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Truth Matters More Than Fake Consolation

Susan Jacoby recently published an op-ed in the New York Times, which I have not read, entitled The Blessings of Atheism. Dennis Prager responds to it, and in particular to a quotation she offers from Robert Ingersoll about how atheists can console someone grieving the death of a loved one. This is the Ingersoll quote:

Called “The Great Agnostic” . . . he also frequently delivered secular eulogies at funerals and offered consolation that he clearly considered an important part of his mission. In 1882, at the graveside of a friend’s child, he declared: “They who stand with breaking hearts around this little grave, need have no fear. The larger and the nobler faith in all that is, and is to be, tells us that death, even at its worst, is only perfect rest . . . The dead do not suffer” (ellipsis in original).

Prager, unsurprisingly, finds this quite unhelpful:

I read this quote at least a half dozen times, convinced that I had somehow missed its consoling message. But, alas, there was no consoling message.

“The dead do not suffer” is atheism’s consolation to the parents of murdered children? This sentiment can provide some consolation — though still nothing comparable to the affirmation of an afterlife — to those who lose a loved one who had been suffering from a debilitating disease. But it not only offers the parents of Sandy Hook no consolation, it actually (unintentionally) insults them: Were these children suffering before their lives were taken? Would they have suffered if they had lived on? Moreover, it is the parents who are suffering, so the fact that their child isn’t suffering while decomposing in the grave is of no relevance. And, most germane to our subject, this atheist message offers no consolation at all when compared with the religious message that we humans are not just matter, but possess eternal souls.

Though I am intellectually convinced that only an Intelligence (i.e., God) could have created intelligence, I understand atheism. Anyone observing the terrible amount of unjust human suffering understands the atheist. But even atheists — indeed, especially atheists, since they claim that, unlike believers, they are guided solely by reason and intellect — have to be intellectually honest. They would have to acknowledge that, in terms of consolation, there is no comparison between “The dead do not suffer” and “Your child lives on and you will be reunited with her.”

I agree with him that the quoted passage may be of some comfort to someone whose friend or family member died of a disease that caused them to suffer but is of little consolation to parents of a child who has died, especially in a manner as horrifying as a school shooting. But he seems not to care at all whether the claim that one will be reunited with the deceased is true or not. All that seems to matter is that it offers consolation, even if that consolation is entirely illusory. This treats as as children who must be mollified rather than as adults that can handle reality.

This, he says, is the real message of atheism:

If they did, they would have to say something like this to the parents of the murdered children of Sandy Hook:

“As atheists, we truly feel awful for you. And we promise to work for more gun control. But the truth is we don’t have a single consoling thing to say to you because we atheists recognize that the human being is nothing more than matter, no different from all other matter in the universe except for having self-consciousness. Therefore, when we die, that’s it. Moreover, within a tiny speck of time in terms of the universe’s history, nearly every one of us, including your child, will be completely forgotten, as if we never even existed. Life is a random crapshoot. Our birth and existence are flukes. And you will never see your child again.”

And yeah, that’s pretty close. I might quibble a bit with some of it, but not with the basic message. Life really is mostly a random crapshoot and our existence, as specific people, are little more than flukes. And no, you will almost certainly never see your child again. But does theism offer any greater consolation? I don’t think it really does, if one really follows its implications to their logical conclusion.

Christians like to console people whose lives are visited by terrible tragedy by telling them things like “God is in control, He has a plan and he would never give you more than you can handle.” I don’t find that any more comforting than a random, contingent and uncaring universe; in fact, I find it considerably more disturbing. If that is true, it means that God literally decides everything that happens, that nothing happens that is not his will, as we often hear Christians say. Which means he decides that one person will be born into enormous wealth and privilege while another will die of a terrible disease in childhood, or starve to death, or contract a flesh-eating infection, or be hit by a bus, or any of the limitless number of horrible things that can happen to us. We are thus playthings, puppets on a string and always subject to the whims of a madman. Comforting? Not by a longshot.

And at least one researcher, Joanne Cacciatore, a professor at Arizona State University, who has interviewed grieving families has found that spiritual leaders weren’t really of much help at all:

One theme is clear, Cacciatore says: Religious leaders are really bad at comforting people in grief. She surveyed more than 550 families, asking whom they found the most helpful during those first terrible days: first responders, doctors and nurses, social workers, psychologists, funeral directors or spiritual leaders.

