After death, each religion offers something — some kind of hope that there will be a more after we die. For instance, Hinduism offers a reward in the form of reunion and rejoicing with the Godhead (Atman, universal spirit, universe...). Christianity is trying to convince us that a person’s soul will enjoy or suffer for eternity in paradise or hell, based on how that person lived life. Islam, under the influence of Christianity, teaches a very similar thing. In Judaism, there is a promise that souls and bodies will be resurrected when God decides it's time.
Many pagan cultures believe in multiple gods, sprits of animals and nature, and some type of universal spirit (fundamental force) to whom/which everyone and everything will eventually return.
On the other hand, science tells us that, after death, our bodies will be recycled. Atoms that once formed our bodies get used by something or someone else. Atheists believe that, after death, for you as a person, everything stops. It is hard to say there is nothing, because, when perception is gone, the very essence of what formed someone’s information matrix stored in the brain (memories, intelligence, emotions, thoughts, character, and habits, all in all—what some people call a soul) doesn’t exist anymore. Nothing cannot be perceived, as the one who perceive it does not exist (so even saying ‘nothing’ is out of the frame of reference).
In some sense, Eastern culture has offered Nirvana, which is very similar to the Western atheistic concept of death, being similar at least in the ‘nothing’ part. No pain, no joy, no life, no soul, no rebirth, no karma.
Interestingly, Buddhism and Atheism therefore are very similar, but with one fundamental difference between East and West, and that is character, quality, or the way people behave.
In the East, in order to achieve Nirvana, people need to dedicate their entire lives, working hard on personal development, asceticism, and celibacy, renouncing all earthly pleasures, in order to achieve that non-existence. In the end, the absence of everything or non-existence comes as liberation from those sufferings. To people in the East who actively practice Buddhism, attaining non-existence is actually a reward, a merit, something worth spending our time pursuing.
In the West, we also work hard, but we promote hedonism, advertising a wide and high enjoyment of everything the world can offer, often going into extremes. Yet, despite spending a great portion of life seeking pleasures and joy, many are unhappy, and they fear death, as death means nonexistence of the conscious mind. It’s the same way we fear dementia or Alzheimer’s, as they slowly chew through our brains, killing our memories one by one, and with them slowly destroying who we are.
Even among those who don’t fear death, many are unhappy, because of the way they live their lives; either they are not grateful for the things they ‘do’ have but don’t want, or they don’t have something they desire.
Industrialisation gave us a promise of leisure life, and, indeed, with science and medicine, we indeed live like never before in human history, but, again, it seems like, at least psychically, we are more stressed than people at times when their lives hung on a thread, because of constant tribal wars, predators, or diseases that could wipe out entire cities in a matter of weeks or months.
Slowly, meditation has found its way into Western culture, giving relief in a busy life full of stress.
As advertised, mediation is the absence of thoughts, very similar to death. If I would play with words, I could call it experiencing death, or slowly practicing being dead, and, yet again, that state without thoughts has many benefits for our bodies.
Interestingly, for those who spend enough time in the state of “nonexistence” of thoughts, all earthly things suddenly start becoming less stressful and less important.
So, is death equally nature’s mechanism, similar to sex: once we taste it, we yearn for more?
That being said, maybe the old Greeks really stumbled onto something, describing Thanatos and Eros as the two fundamental forces of the universe.
Just as the pleasure of sex is a trick to extend life by making babies, is meditation yet another trick of the brain, in which experiencing death (absence of thoughts) starts overcoming a mortal fear?
Nature will recycle each of us, regardless of our fear, so why then? Why would such a mechanism exist? What is the purpose?
I like to romanticise the idea that this is the universe’s courtesy; in all its unlimited space and time, power and glory, maybe it was just a small gift for the dying “stars”—for infinitely small and fragile beings who spent their short and troubled existence seeking long-lasting love and affection.