People believe in a life after death for many reasons. But one ability that makes it very easy for us to do so often goes unnoticed, and that is language itself. Because of the characteristics of the nouns and verbs in English and other languages, we can easily frame the names of the dead as if they were still living and their actions as still taking place.
Ordinary nouns and names show some contrasts—for example, between singular or plural—very clearly through differences in sound or spelling. But they don’t change in any way to distinguish between items that exist and those that don’t. A noun gives us no information about whether a thing exists or not. So we can use nouns and names to refer to objects and people right in front of us (computer) or out of sight (cousin in Chicago) or existing only in our imagination (unicorns) or no longer alive (Abraham Lincoln).
One result is that a sentence such as “Aunt Mary went to college when she was 16” is easy and normal to say regardless of whether Mary is living or not. When we remember the lives of those who have died, we can think and speak of them in literally the same words we used when they were alive. In our imagination and conversation, they easily remain alive-in-the-past-tense.
Sentences explicitly about a person’s death have their own peculiarities. “Aunt Mary is dead” would certainly seem definitive. But the verb is is in the present tense, and the sentence (especially if it is said repeatedly in a ritualistic or grieving fashion) does as much to encourage a sense of her other-worldly continuity as it does to convey her death.
There is also “Aunt Mary died.” Here, Aunt Mary is presented as having done something—she has died—and so, in spite of the meaning of the verb, she may also be presented as going on to do something else. So we can say, with no awkwardness, “Aunt Mary died. She has gone to heaven and continues to watch over us.”
Language is our brilliant tool for speaking and thinking about what may be present or may be absent, may be actual or imaginary. So language serves us handily when it comes to bringing the dead to life.