“And of all of those, the spiritual leaders actually came in last,” she says.

Let me take a shot at what an atheist might actually say to someone who has endured a terrible loss like that of a child. How about this:

Life is almost entirely random and every single thing that happens is a result of a million prior contingent events over which we have no control. Everyone faces loss and tragedy, often many times during their lives, and when those things happen we grieve and then, over time, our loss diminishes and we move on with our lives, as we must. It’s not easy, but the fact that tragedy is part of our shared humanity allows us to help one another through it with love, compassion and understanding. And the fact that life can be cut short in a moment, that we are not guaranteed a long or painless life, means that we must make the most of each day that we have. The fact that we have no eternal life that awaits us makes every day mean more, not less.

I think that’s a much better answer, and it has the great virtue of being true.

Comments

  1. says

    “The dead do not suffer” is atheism’s consolation to the parents of murdered children?

    Because, “your child is burning in eternal flames now…” Is so much better?

  2. Sastra says

    Prager:

    I read this quote at least a half dozen times, convinced that I had somehow missed its consoling message. But, alas, there was no consoling message.

    From what I understand of Ingersoll’s perspective, Prager is not understanding the entire context of this quote. This is from the 1800’s. Robert Ingersoll was a fierce critic of what was then the very common religious notion that there was a hell of fire and brimstone — and that most people were damned to it. In addition to this, one could never be sure (or even particularly confident) that anyone was saved. This included small children. Such a fear was so popular that many people imbibed it from the culture. What if?

    I suspect that this quote is to a large extent meant to address this particular fear. What if? What if there IS a hell? What if my child is burning in its flames because of something I, as a parent, did or failed to do? Some of my neighbors, some great and revered and respected authorities think and say so. What if it is true? What if my child is now suffering — and will suffer forever? And what if it is my fault?

    Ingersoll’s emphasis on “the dead do not suffer” — and his seemingly too-easy assumption that this is an important way of consoling and alleviating a parent’s worst fears — needs to be understood in this context. It’s the 19th century. The comfortable modern public Christian attitude of “well, God will make sure that nobody goes to hell who doesn’t really deserve it” wasn’t yet in place.

    Part of the reason we now HAVE this comfortable modern Christianity is because of people like Ingersoll back in the 19th century, pointing out the damn obvious wickedness of the idea of eternal damnation and thus causing the mainstream to modify the vindictiveness of their God. Well, nobody nice will be in Hell: God would find a way to prevent that, and still follow the rules.

  3. glodson says

    I hated the whole “god has a plan” idea bothered me when I was a christian myself. Even as a child, I realized the nasty implications of this statement.

  4. jolly says

    Don’t forget other ‘beautiful and consoling’ religious ideas, your daughter is now with Allah and is one of 72 virgins owed to the suicide bomber. Or, your child has been reincarnated as a sickly child in the gutters of Calcutta.
    I don’t bring up any afterlife when I am consoling someone who has lost someone. Let them tell you what they need, making shit up doesn’t help.

  5. matty1 says

    It seems to me that ‘the dead do not suffer’ would be more effective in dealing with the fear of death than in consoling survivors, though that is from a modern perspective and Sastra is probably right about why it was a comfort at the time.

    In any event I am unconvinced that helping those in grief relies on persuading of a particular claim about the dead. Offering support while they grieve would seem more important. At most there might be a case for not adding to the stress by engaging them in a graveside debate about how little Johnny is now in hell but not for actively trying to recruit them to believe he is in heaven.

  6. says

    there is no comparison between “The dead do not suffer” and “Your child lives on and you will be reunited with her.

    One is strong but real medicine and the other is a placebo.

  7. crayzz says

    Life is almost entirely random and every single thing that happens is a result of a million prior contingent events over which we have no control.

    I would cut this bit out. Or maybe just pare it down to something like, “Though we’d prefer otherwise, we have no control over much of our lives.”

  8. Sastra says

    Prager’s strawman atheist:
    “But the truth is we don’t have a single consoling thing to say to you because we atheists recognize that the human being is nothing more than matter, no different from all other matter in the universe except for having self-consciousness.”

    Although Prager’s general statement of what atheists believe is mostly correct, this statement stands out to me as particularly dishonest .

