This was written to summarise my thoughts on death.
LIFE AFTER DEATH
I was forty two when my father died. Before then, I had lost nobody close to me. The shock was tremendous; the grief awful; but it was the ensuing puzzlement that affected me most.
Nobody warns you that when someone dies you are never, ever going to see, hear, touch or talk to them again in this world. Sitting in a church my father rarely attended but that was nominally his, trying not to focus on the burnished coffin containing his corpse that stood in the aisle, I was haunted by this fact.
The man who had sired me, who had won athletic competitions in his youth, fought and killed people in the war, worked hard and played golf until the day he died, and been loving, compassionate, calculating and cruel, could no longer be said to exist. How was this? How was it that whatever made a person what they were could be extinguished so easily?
I presumed that was not what the rector was saying. Abstruse notions concerning God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit wafted about the nave like so much hot air, but the words made no more sense to me that church homilies had ever done. I simply couldn’t conceive how the question of my father’s possible survival should depend on the nature of his relationship with a mythical figure popularised in the Middle East nearly two thousand years earlier.
The crematorium, with its jerkily automated curtains, piped music and recorded prayers, put any notion of everlasting life depending on such vapid pronouncements firmly in its place. If death was not the end, these rituals were no sacred means for drawing its sting.
The next day, after scattering my father’s ashes, our family member’s went their separate ways. The shock had dissipated. The grief continued, but gradually lessened. Only the puzzlement remained. It gnawed at me; but I carried the burden alone. Whenever I mentioned the subject to others, they rolled their eyes, dismissing the idea of life after death as a flight of fancy, or else a mystery beyond speculation.
For my part, I thought we should have known, with as much certainty as we knew our place on earth, where and in what state our forbears were. Science, which ran the Western world, told us flatly they were in no state at all, that they no longer existed, other than in the memories of those they had known or who knew of them. My father’s body had been reduced to ashes, taking his mind with it. There was no such thing as a soul, so there was nothing that could have survived him.
This was what I had believed, too. It was what a good sized part of me believed still; but I had never had to test my certainty with an actual death before, and I found I was no longer so sure. It bothered me that science might not have got it right – in which case it could hardly have got it more wrong; that the dead did live on, but that we in the West had become increasingly ignorant of this.
EF Schumacher had put the position well, in his A Guide for the Perplexed, when he expressed resentment at being expected to live as if his ancestors:
“…until a quite recent generation, had been rather pathetic illusionists who conducted their lives on the basis of irrational beliefs and absurd superstitions.”
I felt more or less that way now. At any other moment or place in history, if my father had died, I would have known, beyond doubt, what had happened to him. Naturally, since my belief would have depended on the consensus of the society I lived in, it would have differed, often to the point of seeming incompatible, with that of another time and place; but this did not mean I would have believed in any less keenly, or that it need necessarily have been wrong.
I didn’t think my interest in my father’s whereabouts reflected a need to know he was still alive simply so I could avoid having to face up to his, and my eventual, death; rather, it was a wish not to be gulled into accepting annihilation was the human lot, when there were large numbers of people – in fact, the vast majority of the earth’s population – who believed otherwise.
Once, when I had thought of emigrating to Australia, I had written to its High Commission for the relevant papers. Studying them, I learned what the criteria were. The knowledge I gained was easily obtainable and readily verifiable. Nobody denied the existence of Australia; within reason, anybody could go there.
In a similar spirit of enquiry, I now wrote to the major religious bodies, asking what they believed happened to people when they died, where and in what state they considered my father was, and whether I could contact him. I sent copies to a number of others, too – philosophers, scientists, writers on the occult and paranormal. I intended my letter to be taken at face value. I wasn’t in need of spiritual succour: I wanted precise answers to very simple questions.
Of the replies I received, all were revealing, some evasive, others alarmingly specific. So far as the majority was concerned, much depended on the way my father had led his life. The Christian view was simple: if he had been an exceptionally good man, which they defined as allowing Jesus into his heart, he would have gone directly to heaven; but if he had been irredeemably evil, he would be in hell. In both cases, it was his soul that made the transition; and it would only be on the Day of Judgment, due to take place at the end of time, that this would be reunited with his resurrected body. Where he then spent eternity would depend on the nature of the judgment he received.
Protestants and Catholics differed over what would have happened to him if he had been no more than averagely good or evil. The Protestant understanding was that his soul would currently be sleeping, so profoundly he would not be aware of the passage of time, until he woke on Judgment Day. Catholics maintained his soul was now in purgatory, undergoing cleansing.
