Where Do We Go When We Die?</h4>
Do you want to live forever? Could immortality happen in your lifetime? And, just in case life-forever-after isn’t discovered during your years on Earth, then what are you hoping for in the great beyond?
This is Unveiled, and today we’re answering the extraordinary question; where do we go when we die?
Part-way through the twenty-first century, and death is still a certain fact of life. Despite all the efforts made, a true elixir of eternal life just isn’t something that humankind has discovered yet. The numbers are a little sobering. Every year, around sixty million people die. That’s roughly two deaths for every single second that passes. Around 100 people will have died since the beginning of this video. And most of them of the same kinds of things. Of heart disease, of cancers, or in road traffic accidents. On the plus side, life expectancy has generally risen all over the world, as health and medicine practices have improved. But there’s only ever so much that science can do.
In that murky, unknowable time post-dying, that’s where religion comes to the fore. And local legend and mythology. The history of human culture is pinned into place by fables and allegories about what we can expect to happen, what we might expect to feel, and where we can expect to go once this life is over. The Egyptians built pyramids for those deemed the most worthy. The Norse pushed their dead out into the sea to be taken back by the waves. Some cremate to ash, others embalm to preserve forever. And, although all Faiths offer different versions of Heaven and Hell - sometimes slightly different, sometimes dramatically - the idea that there’s a “good” and a “bad” place waiting for us has really caught on. Some envision eternal bliss and a reunion with God, or else unending damnation and the torture of the devil. Theologically speaking, there’s really no right answer here - other than the one that you, yourself, have Faith in.
On the other side, and especially in the years and centuries since the Enlightenment, science has tried its hand at gaining some kind of control over what happens next. In places, it has succeeded. Today we have a near-total, hour-by-hour knowledge of what the physical body of a dead person goes through. From phenomena such as rigor mortis right through to the final grisly moments of rot and decay. Much of what we know comes thanks to so-called body farms, purpose-built facilities at which scientists can study the decomposition of dead bodies in supreme detail and under all sorts of conditions. While controversial and often criticized as disturbing, advocates for these places claim that they’ve contributed a great deal to forensic science and criminology. The original and most high-profile body farm is the University of Tennessee Anthropological Research Facility, in Knoxville, Tennessee. A tour around it, though, would not be for the faint hearted.
Since at least the 1600s, science has wrestled with questions of the mind, as well. Namely, what is it? And where is it? The great (and still ongoing) debate surrounds whether or not the physical brain creates the mind, or whether it actually channels it from some kind of higher, external realm. Science doesn’t yet know the answer. Ever since the Renaissance days of René Descartes, there has been some argument for the brain operating as a kind of connector, a checkpoint, at which a person can sift through all their higher spiritual influence to produce what we recognize as our inner thoughts, emotions, likes and dislikes. Meanwhile, there are those that believe if we could only understand the brain minutely enough, then we should find that, actually, the mind is nothing more than the product of an intricate, physical arrangement of cells and synapses; nerves and blood vessels. One endgame for this way of thinking is the advent of digital consciousness, which has been variously tipped as a coming, near-future technology.
So, according to religion, fable and story, we go to Heaven, Hell, Elysium, the Underworld, Valhalla, we fall into Limbo… we are somehow transported to somewhere else when we die. To somewhere that isn’t Earth, but is presumably still recognizable to us. Do we retain any semblance of a physical body? In Ancient times, there may have been some belief that we would. Embalming and preservation techniques, plus the building of magnificent tombs for some people in some cultures, often filled with important artifacts, all suggests that (when imagining the afterlife) we pictured moving through it much as we do in the here and now. In modern times, that belief is clearly not so widespread. We accept that when we die, our body will disappear either very quickly or quite slowly, depending on the circumstances. So wherever we go when we die, we do so without our physical selves that we know now. So would you be recognizable in the afterlife? Would you recognize the people that you know and love? Often religion doesn’t exactly go into detail here, although the suggestion is that if you’re in Heaven (the good place) then you're happy, so presumably you would still know the people you knew and liked and loved before. On the other hand, if you knew you were in Heaven, then that would imply that you’d also know there was a Hell… so how happy could you ever be with that knowledge inside you? It’s a… difficult question to answer.
From a purely academic perspective, however, the nature of Heaven is really irrelevant. What’s more important is ascertaining whether any part of us really does go anywhere. We took a closer look in another recent video at how some scientists believe that we do at least know when we’re dying. There is some still-indescribable part of us - what many term the soul - that is aware of the finality of what’s happening. Meanwhile, there have been a handful of - mostly contested - experiments to seemingly show that a small weight leaves the body once the person is dead. Urban legend has it that that weight is the soul, departing physical flesh and siphoning off into the ether. But, more generally, this isn’t the line that mainstream science takes. Instead, while the proof for this is contested, as well, the majority lean toward nothingness. The same kind of blank, open void-ness that we all apparently experienced before we were born, or conceived, or even thought about. Yes, by some models, we may well be aware that we’re dying at the moment that we actually do… but after that we’re wholly unaware because we aren’t anything. Really, it’s a rare kind of meeting point where the ambiguities of both science and religion pan out to produce pretty much the same thing - except that science doesn’t generally attach goodness or badness to any of it. Just total and complete nothingness to everything.
Reincarnation is probably the most widely followed alternative model to all the variously spiraling afterlives that just never end. Here, instead, the dead - their soul, or being, or energy - are recast into something else. It could be an animal, a plant, another human being, an alien life form - if your beliefs go that way. It’s most common in Hindu scripture, some Buddhist texts, and in some more new-age, sci-fi concepts - such as “The Egg”, a mind-bending, reality-blurring tale of revelation by Andy Weir. The empirical, scientific evidence, however, is lacking. Perhaps the best that modern research has to offer are various case studies in which someone - usually a young person - seemingly remembers a past life. They might already know people that they’ve never previously met; have knowledge of events that happened before they were born; or, most bizarrely, claim to remember exactly how they last died. The child psychiatrist Jim Tucker is one of the most high-profile names working in the field, perhaps best known for authoring the somewhat controversial 2005 book; “Life Before Life: A Scientific Investigation of Children's Memories of Previous Lives”. The text is billed as the product of forty years worth of research into reincarnation. And, while Tucker concedes that there are no perfect examples, he provides multiple case studies. With some even involving seemingly physical links between the lives of now and before - usually in the form of birthmarks.
Finally, and elsewhere, there’s the (again controversial) practice of past life regression. Although widely discredited and dubbed as a pseudoscience, for those who swear by it it’s an ultra-specific branch of hypnosis and hypnotherapy… through which the subject is able to remember their former selves; the people they were before they became the person they are now. There are even reported cases of people casting their minds back centuries to remember their involvement in historic wars, or their former lives in totally different countries. Or that they were once a high-profile celebrity, only one who had died shortly before they (as they are now) were born. Rather than scientific backing, past life regression has almost universally attracted skepticism. But, nevertheless, in this (and in reincarnation generally) it’s at least easy to see a simple answer to today’s question: when you die, you go to your next life.
All things considered, however, there probably is no simple, catch-all answer to this problem? Religion, science, just plain life offers us plenty of options… but there is no certainty. What do you think is most likely? And what do you hope will take place? Because, for now, that’s where we go when we die.