    For one thing, it is not true that atheists don’t have a “single consoling thing” to say to anyone in grief. Come on, even the religious have other methods of consolation — they don’t just parrot various versions of “he’s not really dead, he’s not really dead, he’s not really dead” over and over again, do they? They talk about how wonderful the deceased was, how much they contributed, how worthwhile the memories, how valuable the time together, how much love matters, and so on and so forth. The implication that atheists can’t even do THAT is disingenuous.

    I suppose we’re supposed to picture atheists standing around the bereaved with their arms at their sides, parroting various versions of “he’s really dead, he’s really dead, he’s really dead” over and over again, the mirror of the strawman theist. Silly. And insulting.

    Notice also that sneaky little stab at a greedy reductionist argument, a composition fallacy: if we are made of molecules and molecules can’t feel or care — then WE can’t do it either. That’s where atheists are left, because love is transcendentally supernatural and over the physical. Atheists don’t — can’t — account for or believe in meaning. Another gratuitous insult, a common slur and lack of comprehension.

    They would have to acknowledge that, in terms of consolation, there is no comparison between “The dead do not suffer” and “Your child lives on and you will be reunited with her.”

    No, we would NOT have to acknowledge that, because not only does truth matter, but so does maturity. Would Prager agree that, in terms of consolation, there is just no comparison between “your dog died” and “the vet took Rover to a farm and he is now running around with all the other animals?” At some point we grow up and begin to value the emotional strength which comes from facing life and death head on. We mature.

    Prager’s model arrangement is telling fibs to a child on one hand, and living in perpetual infancy on the other. That’s not learning to cope: that’s avoiding learning to cope.

  9. says

    Prager: “we atheists recognize that the human being is nothing more than matter, no different from all other matter in the universe except for having self-consciousness.”

    Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln …

    Although actually I wouldn’t put even the first part that way — I find the “X is nothing more than Y” construction only rarely helpful.

  10. Randomfactor says

    Were these children suffering before their lives were taken?

    At the end? He11 yes, they were.

  11. says

    Sastra, while I was posting: “Notice also that sneaky little stab at a greedy reductionist argument, a composition fallacy: if we are made of molecules and molecules can’t feel or care — then WE can’t do it either. That’s where atheists are left, because love is transcendentally supernatural and over the physical. Atheists don’t — can’t — account for or believe in meaning. Another gratuitous insult, a common slur and lack of comprehension.”

    Right, I hate that; it’s the same Platonistic note sounded by his earlier “only an Intelligence (i.e., God) could have created intelligence”. Gah.

  12. coragyps says

    My dad was a (mainstream) Christian preacher with full seminary training -Greek and the whole deal. An incredibly compassionate man. And he told me once that there was nothing in the Bible to suggest “we will see them in heaven.”

  13. evilDoug says

    Life is almost entirely random …yappada yappada yappada… not less.

    I suspect a significant part of the reason people don’t find preachers of much use is that those in the yappage trades feel compelled to yap. I want no sermons Period.

  14. Nemo says

    Sastra, it’s my impression that the belief that most people will go to Hell is alive and well in the 21st century, amongst some of the more conservative Christians. I don’t know Prager’s views well enough to say if that includes him. But I’m surprised he missed the full meaning of “The dead do not suffer.”

  15. vmanis1 says

    Of all the things one can say to a grieving person, the one that resonates with me most is `let me hold your hand while we remember your loved one together’. That works across all ranges of belief.

  16. Michael Heath says

    Nemo writes:

    it’s my impression that the belief that most people will go to Hell is alive and well in the 21st century, amongst some of the more conservative Christians.

    True, but as someone pointed out earlier that the notion kids were also destined there is no longer promoted so much as it was in previous generations. In addition, a number of conservative Christian commenters framed their assertion that Newton kids were in heaven, where they purposefully excluded the adult victims in their framing of who they knew were in Heaven.

    This new meme that kids have a get out jail free card remains incoherent if one asserts the existence of a judgmental god of grace and justice. Simply because a god who destines any adult human to Hell is effectively equal in evil depravity to one that would do the same to a child.

  17. Sastra says

    When I think about it, there is another meaning behind “the dead do not suffer” which is even more immediate and significant than a reference to hell or the pain of dying. Those aren’t really what we fear the most, for ourselves or others. The worst possible natural fate is a living hell.