As with those who went directly to heaven or hell, sleeping souls and souls in purgatory remained bodiless. However, no explanation was given concerning their alternative composition, or that of any future resurrection body they might be reconciled with. Nor was it made clear, as it had been throughout most of Christian history, what would happen to those who were not remotely evil but whose belief in Jesus had lapsed, or who subscribed to some other saviour, or who thought as the scientists did.
The Islamic understanding of what occurred after bodily death was remarkably similar to that of Christians. While there was no equivalent split in their ranks, the same uncertainty prevailed over whether a deep, dreamless sleep, lasting for the rest of time, or a quasi-existence in a Muslim version of purgatory, awaited the vast majority. In exceptional cases, there was thought to be direct access to heaven or hell, though this was obviously dependent on different, specifically Mohammedan principles. As with Christians, surviving souls remained incorporeal until the Day of Judgment, when everyone’s body would be returned to them.
The problem was, not only was the Islamic Allah not the same as the Christian God, in the view of most Muslims allegiance to the latter was tantamount to blasphemy. Ignorance of this, merely from having been born outside the sphere of Islamic influence, was itself bad. Equally catastrophic, it seemed, was being cremated. On all counts, my father failed, and from a Muslim point of view, he was already in an Islamic hell.
The incongruity of my father, along with all non-Muslims from every age, suffering torments in a foreign environment for the remainder of time, was striking; although no more so, I supposed, than the vision of untold numbers of dead Muslims who, on an equally strict reading of the Christian scriptures, would have been suffering similarly in a Biblical hell.
The fact that what had been deemed to happen to those dying earlier in Christendom was considerably more clearly and severely circumscribed then than now begged the question not only of whether souls originally in receipt of what was later thought an inappropriate reward or punishment would have had it curtailed, but whether some form of compensation then became due; and even more pertinently, who decided these things, and on what authority. Exactly the reverse could have been asked of fundamentalist Muslims.
However, it was the shared claim of these two monotheistic movements that we had but a single physical life followed by an eternal spiritual one, the nature of which was largely determined by the way we thought and behaved when on earth; and although there were variations in the way they judged people, broadly speaking socially acceptable ways of operating were thought by both to presage time spent in heaven rather than hell.
All religions, worldwide, acknowledged that the way individuals lived was what determined their after-death state. The major, intractable differences concerned the nature and duration of that state, with Christians and Muslims lined up, for the most part, against Buddhists and Hindus. The idea, central to these Eastern belief systems, that we returned, again and again, often in other than human form and sometimes to different worlds than our own, after each successive death; and that we only escaped from the recurrent cycle through the abnegation of our personalities, was clearly irreconcilable with the resurrection of those personalities to eternal life.
The Buddhist view, as explained to me, was that my father would have been reincarnated within seven weeks of his death; and that during that time, he would have existed, in a discarnate but essentially embodied state, in a ‘bardo’, or dream, world. During those seven weeks, when he might have been contactable, by me, either during sleep or via a medium, he would have retained a full memory of who he was; now, however, he had lost that, forever. Moreover, it was impossible to say who, or what, he had become. He could have been reborn as one of the chickens I had bought several months after his death.
The worst part of this scenario was that my father, having died but survived, would have then had to preside over his own disintegration. At what precise stage in the formation of his new host, whether at conception or birth, fertilisation or germination, he – or whatever was left of him – became one with it, hardly bore thinking about.
The Hindu view was similar. They weren’t so specific about time spent in between rebirths, and there was more leeway given to existences in other realms than earth, and in other forms than the obviously living. There was also more emphasis on the continuity of individuality. Apparently, at each death (there was, unfortunately, no explanation of how a mineral or element might die) an individual’s soul had full remembrance of all previous existences, but then forgot them again as soon as they were reborn. It was considered as difficult to know how to get in touch with someone who was dead but not yet reincarnated as to learn where they eventually went.
Ultimately, the goal for both Hindus and Buddhists – and they would have said, all others, too – was to become liberated from the cycle of reincarnation by returning to ‘the source’. Since this depended on non-attachment to worldly things, sobriety, tolerance, and a profound sense of spirituality, my father, who had loved the material world, sometimes to excess, even if he had been, to my mind, a good and moral man, was clearly destined for an inauspicious future – if, that was, these rules could be considered to hold sway over those of any other (including his own, nominally held) faith.
