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August 25, 2003
The AOL Welcome screen usually displays three news items to tempt us -- something trivial about a movie star, one about an actual news item that people ought to care about, and another one -- something offbeat and interesting from the world of science. Like today's, which is about the Ice Man. You remember him: he's one of the mummified bodies that are found occasionally, like the Bog Men in England or the Inca sacrificial victims in Peru. People from long ago, perfectly preserved in the moment of their deaths.

The Ice Man is the world's oldest mummy -- 5,000 years old, or more. His clothing was also preserved, as were his last meal and his quiver of arrows. Examining him, by x-ray or CAT scan has been difficult and slow -- he is very fragile, and they don't want to break him.

But it says in the accompanying article that they've found traces of four different people's blood on his clothing, and that he was shot in the back with an arrow. So he didn't go down without a fight, and, in the end, it took a coward to bring him down. He must have been a formidable foe.

I look at the photo with great curiosity. I always do, and I am not alone: we're fascinated with the bog man, with the little Inca victims, with the Ice Man. People who stand at the brink of death and are transfixed there, in our imaginations, caught forever. They aren't caught forever, of course. Their souls went on, like all souls. It is the presence of their intact bodies that arrests our attention, the abuse of which they speak. Their visible suffering. They bring us close in our imaginations to that moment at the end of our own lives, that moment we hardly dare contemplate. So curious about it, what it will be like. So afraid of it, too frightened even to think of it for longer than a few minutes.

In the imaginations of the living, the dead are frozen in their agony. If we have loved them, this haunts us, waking and sleeping. It is as if the last moment of life was a moment that will go on forever. But it does not go on. It is over now. They are not there any more. The body that once housed his spirit is now an object. It cannot be further injured. Wound it, and it will not bleed. It will never bleed again. Only the living bleed.

I do not know what it is like not to believe that life continues after the short span of life on the earth. Ignorant as I am, as we all must be, about how changed we will be, about what it will be like in an existence in which there is no time, a life not tied to matter and its maintenance, I do not know what it is like to believe that there is no such life. That there is only nothing. I don't believe there can be such a thing as nothing.

That there are no automobiles or eyelashes, that there are no smiles and no apples, that seeing and tasting and feeling are ours alone, and do not follow us there: this I can believe, although my imagination fails -- as imagination must -- to encompass something so beyond all its categories. But not nothing.

Where is the Ice Man? Where are all the little Incas, taken so cruelly from their mothers and killed as ritual sacrifices? Where are their mothers, and whatever happened to their broken hearts? All that is over for them. We have their bodies, and gaze upon them in mingled curiosity and fear. But they themselves are long gone. They live in another way. Another place that is not a place at all. Their sorrow is over. Ours continues, connected by every sinew to all our earthly joys.

No wonder we do not understand.
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