    One of the most instinctive and common ways of consoling ourselves is this one: “well, it could have been worse.” Things aren’t as bad as they could be, so contrast the really awful result with the one which you have which is “better” and feel the difference. It helps.

    We all do this all the time. “My car is totaled, but at least I have insurance. If I didn’t, that would really suck. Good thing I do.” And, of course, something else comes to mind if you don’t have insurance, and it comforts the afflicted. The religious are particularly adept and practiced with this, because this is how they find a “miracle” in one survivor crawling out of the rubble with only broken bones and a concussion, amidst a hundred bodies twisted in death. “Whew, that was close. Almost didn’t see God’s presence reinforced here.”

    We say this to the grieving, and they say it to themselves. “At least it wasn’t X. This is better.”

    Sometimes children who are shot don’t die. Sometimes they are permanently disabled. Sometimes they are permanently disabled in a way which precludes enjoying life. And sometimes they are permanently disabled in a way which precludes enjoying life and they are in agonies of torment which never stops.

    That’s the worst. Hell on earth. Chronic pain. “Doctor, is s/he suffering?” “Yes, I’m afraid so. We’re going to have to keep them on low doses of morphine and hope it does the trick.” Might be hard to tell. Or they might keep on screaming.

    This happens, and it happens to children. And every parent knows it, and every parent thinks it. It doesn’t have to happen often to qualify as a worst nightmare — a contingency that is even worse if you’re an atheist.

    And if it were my child lying there in a coffin, I suspect the natural, normal thing for me to do would be to find out that X which is worse than death and hit upon the obvious. And I would probably understand immediately what someone else meant when they thought of the same realistic, nonsupernatural alternative I would.

    “At least they’re not suffering.”

    Not that small a mercy, if you really put your imagination into the worst option of all.

  18. matty1 says

    The fact that we have no eternal life that awaits us makes every day mean more, not less.

    Agreed.

  19. dugglebogey says

    How can anyone be taken seriously when their first statement contains such a ridiculous inconsistency? If “intelligence could only have been created by intelligence” then what created God? And what created that creator? That hypothesis is impossible by it’s own rule.

  20. iknklast says

    Another thing that I find many theists don’t really find comforting: the idea that they are flawed in their faith, and that is why they have to suffer. This makes them responsible for the action, at least in some way. Parents who don’t pray hard enough lose their child to a manic gunman. Parents who lack enough faith lose their child to a horrible disease.

    Random? Means it ain’t your fault. Coulda happened to anybody. The world doesn’t care about you, and so it isn’t watching to see if you’re good enough. It’s just there, and we are fortunate to be able to take a short trip on it as it circles the sun for no good reason – which is not to say cause. There are causes for the orbit, but there is nothing meaningful about it. So you aren’t at fault for being a lesser human being than the other parents who’s children lived.

    I was having a conversation about this topic with my non-believers meet up group the other night. It seems to me that, since atheists actually do say good bye to their loved ones, they are able to achieve a sense of closure. And by not attributing some grander meaning to the senseless deaths, we are free to work as hard as possible to stop or at least reduce needless suffering and death. If it’s God’s plan, there’s nothing we can do.

  21. says

    coragyps,

    And he told me once that there was nothing in the Bible to suggest “we will see them in heaven.”

    There are several places where it is suggested. The best known is probably:

    21 David’s servants said to him, “Why are you doing this? When the baby was still alive, you fasted and you cried. Now that the baby is dead, you get up and eat food.”

    22 David said, “While the baby was still alive, I fasted, and I cried. I thought, ‘Who knows? Maybe the Lord will feel sorry for me and let the baby live.’ 23 But now that the baby is dead, why should I fast? I can’t bring him back to life. Someday I will go to him, but he cannot come back to me.” (2 Sam 12: 21-22)

  22. nooneinparticular says

    As an atheist through and through I think if you said that to me after one of my children died you’d lose a friend, Ed. If the comment came a good deal after burying my child it would be appreciated, but in the agony of the days just after the death a better thing to do would be to simply hold my hand, make an offer of help, lend a shoulder to cry on.

    I know what you wrote was pure rhetoric and was meant as a counter point to the god-botherer and I am sure you would not actually say those things to a parent in agony.

