Recently I was driving the support vehicle for a charity cycle ride in France. It was a sunny day, I had time to spare, and I saw a sign to a nearby British Commonwealth War Grave site. I decided to pay it a visit. It was a small site, with maybe 50 or so graves in an immaculately tended grassy dip between two nondescript fields. Amongst the 50 graves were those of South Africans, Indians, Canadians and individuals from all parts of the UK. There were Christian, Jewish and Hindu symbols. The plaque explained that this was the site of a Field Dressing Station (a temporary military hospital set up on the battlefield). The dates of death closely correlated with some of the largest battles in the area in 1915 and 1916.
Clearly I did not know any of these people, and their relatives will all be long dead, and yet here in this little cemetery their graves are still tended with great dedication, and in the record book kept at the site the details of the date and cause of death are recorded, for all to see for many years to come.
A little further along the road was a civilian peacetime graveyard. Each memorial seemed designed to try to outdo the others, and many were like small houses. Many of those remembered by these impressive tombs would probably now have no living descendents, and yet their tombs continue to stand across the centuries to mark a life otherwise forgotten.
Contrast this with the remebrance of my mother's father. He was a senior and decorated Army officer in the First World War who survived, and died in 1935 when my mother was 12. They had survived largely on a small Army pension since the War, and there was no money for a memorial. I know the graveyard where he is buried, but there is no trace of his grave, or even a record. Since my mother died, his memory lives on only in my mind. Mychidren wiill remember only the small fragments of information I can pass on, and within a few generations it will be as if he never existed. Whether a human's life is physically commemorated for future generations remains arbitrary.
I can understand the sadness people might feel at death as the end of everything, with the knowledge that with few exceptions memories of them will fade to nothing within a few generations.
Is it this that has prompted humans to create a supreme being, and an afterlife where their minds continue to exist, and to know that they exist? The thought of nothingness is too awful for many people, and this belief in an "afterlife" is comforting. It would perhaps explain the fervour of many people's belief.