What happens when you die?

If you’re not spiritually-inclined, death is just a moment in time. You’re alive and then, a moment later, you’re dead. There is a cessation of all that makes us physically alive: we stop breathing, our blood circulation halts and finally our brain activity flat-lines — we are deceased.

And medically speaking that is true. Your time is up; the grains of sand have emptied and the ticking has ceased.

On the other hand, if you believe in some kind of soul, something beyond the world that we can see and measure scientifically, death is more of a way-point on your travels.  You might believe that heaven awaits, or that your soul takes a little trip before returning back to the physical realm, but it doesn’t really matter: you believe that death isn’t the end of your story.

What we really have to do is define ‘death’, a task that many people would claim is very easy: it’s body death; a flat line on both the ECG (heart) and EEG (brain) machines. Someone whispers into our ear or shines a light into our eyes and there is no response, no reflex — that’s body death. But then why are there billions of people that believe that we’re not actually dead, that our soul has simply left the building in search of other stomping grounds or greener pastures? Death is meant to be the end! And it is for every other animal and plant in the world! Why does it have to be so tricky when it comes to humans, why do we persist in refuting death? Why do we insist that we ‘live on’?

Maybe, just possibly, there’s something to it. Perhaps there is a soul. Perhaps body death isn’t the end! What if we are just poorly-equipped to define ‘death’ scientifically? What if science simply refuses, by definition, to acknowledge something that is impossible to measure and define?

But then why is more than half of Earth’s population so strongly opposed to the finality of death? Why, for thousands of years, have we tried to define life after death? For millennia we have struggled to elucidate what really goes on after death as we traverse the great unknown — and curiously, after 6,000 years of modern civilisation, we still don’t even know how to get there! Attaining spiritual immortality in ancient history and religion reads like a hilarious list of scatter-gun, maybe-this-will-work approaches. First, right at the cusp of recorded history, there were deified statues and bloody rituals. Then with the first great civilisations we had burial rites and coins on our eyelids to ensure our safe passage into the afterlife. The Dark Ages saw a change from polytheism to monotheism and it became more about repentance, seeking forgiveness for our sins and regimented worship. Finally, with the Middle Ages and the glorious, opulent lives of feudal nobility and merchant oligarchies, immortality could be obtained by paying someone that’s close enough to an Almighty Being — i.e. buy some new stained-glass windows and you’re in.

The problem is: they can’t all be right. Is obtaining life after death simply a matter of mentally flagellating or prostrating yourself before the eyes of a suitably-powerful deity? Almost all religions claim that that they are correct and infallible, their scriptures often divined or prophesied from a god. They don’t all claim that other religions are false but most do — my god is more goddy than yours! — which causes a little problem: who’s right? Are they all right? Or, as I’m inclined to believe, are they all wrong? I won’t turn this into a theological discussion, but I do want to work out which religion got it right because the concept of everlasting life must be pretty enthralling if five billion people want to believe in it.

In fact, the concept that we might simply cease to exist, both body and soul (if it exists!), is a relatively new concept. An enlightened concept that we’ve been scared of acknowledging all along, just in case it’s true. We’ve finally arrived back at the stage where challenging or disproving religion doesn’t end up with you being burnt at the stake. We’re finally at the point where we can question our existence in this universe with some semblance of objectivity. Pure and absolute rationality is still a little way off — maybe quantum mechanics has the real answers? — but we can still revisit with a critical eye, unfettered by either dogma or tradition, the concept of allaying or postponing our ultimate death.

Science has gone a long way to explaining many things we’ve historically considered ‘magical’ or ‘miraculous’ but there are still many unknowns. There are a whole slew of phenomena that can be explained by the existence of a ‘spiritual universe’ too — in fact, it’s a very good way of explaining away almost anything that remains a mystery to us. Eventually though — and this is guaranteed — someone will get to the bottom of near-death experiences and the continued consciousness that people experience throughout brain death. In a truly ‘eureka!’ moment a scientist will discover exactly what happens, if anything, when we die.

It’ll feel like the unravelling of the greatest of magic tricks: one of the few remaining mysteries of human existence ripped apart and laid bare for all to see. And then, like all exploited magic — or technology — it’ll just become a ubiquitous part of everyday life: if we do have souls, we’ll make glorious plans for the afterlife; if we don’t we’ll be able to finally stop wasting our time trying to earn and validate our ticket to the afterlife.

I hope people won’t be too disappointed when they find out that all those years of prayer and sacrifice and unwavering belief were for nothing. The Norse and Greek had the right idea: perform amazing deeds of strength and bravery, kindness and mercy. Achieve immortality through renown alone. Of course, they also knew that if any gods just happened to be watching they were hitting two birds with one stone.

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Sebastian

I am a tall, hairy, British writer who blogs about technology, photography, travel, and whatever else catches my eye.

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