  23. Sastra says

    heddle #22 wrote:

    23 But now that the baby is dead, why should I fast? I can’t bring him back to life. Someday I will go to him, but he cannot come back to me.” (2 Sam 12: 21-22)

    Interesting — I hadn’t seen this before. Nor was I aware of this debate.

    But as this stands this doesn’t look to me like good evidence that the Bible says (or strongly implies) that we will someday see our loved ones in heaven. An atheist could have written it. We go to the dead by going to the grave. We all die, but the dead do not come back. Our bodies join theirs in the earth.

    I think this is ambiguous at best.

  24. John Horstman says

    Prager:

    Would they have suffered if they had lived on?

    Yes, of course they would have suffered. The only people who live lives free of suffering are those incapable of feeling loss or sadness or misery and those who don’t live very long. Hopefully any given individual will have more joy and pleasure in life than suffering, but no one’s life is going to be all of one or the other.

    That said, I do think the focus on the dead person rather misses the point, unless the living are truly worried about the dead person suffering. I agree entirely with Ed’s sentiments: the idea of a god intentionally making the given parent suffer on purpose is far more disturbing than being a victim of random chance. Sure, it provides the hope of being able to sway the god to favorable treatment, but the immediate evidence is that the god is entirely likely to do horrible things to the parent. Essentially, telling someone “god has a plan” in the wake of a tragedy is telling hir that god hates hir, or at least wants hir to suffer. That’s a horrifying sentiment: it’s frequently interpreted as such and I’ve heard a lot of deconversion stories where such a statement is the proximate trigger. It’s one of those toxic, self-serving platitudes that masquerades as kindness; what’s really happening is that the speaker is reassuring hirself that nothing terrible could happen to hir on account of hir virtue.

  25. kouras says

    Sastra

    Prager’s strawman atheist:
    “But the truth is we don’t have a single consoling thing to say to you because we atheists recognize that the human being is nothing more than matter, no different from all other matter in the universe except for having self-consciousness.”

    Although Prager’s general statement of what atheists believe is mostly correct, this statement stands out to me as particularly dishonest .

    For one thing, it is not true that atheists don’t have a “single consoling thing” to say to anyone in grief. Come on, even the religious have other methods of consolation — they don’t just parrot various versions of “he’s not really dead, he’s not really dead, he’s not really dead” over and over again, do they? They talk about how wonderful the deceased was, how much they contributed, how worthwhile the memories, how valuable the time together, how much love matters, and so on and so forth. The implication that atheists can’t even do THAT is disingenuous.

    It bothers me also that there seems to be a lack of understanding of humanity without a god in this piece, although your comment clearly shows that you put more thought into it.

    What got me was this comparison: Ingersoll’s statement makes sense in the appropriate historical & cultural context, and so making a slightly impersonally-worded comment about that-which-is would seem to make sense for the same reason. The theist type statement focuses on the child, albeit in an astoundingly unhelpful way. But the straw-atheist statement is pretty much “we…” throughout. And it’s long. And awkwardly phrased for something you’d say in any kind of friendly or understanding tone. And so it reads like the kind of self-satisfied speech, without even a thought of conforting the bereaved, that seems more likely to goad than anything else.

    … And the closest thing that comes to mind is a poorly-conceived sales pitch for conversion to some sect of choice, being pushed on someone when their deceased loved one’s beliefs force them to come into contact with a place of worship. An assumption that atheists share their worst aspects, as well as lacking the compasion to tone it down when someone’s in a bad place.

    I think I just found a sore spot. Sorry.

  26. stevebowen says

    Heddle@#22
    I thought that heaven was a new testement concept. Sheol wasn’t a place for an afterlife in that way.

  27. says

    stevebowen,

    There are some indication in the Psalms of heaven but nothing definitive. But nevertheless, Jews believed in an after life that was divided into good and bad parts of Sheol. And they looked forward to a resurrection. So while David possibly lacked the NT view of heaven, he surely was not saying that he would only go to his son only as dust–but rather that he would actually be with him in a meaningful way.

