What happens after we die? It’s the question that I think everyone has pondered at one time or another. Yet, it’s a tough one to answer. It’s not like you can easily gather evidence. There isn’t exactly a steady stream of people that we can ask about life after death and it’s not anything you want to try out.
We can look to our churches and holy texts to see what they have to say. Most would say that there is some kind of afterlife, and that there is a spirit that lives on in some form or another, but they are pretty light on the details.
Luckily, as medical technology has advanced, doctors are beginning to bring more and more people back from death’s door. Some of them are actually “clinically” dead (ie – without a steady heartbeat) before being brought back. What would they say from their experience being nearly-dead and would their stories match?
That’s the question that Dr. Raymond Moody set out to study in his now classic book Life After Life. He collected the stories of hundreds of Near Death Experience (NDE) survivors and published them in a book along with his analysis. What he found is that even though the people and the cause of their near-death varied, their actual experiences while “dead” were surprisingly similar.
Almost all of the people he studied went through a variation of the following “stages” in their NDE roughly in this order:
- Hearing the News – Many report hearing doctors or accident spectators pronounce them dead and later (after being resuscitated) are able to repeat the exact words back.
- Feeling Peaceful – Even though many of the stories he collected were gruesome car accidents or war wounds, the people who experienced them described their first feeling as that of peace and comfort.
- The Noise – After dying, many report hearing a noise that’s most often described as a ringing or buzzing. Sometimes it takes the form of bells or something more musical.
- The Dark Tunnel – After hearing the noise, many recall being pulled through into a dark tunnel.
- Out of Body – Throughout the experience, they describe being out of their body and seeing it on the operating table or still behind the wheel of the crashed car.
- Meeting Others – Many report seeing other people such as departed family members or old deceased friends.
- Being of Light – They recall meeting a “being of light” that takes many forms (depending on a person’s religious background) and who communicates with them in a non-verbal way usually asking them to say what they had done with their life and if they were ready to die.
- The Review – After seeing the being of light, they report seeing something akin to a slideshow of their lives starting from when they were young to the present.
- Effect on Lives – After coming back to life, many report being forever changed and seeing life as deeper and more precious. They also emphasize trying to be as loving as possible to the people they interact with.
The most startling aspect of these stages is how similar they are across individuals regardless of race, geography, ethnicity or religious belief. According to the International Association for Near-Death Studies (IANDS):
No significant correlation has been found between religious beliefs and the likelihood or depth of the near-death experience. No significant correlation has been found between age, race, sexual orientation, economic status and the likelihood, content or depth of the near-death experience.
So NDEs know no cultural boundaries though some stories are more fantastic than others.
One classic NDE story that adds validity to the out of body stage is that of “Maria’s Shoe” as described by the IANDS:
Kimberly Clark Sharp (1995) was a social worker in Harborview Hospital in Seattle when Maria was brought in unconscious from cardiac arrest. Sharp visited her the following day in a hospital room, at which point Maria described leaving her body and floating above the hospital. Desperate to prove that she had in fact left her body and was not crazy, she described seeing a worn dark blue tennis shoe on the ledge outside a window on the far side of the hospital. Not believing her but wanting to help, Sharp checked the ledge by pressing her face against the sealed windows and found a shoe that perfectly matched the details Maria had related
So what can we learn from Dr. Moody’s research? The first is that even though it was published over 25 years ago it has yet to be shot down by newer research. If nothing else, further research from groups like the IANDS has helped support it.
That said, there are competing theories, such as a neurological one which states that a dying brain starved of oxygen will formulate a tunnel, show beings of light, and life reviews as coping mechanisms. The problem with this theory is that it does not explain how people report NDE’s even when their brain’s are healthy such as during childbirth and some accidents.
For those looking for some evidence of what happens after we die, this book is a great place to start. For those who have recently lost a loved one or fear death themselves, the stories of NDEs provide a measure of comfort.
Yet not to thine eternal resting-place
Shalt thou retire alone, nor couldst thou wish
Couch more magnificent. Thou shalt lie down
With patriarchs of the infant world,—with kings,
The powerful of the earth,—the wise, the good,
Fair forms, and hoary seers of ages past,
All in one mighty sepulchre.
-William Cullen Bryant, Thanatopsis