When I began to reflect on the subject of the “Hereafter” almost immediately an image of Arty Johnson and Ruth Buzzi flashed through my mind. In an ongoing skit on the Rowan and Martin Laugh-in back in the late ’60s, Arty Johnson would sidle up to Ruth Buzzi on a park bench and ask, “do you believe in the hereafter?” Then tell her “well you know what I’m here after.”
It still makes me smile although over fifty years later the concept of the hereafter has assumed a more serious tonality. Recently I was reading Carl Jung’s Memories, Dreams and Reflections and he posed the idea that everyone should have a death myth. This led to a contemplation on what is mine? Then further into asking a series of friends what their conception of life after death was.
Growing up as an evangelical Baptist I was familiar with the three level universe of many traditional religions – the earth, heaven above and hell down below. To my parents this concept was God’s truth and an undeniable fact. After emergence from a state of atheism to perhaps a belief in the unknowable or mystery, I identified with a number of different concepts for life after death.
For twenty-years I felt quite convinced I was a spiritual being having human experience and my soul together with much of my consciousness would transcend the death of the body. I still find it a lovely concept but perhaps too self-serving. Reading Juval Noah Harari’s Sapiens, an exploration of the amazing journey of our species, left me questioning my concept of Soul.
I wanted to assure myself there was nothing to fear from death and an exploration of a number of different possibilities has satisfied me that there is nothing of concern. Recently I identified four alternative scenarios that I could face when the grim reaper calls.
The first would be nothingness; the body dies and it is over. The elements of the body return to earth either through burial or perhaps unfortunately contributing to global warming if one is cremated.
The second would be reincarnation which I embraced for many years. The concepts of Karma and returning to try again seems exquisitely fair and particularly satisfying when one considers the destiny of certain world leaders not to be named. Yet it seems to me to be an all too human a construct and I couldn’t account for reincarnation and a rapidly increasing population? We can’t have all had past lives as Cleopatra or Henry VIII.
The third is based on Einstein’s concept that energy is neither created or destroyed and that at the moment of death the vitality and energy that differentiates life from death is released back into the ether. (Two friends of mine independently witnessed a light leaving the body of one’s mother as she passed.) My brother-in-law likens it to an iceberg melting back into the ocean. What that ocean may be is part of the mystery that I don’t think we get to fully understand while in a body.
The fourth was that energy and consciousness survive the body. Some of my friends absolutely identify with the survival of the spirits of dead loved ones. Reading Evidence of the Afterlife: The Science of Near-Death Experiences by Jeffery Long is convincing that at the moment of death consciousness is still present. However this concept is another that seems too likely an aspect of our very human desire to preserve our loved ones and to believe that they continue in a another form.
Out of my dialogue with friends there emerged another concept that resonated with me the most. It is a combination of two of the above. That at transition there is still a degree of personal consciousness that is attached to the energy that leaves the body but it likely dissipates over time. Perhaps rapidly for some and longer for others. This would explain the sense of presence many have felt after the death of a loved one. It would also fit with near death experiences and perhaps the existence of ghosts.
My sense is that there is absolutely nothing to fear other than the challenge the ego has to let go. I believe that the more comfortable we are with the idea of death, the less of a struggle it may be. So perhaps Jung’s observation “Life is a short pause between two great mysteries. Beware of those who offer answers.” is all that really matters as we can never really know the truth about the mystery of death while we still live. Our opportunity is to live this one life as fully as we can.
NB: For those interested in this subject The Institute of Noetic Sciences is conducting a survey on what happens when you die – see https://noetic.org/blog/what-survives-death-study/