  28. joe321 says

    nooneinparticula # 23

    I think what your comment states reinforces the fact that we must tread very carefully when talking with someone who has experienced a terrible personal loss. However, I personally I would not be offended, but rather would appreciate Ed’s comments. This is not just rhetoric, but comes with personal experience. Let me explain:

    Sadly, in 2010, I lost my youngest brother to a brain aneurysm; he was 46. My brother, like me, was an atheist. We were raised in a small Catholic community in Manitoba and though the surviving members of my family (two sisters) are deeply religious, they have abandoned the Catholic faith. When we were planning the funeral, I was adamant the it not be religious, since I felt that would have been disrespectful to my brother’s memory. To their enormous credit, despite their religious faith, they agreed with me and we had a “Celebration of his life” rather than a morbid Catholic (or other) funeral. Perhaps because of this, nobody told me the nonsense about “you will see him again”. That would not have been helpful to me and I did not need a such a placebo in that terrible time. About a month later, I encountered an acquaintance and when he told me “I will pray for him” I was really annoyed. I KNOW I will not see him again and it is much more helpful for me (and I suspect even for theists) to be reminded of the good works that their loved ones did (in the case of my brother, there certainly was many).

    Sorry for the long and rather emotional post. I just wanted to share my personal experience with the subject that Ed’s post touches one.

  29. Mark Sherry says

    If “intelligence could only have been created by intelligence” then what created God? And what created that creator? That hypothesis is impossible by it’s own rule.

    No no no! You can’t create an intelligence with an intelligence. You need an Intelligence! To create an Intelligence, you’d need an INtelligence, or maybe even an INTELLIGENCE. I’m not sure what can create an INTELLIGENCE. Possibly an INTELLIGENCE, but we might start needing a larger font.

    That levity aside, a week ago I lost a very close friend. Although she’d been in poor health for a while, it still caught everyone off-guard. I’m really glad that nobody’s tried to pull any “she’s in a better place” bullshit, or I think I would have lost it. It’s wishful thinking that trivializes what’s actually happened, and is disrespectful of her own beliefs in the matter.

    That my friend no longer exists outside of the memories of those who knew her saddens me greatly, but even if I did believe in an afterlife, it still wouldn’t help when I realize that there was a restaurant I never had a chance to take her to, or that we’ll never be able to go camping again. And I’m still fairly young. I expect (and hope!) that by the time I die, I’ll be much older, and a very different person. Any re-acquaintance would be strained by the fact that (at least) I’ve changed. It would be no consolation to me.

    (In terms of day to day affairs, my friend’s death has had little impact; she was working at the time in a city four hours away, had no Internet at home, and was notoriously bad at responding to correspondences. I don’t feel I’ve really internalized what’s happened yet.)

  30. tbp1 says

    Dunno if they’re particularly consoling, but I like Richard Tilman’s comments about his brother, Pat: “He’s not with God, he’s f***ing dead. Thanks for the thoughts, but he’s f***ing dead.” Good on him for speaking the truth when it would have been so easy to just echo the platitudes.

  31. escuerd says

    Prager:

    I understand atheism. Anyone observing the terrible amount of unjust human suffering understands the atheist.

    Nope. Not really.

  32. says

    I don’t pray for the sick. I don’t pray for the dead or the bereaved. I do think “good thoughts”.

    I also lean more toward telling the bereaved that their loved ones do live on, in their “hearts”. While we are remembered we are yet among the living.

  33. evodevo says

    Jesus said very little about Heaven – he was after all a Messianic, apocalyptic orthodox Jewish peasant in an occupied country. He was expecting a physical “kingdom” to appear there in Palestine “very soon”, within the lifetimes of his apostles (failed prophet, I guess). The only time he indicated an afterlife was when a Pharisee (talk about strawmen) asked about a widower who had remarried and who his wife would be in heaven, and Jesus answered that there was no marriage in heaven! (Christians appear to ignore this, among other verses that don’t add up). Most of the rest of the references to “kingdom of Heaven” were added to the Gospel narratives by later anonymous authors with an agenda.

  34. pyschopenguin says

    I would add:

    “As your child/spouse/friend lived, a bright, buring flame of joyness left many, many memories – some good – some bad. You may never see you child/spouse again, but his/her memories of life will always be with you. This is what life is about. Making memories so that you always live in the hearts and minds of your loved ones”

    As a prick:

    “Heaven is created in the memories of the living by the exploits of the dead. While you may never have the physical touch of your loved one, you will always have the memories – and that is what we live for – to be remembered after we die”.

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