What happens when we die?

Reader's Digest Editors

Countless people claim to have glimpsed the afterlife in brief near-death experiences. But could the vision be illusory?

“What time has been wasted during man's destiny in the struggle to decide what man’s next world will be like!” said the Irish dramatist Sean O’Casey in 1954. “The keener the effort to find out, the less he knew about the present one he lived in.”

DespiteO’Casey’s disapproval, one cannot help but be a little curious. What will our next world look like? Or is there anything beyond the grave?

The good news is that those who have almost been there and faced death often come back with glowing reviews. In his 729 AD The Ecclesiastical History of the English People, the Venerable

Bede, a theologian, relates the story of a Northumbrian man whose relatives took him for dead: “He came back to life and suddenly sat up—those who were weeping around the body were very upset and ran away. ‘I was guided by a handsome man in a shining robe,’ he said. ‘When we reached the top of a wall, there was a wide and pleasant meadow, with light flooding in that seemed brighter than daylight or the midday sun. I was very reluctant to leave, for I was enraptured by the place’s pleasantness and beauty and by the company I saw there. From now on I must live in a completely different way.’”

The man soon abandoned all of his worldly ties and entered a monastery.

 

The brilliant white light

after death

Not everyone who survives what has come to be called a near-death experience, or NDE, enters a monastery. But judging from the blossoming of current literature on NDEs, the story that the Bede related is hardly unique.

Raymond Moody’s 1975 bestseller Life After Life tells of the 15 most frequent experiences among 150 people surveyed who had come back from the brink of death. Among these were feelings of peace and quiet and the awareness of a being of light that the person was drawn toward—a light that often represented love and knowledge in its purest form.

“This white light began to infiltrate my consciousness,” says Jayne Smith in her video A Moment of Truth. “It came into me. It seemed I went out into it. I expanded into it as it came into my field of consciousness. There was nothing I was aware of except the brilliant white light. The light brought with it the most incredible feeling of total love, total safety, total protection.”

Bestsellers, including Betty Eadie’s Embraced by the Light (1992), tell a similar story, and mention a new awareness of the beauty of life after returning from a head-on encounter with death. Eadie and others also maintain that they no longer feared death after returning from their experience.

"There was nothing I was aware of except the brilliant white light"

The fascination with near-death experiences is understandable, given that NDEs are only one embodiment of the human need to confront and make sense of the inevitability of death. Another, reincarnation, has been a part of cultures and religions since time immemorial. Modern preoccupations with reincarnation have been rekindled by highly publicised hypnotic regressions to past lives, starting with the Bridey Murphy case of the 1950s. (In hypnosis sessions over the course of a year, a young Wisconsin woman, Virginia Tighe, revealed that in a previous life she had been an Irish girl named Bridey Murphy. A number of extremely obscure facts that she could not have known from normal sources were proved accurate.)

More recently, the famous have not shied away from professing a belief in reincarnation—most notably, the actress Shirley MacLaine, author of Dancing in the Light and other books that tell of her past lives. The books of James Van Praagh, who claims to be able to communicate with the dead, are another addition to the bestseller lists; one bears the hopeful title, Talking to Heaven. The huge sales of such books speak to the deep need humanity has to believe that we exist in some form after death.

 

The sceptic's view

what happens when we die

Despite all these reassuring visions of the life to come, some critics deny that the near-death experience has any spiritual reality. The British psychologist Dr. Susan Blackmore, of the Brain and Perception Laboratory at Bristol University in England, has argued in her book Dying to Live: Near-Death Experiences (1993) that the long tunnel with the bright light at the end is nothing more than the natural result of the brain being denied oxygen at death, causing nerve cells to fire randomly in the eye and providing the illusion of a bright white light.

Other researchers insist that the blissful feelings of an NDE are produced by nothing more than a quick jolt of the body’s natural, chemical defence mechanism against pain—endorphins.

The one sure thing about life after death is that we probably will never know what it is like on this side of the grave. Those fearful should take comfort that in the last century, all religions seem to be moving gently away from the concept of eternal hellfire and brimstone for the unrepentant sinner.

There are still honest differences of opinion, though, between Eastern and Western visions of the afterlife. Eastern religions tend to believe in reincarnation until one reaches the state of Nirvana, or nonbeing; Western Christianity tends to argue for a single existence, with one’s chances for life afterwards based on one’s behaviour here on earth.

Then there are those who have tried to put a less sombre face on our earthly end—among them, transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau. While on his deathbed, Thoreau was asked by the abolitionist Parker Pillsbury whether he believed in an afterlife—to which Thoreau exclaimed, “Oh, one world at a time!”