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Life, death, and tea

27 October 2017


THERE are frogs that can be frozen for months on end before being revived; there are human cells that can live on for decades after the death of the being of which they were a part. But do these constitute proof of life after death? They do not, Crowd Science (World Service, Friday) says; for in neither case can the post­humous organism make a cup of tea.

The condition set out by the pre­senter, Marnie Chesterton, and her team in defining what constituted life after death might seem trivial, but you get the point. It is not just that some cells from under your fingernails are preserved in some cryogenic suspension, or that your brainwaves have been uploaded on to a laptop. You have to be able to get up and make a cup of tea when and how you like it. Assuming the cup-of-tea rule, the answer to an enquiry from a listener, Geoff — “Is there any proof of life after death?” — was always going to be “No”.

This is not to say that people have not tried hard to get that proof. Professor Susan Blackmore told us of a test carried out at several car­diac units in the UK to explore the phenomenon of the out-of-body ex­­perience. Distinctive objects were placed on high shelves, and patients who reported the near-death experi­ence of floating on the ceiling were asked if they noticed them. None of them did.

For the family of Henrietta Lacks, life after death is rather different. Lacks died in 1951, but her tumour cells live on in countless laborat­ories, cultivated by researchers so as to combat numerous diseases, such as Parkinson’s. Since her death, Ms Lacks has been into space, and con­tributed to the creation of several vaccines. She is, for her surviving relatives, an angelic presence — a be­­nevolent soul who is as alive as ever she was. She may not be able to make tea, but she might help us to find a cure for cancer.

From an unanswerable question to a rhetorical one. Is the Pope Ca­­tholic? (World Service, Thursday) presented an inquiry into the Vati­can’s recent apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia, which, among other things, suggested that di­­vorced Catholics who entered a second marriage might be allowed to re­­ceive communion.

Pope Francis’s refusal to answer the traditionalist critics of this pro­posal has led to an escalation in ten­sion: last month, numerous theolo­gians signed a 25-page letter saying that the Pope’s words had led to the spread of “heresies and other errors”.

From the traditionalist camp the programme mustered only one spokesperson; but he was he worth it. Ben Harnwell, from the Digni­tatis Humanae Institute, dared to say what most people don’t, because most people don’t think it, either: namely, that the “objective reality” of Jesus’s teaching is that the di­­vorced are in a state of sin, and there is nothing that modern cultural trends or convenience can do to make it otherwise.

For Mr Harnwell, the question whether the Pope was Catholic was far from rhetorical. His evasive an­­swer came after a pause so melo­dramatic that it would have made the producers of The X Factor blush.

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