Oddly enough, I had learned that just as Christians had at one time accepted reincarnation as part of their doctrine, and had only abandoned it on being threatened with excommunication, following an ecumenical council called in the third century AD to present a united front on the issue, so Hindus in their early years – dating from well before the appearance of Christ – had embraced the concept of a single early life followed by resurrection to an eternal spiritual one.
To add to the confusion, other religions had their own ideas on the subject. Adherents of the Bahai faith may have agreed there was life after death, but they didn’t subscribe to either resurrection or reincarnation, preferring to believe in a parallel world running in tandem with this one. Scientologists went along with reincarnation though not resurrection. Mormons thought the opposite, with their criteria for those who hoped to reach the promised land, seemingly intact and contemporarily clothed, pedantically secular. Christian Scientists, Taoists, Sikhs, Jews: all had different, often conflicting views.
The question was, how much of any of this was based on reality? Scientists, and humanists, who looked at the world rationally, which was the antithesis of the way those who promulgated religious belief, thought none at all. They were quite clear about this: there was no evidence for an afterlife, of any sort.
By contrast, the occult understanding, according to a number of my correspondents, was that people who enjoyed supersensory vision simply saw and heard things that the rest of us were deaf and blind to. It was their conviction that such acuity was our natural inheritance, and that modern humans, in particular adult Westerners, had lost familiarity with this to the point of disbelieving they or anyone else – neither their children nor their ancestors – had ever had it.
As the replies to my letters stacked up, I realised there was no way I could trust any single religious view, since they all relied on the suspect authority of mythical figures who claimed to have had direct access to a different version of the same ultimate truth. What I would have liked to hear was something as current and verifiable as the statements of science, but that supported a generalised spiritual outlook within which these differing beliefs could be satisfactorily contained.
Was there such a thing? For a start, did a consensus exist? I thought it probably did. The conflicting issue of reincarnation and resurrection could be set to one side. These events happened, if they happened at all, not after people had died but after they had been dead for some time. Whether that period was seven weeks or recordable history was unimportant. What was important was that all religious groups agreed that humans lived on in some fashion immediately after death.
It struck me as unlikely anyone could continue to exist as the individual they had once been other than in embodied form, since they were expected to be living in places that were so clearly manifest. Every religion, without exception, specified this in their scriptures; and how any of them can have imagined bodiless souls, with none of the senses we take for granted, knowing where they were, never mind carrying on functioning, in after death environments so closely based on the best and worst of earthly conditions, was inexplicable.
After all, for any living person, ever, to have visited ‘the other side’ with sufficient lucidity to recognise and record its details, or for any of the so-called dead to have described it in meaningful terms, it had, at the least, to be apparent.
The explanation possibly lay in the Buddhist understanding of the initial realm of any next world, which other religious groups may have mistakenly construed as that world in its entirety, being virtually the same as the place we visited when we dreamt.
Although we were, strictly speaking, bodiless while dreaming, with our normal means of perception on hold, we could still see, feel, hear and touch. We had senses, but they were insubstantial. This was tantamount to the astral environment of the occultists, who agreed with the Buddhists that access to the next world was open to us all, the living as much as the dead.
I liked the sound of this. It meant, if I discounted the seven week Buddhist cut-off period, which further research had told me was largely symbolic, I might meet my father there. The problem was, I hardly remembered my dreams, those I did remember were rooted in the mundane world, and I seemed to have little choice over who I met during them. The occult explanation for this was that the shallower a dream, the closer it was connected to earthly existence, the more likely I was to recall it; and conversely, the deeper the experience, the more probable I was to be operating in another world, the less chance there would be of me remembering anything.
To make progress, first I had to cultivate the habit of remembering my dreams; then I had to learn to control them. This was also the message from another of my correspondents. ECKANKAR was a religious group that specialised in ‘soul travel’ as a way of purportedly forging links between two worlds. Their members claimed it was possible to live on earth during the day while visiting what they called The Far Country at night; and they maintained this was what most of us did, but without knowing about it. Their literature was mildly persuasive and it struck me, yet again, that if what they were saying was true, and we in the civilised West didn’t recognise it, there could hardly have been an omission of more magnitude.
Backing their contention up were individual, well documented tales from a number of ‘lucid dreamers’ and practitioners of out-of-the-body travel, to the effect that regular journeys were being made to another world by ordinary residents of this one. Writers claimed that they had visited enclaves on this world, of various sizes and in various stages and states of growth or decay, set up by the founders and embellished by the followers of religious and secular groups from earth.
