Bible.
Posted 15 March 2023
See other recent events and articles
Elizabeth Oldfield speaks with author Katherine May. 28/02/2024Podcast
After addressing 17 new generals of the British Army, Chine McDonald reflects on what in this country is worth fighting for. 26/02/2024In Brief
Theos researches and investigates the intersection of religion, politics and society in the contemporary world.