The Many Forms of Henrietta Lacks’ Immortality

 The last few weeks have not been conducive to writing, as I’ve been –  ironically – swamped with volunteer work for my church. However, I have been able to squeeze in a little reading time, and just finished The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. I am not going to provide a synopsis of the book, since that has already been done extensively elsewhere (and I’m guessing that many of you will have already read it).  Instead, I’d like to explore an important theological topic that is not really a main focus of the book, although it is included in its title: immortality. 

In the views of many, the hope of a heavenly afterlife is the main purpose of religion. As Sam Harris put it in The End of Faith, “…faith is little more than the shadow cast by our hope for a better life beyond the grave”(p.39). For the moment I will put aside my objections to this view of religion, and instead focus on a more basic question that is raised by the Henrietta Lacks book: what exactly are we talking about when we speak of “immortality”?

It seems like immortality has been a particularly hot topic recently. There was the fascinating NY Times Magazine article about ‘Digital Immortality’, then the Time Magazine article about The Singularity, in which “indefinite life extension becomes a reality”, and of course evangelical preacher Robert Bell’s new book Love Wins that questions traditional conceptions of Hell.

What I find so remarkable about all of these works, including the Henrietta Lacks’ book, is that they all use the same word – immortality – to talk about quite different concepts. If you look closely, there are at least four different ‘forms of immortality’ that are being discussed:

  1. Physical persistence

This can refer to the persistence of just a small portion of one’s body – as has been the case with Henrietta Lacks’ cervical cancer cells which continue to grow and thrive sixty years after Henrietta’s death.  Or it can refer to the survival of the bulk of our physical identity -or more specifically – that physical part that is most relevant to our identity – the brain. This seems to be the focus of much of the scientific work behind the singularity (Derek Parfit also explores this subject in-depth in Reasons and Persons).  This concept is also a part of some religious conceptions of afterlife, notably the Jewish belief that at the end times, Jews will be physically resurrected (this is the reason why it is against Jewish law to be cremated – a fact I did not learn until after we had cremated my Jewish mother. Oops).

2.   Post-mortem impact

This is another way in which Henrietta Lacks has become immortal. Her extraordinarily hardy cells have provided the crucial research material that has supported a remarkable range of scientific advances – from cures to polio, treatments for cancer, improved understanding of how the human body responds to space travel, etc. In more active form, this type of immortality is something that many of us aspire to regardless of our religious affiliations. We all harbor the hope that we will leave a positive legacy of some sort, whether that be some important professional contribution or just raising exceptionally wonderful children (I appear to be on the latter track right now).

3.   Persistence in the memory of the living

Henrietta Lacks’ story provides an excellent example of why this concept is not identical with the previous one. Although Henrietta Lacks’ life and cells have made an enormous difference for the scientific community and the world, until recently no one connected that impact to the woman herself. Thanks in large part to author Rebecca Skloot’s efforts, now Henrietta Lacks has gained a new form of immortality, as she will now be personally remembered and honored for her contributions.  The NY Times article about Digital Immortality also seems to address this form of afterlife – as people’s lives are preserved digitally in perpetuity to be experienced and remembered by those who did (or didn’t) know them in life.

4.   Continuing consciousness

This is the more traditional religious conception of immortality – that after our body dies, our consciousness is preserved in our spirit/soul which goes somewhere else to reside – Heaven, Hell, or someplace in between. Interestingly, members of the Lacks family “believed Henrietta’s spirit lived on in her cells, controlling the life of anyone who crossed its path”(p.7).  It is certainly within this view of immortality that one is forced to address the issue of reward or punishment for one’s behavior during one’s mortal life.

These four different conceptions of immortality are not mutually exclusive. In fact, taking one of the most obvious examples, Jesus appears to have done an extraordinary job of accomplishing all four forms.  Yet – what I find interesting is the question of which of these forms of immortality really matter to me.  If I had to choose my form of immortality – which one (or ones) would I choose? 

I have to say that the forms of my own immortality that I care about the most are those that probably also matter the most to my secular friends: leaving a positive legacy (#2) and being fondly remembered in the minds and hearts of those who knew me (#3).  Physical persistence (#1) does not seem that appealing to me, unless they get the technology down the point where I could lock in the way I looked at my peak, a la the Twilight series (and I’ve already passed that peak point anyway, so I kind of have to let this option go).  I also am pretty sure I will get to a point where I am willing to let go of my consciousness – a time when I feel I’ve done most of what I came here to do and am ready to rest.  But I will always care about leaving this world just a little bit better for me having been on it. And it is in this way that my faith is crucial – because it is my faith that gives me the strength and resilience to keep trying to make that positive impact. It is my faith that helps me recover when I feel that I’ve royally screwed up. It is my faith that makes me feel like my life has a purpose in the first place. So Amen to Henrietta Lack’s immortality. May her life be a reminder that we all can make a positive impact on the world that may last well beyond our own lives, and that this impact can occur in the most unexpected ways.

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One Response to The Many Forms of Henrietta Lacks’ Immortality

  1. joan says:

    The mystery of immortality is very exciting to me – life’s next great adventure. I do hope that many of my old friends and many new ones will be there to keep the conversations going!

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