According to these reports, the living made visits to such places when they were asleep or otherwise unconscious, in many cases paying unknowing homage to them while awake, but only ever inhabiting properly once they had died.
The sad part, to my mind, was that each separate settlement, however meagre or grandiose – and I imagined the variously denominated heavens and hells outshining the relatively featureless zones of the sceptics – was alleged to be only a minute and comparatively lowly part of an infinitely vast, many layed, complexly graduated whole; but as often as not, its inhabitants recognised their individual, isolated section as being Ultimate Reality, and their sole location for eternity.
This was more than merely intriguing. It meant my father could have been, might still be, resident in another world that was as near to me now as I was to the other, hidden part of myself in this one. It offered the tantalising prospect I might already have met with him, but not remembered doing so.
The more I delved into the possibility of there being an actual, concurrent other world, rather than the mere hopeful expectation of one in an inordinantly distant future, the more ways of apparently contacting it I discovered.
Spiritualists had their mediums, many of whom, besides receiving messages, were allegedly re-materialising the dead, from these same hidden realms. There were people claiming to be recording on tape the voices, and occasionally images, of the recently deceased. Instances of scrying were taking place, where visitors were supposedly climbing out of mirrors and manifesting in our world, while we – or our astral counterparts – by stepping in the reverse direction, were doing the same in theirs.
Just as ECKANKAR followers had their soul travel, so other groups of inner voyagers existed, one of many being The International Institute of Projectology, originating from Brazil, whose particular area of expertise was "the science of Out of Body Experiences without the imposition of mystical connotations"; and whose senior members taught elaborate methods designed to make participation on such journeys accessible to all.
Perhaps most pertinently, a retired engineer, referred to by more than one of my correspondents, claimed to have come up with a scientific explanation for these and other curiosities. Ron Pearson, in Intelligence behind the Universe, put forward the theory that a universal mind, or primary consciousness – for which I read God, or ‘the source’ – lay at the heart of an invisible, subquantum level of reality whose fine structure mathematics alone was able to comprehend; and that this had created, through an alteration in its vibratory level, the known universe of matter – the world of the materialists – in order to provide an additional environment for itself.
The implication was there were many more alternative worlds than ours, all underlain by the same primary consciousness, and that this, in individual terms, postulated a subatomic inner space of unspecified distance, breadth, depth and duration, in which our minds had preexisted, existed now, and would continue to exist after the death of our bodies.
Specifically, Pearson claimed, as shamen, philosophers and theologians from both East and West had maintained since well before the Christian era, that this inner space – an "all pervading net" – was the only thing that really existed, with the world – or worlds – of matter it had created being ultimately an illusion.
Could any of this have been even remotely true? It was easy to laugh in the face of what looked like little more than pseudoscience by adhering to the notion that nothing was other than it seemed: that there were, in Richard Dawkins’ words, "no energy fields unknown to physics". From an orthodox standpoint, the facts were clear; after all, they were what the Western establishment stood for.
The most unsettling aspect of this was that while making its secular stand, that same establishment largely subscribed to a far more incredible view of the next world than that it ran on parallel lines to our known one, by supporting the existing monolithic churches, whose main contention, as I had heard on the day of my father’s funeral, was that the current state and whereabouts of the dead ultimately depended on their relationship with an historical figure who many scholars claimed had never existed; and that our bodies, and those of our ancestors, would come back to life to prove this, but only at the end of time.
This was, on the face of it and after deeper scrutiny, not something I would have put money on. Yet, I found I couldn’t say the same about the possibility of there being another, less substantial world, as unrecognisable to today’s physics as television and radio would have been to last century’s, existing now, with my father in all likelihood one of its uncountable inhabitants.
What I, and I’m sure millions of others, would have liked more than anything was to have known, indubitably, either that what the churches told us was a distorted, culturally embellished fragment of a singular truth, and that another world did lie around and about us, if we could only learn to recognise it; or that what they promulgated were unmitigated lies, and that we were nothing but the bodies we stood up in.
It distressed me that our society could approach the new millennium, bloated with its own sense of self-importance, convinced it had, or knew how to obtain, answers to everything, happy to proclaim this life was all there was, yet paying lip-service to a moribund belief system that maintained the precise opposite, while dismissing out of hand the inner search that might have revealed so much more than currently met its eye.
Of course, it might also have been a blind alley. Kerry Packer, a man of our time, certainly thought so, after suffering a massive heart attack, when he resolutely maintained:
“I didn’t die for long, but it was enough for me. I’ve been to the other side. Let me tell you, there’s nothing there.”