So, what happens when we die?

To anyone, attempting to imagine the death of their own consciousness is almost impossible. It seems absurd to try to comprehend not thinking, not imagining, not existing.

This ‘not’, this negation of existence, is what is often in existentialist writing represented as ‘the void’. And Emily Dickinson is all too familiar with this concept.

A morbidly curious writer, she’s fascinated by what awaits beyond death, questioning the existence of God, immortality, and whether consciousness can survive the death of the body. Irresistibly drawn to these unknowable secrets, her questions are scattered throughout her poetry as she explores often conflicting and incompatible answers.

Refusing to abandon her belief in God, but also rejecting the dogma of the Church, she often ponders what really happens when we die; whether Heaven or total obliteration and nothingness, a ‘void’ awaits. In this way, Dickinson finds herself exploring the idea that death is an ‘abyss’; fathomless depths, the obliteration of consciousness, a meaningless existence, a void, nothing.

She writes both terrified and fascinated, in anguish and in awe, tip-toeing along the edge of her abyss of nothingness, almost daring herself to slip just to find out if it really exists.

Her most existential writing is perhaps most evident in poems where, following death, she’s lost in vast and infinite space. ‘More than the Grave is closed to me –’ explores a ‘closed’ eternity beyond the grave, representing death as a drop into nothingness: ‘I cling to nowhere till I fall’. 

Whereas ‘I saw no Way – The Heavens were stitched –’ depicts a speaker experiencing the vastness of the entire universe, contrasted by her own smallness. Heaven seemingly sealed off to her, she ‘touched the universe’, representing the universe as tangible, and religion inaccessible, suggesting her struggle to find any concrete answers about the afterlife from religion.

As the poem continues, the speaker looks back upon the Earth from the vacuum of space, seeing their own insignificance: ‘I alone – A Speck upon a Ball –’, recognising her aloneness in the void. Our Earth reduced to a ‘Ball’, she is but a crumb, abandoned by her God and the promise of an afterlife, completely alone.

In a similar sense, ‘A pit – but Heaven over it –’ introduces a speaker existing precariously between Heaven above and an abyss, a ‘Pit – with fathoms under it’ below. Throughout the poem, the speaker is paralysed in this terrifying in-between, agonisingly aware of the precariousness of her own existence. Falling is almost a game of chance.

But what’s interesting is that the poem seems not to offer or suggest a path enabling her to reach Heaven; it almost seems closed-off, unreachable, whilst dropping into the Pit feels inevitable: ‘To stir would be to slip – / To look would be to drop –’.

Interestingly, this poem appears to intertwine the abyss of death with the Puritan idea of Hell. Joanne Feit Diehl observes a striking similarity between her depiction of the abyss and Eighteenth-Century preacher and philosopher Jonathan Edwards’ description of ‘the pit of Hell’ in his 1741 sermon ‘Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God’.

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Arguably, in this poem she almost makes the concept of the ‘void’ and Christian ideas of Hell synonymous, combining the existential abyss with religious terror of the fiery Pit. It could be argued she represents the death of consciousness as a psychological Hell.

‘I cling to nowhere till I fall’

Diehl argues that ‘the mystery of the abyss has replaced the certainty of the flames of Hell’, and it is perhaps uncertainty of the existence of the void that is more terrifying than the threat of eternal punishment. After all – if one is in Christian Hell, they at least still exist.

Throughout ‘I never hear that one is dead’, differently from the other poems discussed, religion is completely absent. The speaker’s universe is one devoid of an afterlife, where death is a ‘lonely place’, an abyss of nothingness.

The poem attempts to make sense of the anguish and terror the speaker feels when they hear that someone is dead, as this reminds them of their own mortality and that they too, one day, will die.

She writes that ‘that mightiest Belief’, that is, the concept that death is an abyss of non-existence is ‘Too mighty for the Daily mind / That tilting its abyss, Had madness, had it once or twice’. While, going back to the opening lines of this article, death of our own consciousness is near impossible to imagine, here, she’s suggesting that it’s not only impossible, but insanity-inducing. It’s too terrifying a concept for ‘the Daily mind’ to bear.

Instead, Dickinson argues that ‘Beliefs are Bandaged’ for our own protection and comfort. We choose the bliss of ignorance, ‘bandaging’ the abyss from sight.

Perhaps the bandage itself is other, more comforting belief systems such as religion, where afterlife is a guarantee and the void is unheard of.  Isn’t death easier to accept when it doesn’t mean a complete obliteration of the self?

So, what does happen when we die? And why is Dickinson relevant to this question?

Of course, with almost 1,800 poems and almost half of these covering the theme of death, this article hasn’t even scratched the surface of Emily Dickinson’s views on the matter. And after all, she remained a Christian throughout her life while questioning the existence of her God and of immortality.

But what’s so interesting about her is that she’s so unafraid to question her beliefs, communicating her anxieties and her doubts in her writing.

Dickinson doesn’t know what happens when we die any more than the rest of us do, but her poems encourage us to think and explore different viewpoints. 

She’s not just a poet, but a thinker, a questioner, a philosopher.

By engaging with her work, perhaps we can be too.


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