Are You Dead When You’re Dead?

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How we feel, believe or think about what happens to us after we die matters. It matters because our thoughts about the after-life often effect how we react too and live in the present.

If one believes that their physical reality and what they see, feel and experience with their senses is all that exists, then the thought of its termination and our bodies decline may be frightening, if not down right terrifying. If someone’s faith tells them there is something that continues beyond the known physical realities of the world or takes them to a place of peace and happiness, they may be less inclined to fear their own mortality or that of others.

Both ideas and beliefs, that something continues beyond death and that nothing does, may also help us live more in the moment and appreciate the short, precarious lives we live or create continuing anxiety about how things are or where we would rather be.

The reason the word may is italicized, is because there is no omniscient law of nature, physics or human response, that such beliefs in life after death or solely in the material world, causes only those stated or expected reactions. We are far more infinite than the stars in our complicated, yet simple, desire for understanding, comfort and reassurance about the unknown and what happens to us after we die.

When I was a teen, I used to believe strongly in reincarnation. At the time, it made sense. As I grew older my beliefs shifted from Yoga and Eastern traditions to Quaker activism and social responsibility. Then it changed again and again, from the Catholic Church to Judaism and from Eastern Buddhist belief in transgression and karma, to natures continual recycling of all forms of matter, including human beings. Whatever I was practicing or following at the time, was my reality. Each exploration into the afterlife or spiritual nature of humanity gave me some answers and experiences I could hold onto, make sense of and say, “This is it! This is the truth! This is what happens!”

In my early work with hospice and later as a chaplain at the hospital, I met a number of people who had been clinically dead and revived or resuscitated. After hearing their stories and reading research that had been done with thousands of others who had had similar experiences around the world, I “knew” that some part of our consciousness or awareness as human beings (at least in the first few minutes) continues.

Most recently, after my acquaintances with a number of people whose cultural background and/or religious practices, has worshiped and spoken with deceased ancestors, I have begun to send blessings to and bring into the present, those in my family who have preceded me into death.

Because of my work as a grief counselor I have been granted the opportunity to explore the question of life after death with many people. Here are some of the answers, thoughts and beliefs that have been shared.

“Those who believe will find everlasting peace with Jesus and the Saints.”

“God is the only answer. I know they are with God.”

“My loved one always felt at home by the sea. When we scattered their ashes in the bay, it felt like he had been buried in his church.”

“As a Tibetan Buddhist, I know my wife went through different Bardos (spiritual worlds) and gained enlightenment. She is such a compassionate loving being.”

“When we’re dead, we’re just dead. There’s nothing more and nothing less. That’s why it’s so important what we do while we are living.”

“I believe there’s a white light and the peace and joy are indescribable.”

“The bible tells me there is heaven and hell. I hope I’ve lived a good life and go to heaven. I know my son is there waiting for me.”

“My sister has come to me several times and told me she’s alright. I have no doubt that she’ll be there to meet me when it’s my time.”

“The Lord is the way, the truth and the light. I will be with my Lord Jesus.”

“Maybe I’ll see my parents when I die, but I don’t know. I tend to believe that something better is waiting, that there’s something more than this, but I couldn’t say for sure.”

“It’s all chaos. There is no rhyme or reason. I have no idea what will happen after I die.”

What’s your experience been? What do you think happens after we die? What have you been told? What does your family believe? What does your religion teach you? What do scientists propose? How has the media portrayed the after-life? Is death less frightening because of your beliefs? Do you think anybody “really” knows before they die what happens after we stop breathing? How does your belief or thoughts about life after death effect how you live your life now? Does it matter?

3 Comments
  1. Dan Sutton says

    I actually think we just cease to exist: there’s certainly no proof that we don’t, and while it’s nice to imagine that we continue in some way, I’m definitely not basing my life on it, or feeling “comfortable” about my own death because it could happen.

    There is a method, through physics, which is almost believable in terms of sustaining some kind of afterlife: briefly, since our brains output organized, electromagnetic energy all the time, and since we don’t know what 70% of our brain is used for, it is possible to theorize that brains can also be affected by this energy (in which case we have a network) and that there’s enough spare/unclassified brain mass out there to run the important parts, at least, of all the consciousnesses of all the people who have ever existed.

    This is an interesting theory because if we also hypothesize that this neural mass can impinge its own thoughts into our conscious minds, we can explain many things such as precognition, ghost sightings, etc. as the group consciousness making its impressions/memories/wishes/ known to individuals who happen to be in the right place at the right time to receive it: for example, in the case of people seeing Roman soldiers march across a road at some certain point in England (this apparently happens), this would be the group mind saying, “Hey – look what happened here!”

    But I’m not basing my life on this, or betting that it exists to the point that I’ll abrogate responsibility for my own survival, and I certainly don’t claim to believe any of it: it’s simply a possible mechanism for an afterlife which doesn’t involve having to think up a deity or some other supernatural entity to make it happen.

    In terms of what happens after death, I’m aiming never to have to find out: I do think that this current generation has come into existence at the right time for such things as nanotechnology and bioengineering to be, by the time we should be dead or dying, biologically speaking, capable of prolonging our lives past the natural point of that eventuality. Consider that the average human lifespan has doubled in the past century, and that the interesting stuff has really yet to happen… although we can see inklings of it — just last month, for example, it was announced that scientists have managed to reverse the ageing process in rats – at least partially.

    Of course, if one were to become biologically immortal (by which I mean, one would no longer be prone to the ageing process) then one would pretty much be guaranteed, in an infinite lifespan, to die a violent death… on the other hand, if the ability should be discovered, at some future time, to back one’s self up, or even to integrate into a larger, shared, digital living space, then physical death itself would not necessarily need to be the end of all things.

    At this point, none of us can be sure what will happen in this regard; I do feel, however, that it is more positive to put one’s faith and effort into following such a path, rather than simply accepting the inevitability of death and praying to some imagined creator as a kind of palliative measure to make it all acceptable.

    Hmmm…

  2. Michael Bashista says

    It really doesn’t matter. I only know what is now, from my own pov. To live clearly and compassionately and appreciate the wonder and fulfillment of this life.

  3. Jack Eason says

    There is only one species (man) here on earth who somehow believes he is above all other living things and who, to justify his existence, feels he owes his very being to some form of higher authority.

    Just how conceited can we be?

    Who knows why we are all here on this planet?

    Does it really matter?

    Surely the whole point of our species, just like all other species, is to continue, but don’t ask me why. I’m only a mere mortal…

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