Will We Survive Death?

A few years ago, my brother died suddenly. At the funeral, I sat a few feet away from the open casket containing my brother’s body. This did not upset me because I kept thinking “THAT is not my brother. My brother was his spirit and personality and surely that must still exist somewhere.” This is what I want to believe. 

My sister, on the other hand, believes that everything about a person ends at death and she is okay with that. Most people’s beliefs about an afterlife fit within these two opposing ideas.

Often, we are so busy living, that we don’t think about our mortality. We distract ourselves with entertainment, food, romance, sex, making money, sports, adventure, fame, our obsessions and passions, or just getting by day by day. We do this as often and for as long as we can because we all know that the day is coming when all we have in the here and now will end.

Facing our mortality is frightening. Most people cannot accept it.

Even people, who are fully committed to a religion that promises them eternity in heaven, are often terrified of death.

Everybody wants to go to heaven, but no one wants to go RIGHT NOW.

Photo by Francesco Ungaro from Pexels

I like being alive; even the bad parts of life contribute to my overall appreciation of life. Some of the worst things in my life led to the best things. 

I enjoy the roller coaster of life. I like all the things my senses can detect: birdsong, the smell of flowers or freshly baked bread, the softness of my cat’s fur, sunsets and puffy white clouds in the sky. I don’t want to give this life up.

Unless a person’s suffering is so bad that their only hope is that death will end it, they cling to life. While some people choose death over a life of suffering, others will endure terrible suffering and struggle to keep hold of this life. Perhaps the desire to hold onto life stems from the uncertainty of life after life.

Humans have struggled against the idea of mortality and the end of existence from the earliest times. Most people find it difficult to imagine an end to their existence. Many find the idea frightening. The loss of our personhood, our existence is something few can accept.

The belief in an afterlife is ancient.

Most ancient religions or cultures recognized an afterlife. The practice of burying the dead dates to early man and the practice of burying objects with the dead for use in the next life is also many thousands of years old.

According to China.org., burying objects with the dead is an ancient practice: “It was thought that when people died they would live in the nether world in much the same manner as they had lived in this worldly world and thus would need their working tools, daily necessities and beloved playthings.”

In general, the Sumerians, who are recognized as the first civilization, believed the dead entered a netherworld that was an unpleasant version of life: miserable, dark and dreary, and there was no way out. One ancient Sumerian text, the Epic of Gilgamesh, contains major themes about death and eternal life. Gilgamesh sought eternal life so that he would not return to dust like his dead friend Enkidu. He did not want to cease to exist or be forgotten. Utnapishtim tells him about a plant that can restore his youth and where to find it. Yet when Gilgamesh acquires the plant after much effort, he carelessly loses it to a serpent. He could not receive eternal life like Utnapishtim had been granted, but he with the plant would have had a second chance at life by returning to his youth. It wasn’t that Gilgamesh feared death, but that he didn’t want to leave life as he knew it.

According to Ancient Pages, the earliest Egyptians believed humans had three spirits: ba and ka, as well as akh. The ba hovered over the body and “symbolized a person’s personality traits.” The ka was the soul which left the body upon death and entered the afterlife. The akh was the transformed spirit “that survived death and was capable of coming into contact with the living and associated with the gods.” Both wealthy and poor Egyptians were buried with personal goods for use in the afterlife. Egyptians workers spent their lives building the pyramids for the burial of the Pharaohs to aid them on their journey to the afterlife. Life was preparation for death.

Early religions of the Indus Valley also believed in an afterlife. They, too, buried the dead with personal items and utensils for the afterlife.

The ancient Greeks and Romans believed the nether world contained the Roman versions of heaven and hell: the fields of Elysium, the plain of Asphodel, or the dreaded Tartarus. Heroes like Achilles occupied Elysium, commoners resided in low rent Asphodel, and the evil were condemned to Tartarus.

Buddhism teach that death is not the end; rather it teaches that “death is not the end of life, it is merely the end of the body we inhabit in this life, but our spirit will still remain and seek out … a new body and new life” (Tang).

According to Swami Adiswarananda, Hinduism teaches that the soul separates from the body which leads to the death of the body and then the soul enters another body related to its consciousness. The soul experiences a cycle of death and rebirth called “samsara.”

All the major world religions feature beliefs of one kind or another about life after death. The question is: Do the thousands of years long traditions of belief in an afterlife prove that it exists or is it merely proof that humans want to believe it is true?

According to Swami Adiswarananda, Hinduism teaches that the soul separates from the body which leads to the death of the body and then the soul enters another body related to its consciousness. The soul experiences a cycle of death and rebirth called “samsara.”

All the major world religions feature beliefs of one kind or another about life after death. The question is: Do the thousands of years long traditions of belief in an afterlife prove that it exists or is it merely proof that humans want to believe it is true?

Popular culture is filled with examples of our obsession with death and the afterlife. Such novels as Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones, or Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life, or George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo offer versions of an afterlife. Hollywood has produced hundreds of films about the continuance of life after death. For example: What Dreams May Come (1998), Heaven is for Real (2014), and Ghost (1990). Television has gotten in on the game with NBC’s The Good Place which depicts an unexpected version of an afterlife.

Nonfiction books about near-death experiences or accounts of people who have clinically died and come back to life abound. Some authors argue that science proves the existence of an afterlife touting stories of individual near-death experiences. A quick search for evidence proving life after death produces volumes arguing for its existence using logic, personal experience, religion, or science. There’s Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey Into the Afterlife by Eben Alexander and Touching Heaven: A Cardiologist’s Encounters with Death and Living Proof of an Afterlife if you want a medical view of life after death. Or there is the religious version: Heaven is for Real: A Little Boy’s Astounding Story of His Trip to Heaven and Back

These books are best sellers because the topic is of intense interest to all who want proof of life after death. We all want to believe that there is more, that this isn’t all there is.

Modern skeptics reject the idea that consciousness continues after the death of the body. Author Michael Shemer wrote Heavens on Earth: The Scientific Search for the Afterlife, Immortality, and Utopia to examine scientifically and disprove the possibility of an afterlife. He counterargues a variety of arguments in support of the existence of life after death. He concludes that when the brain dies, the “person” ceases to exist, that the brain is the soul and the soul cannot live if the brain dies. In spite of arguments against it, 32% of American atheists and agnostics believe in an afterlife according to a study by The Austin Institute for the Study of Family and Culture (AISFC).

Like Gilgamesh, the idea that we cease to exist after death is our worst fear. No one wants to die and be forgotten as if they had never existed. People want to leave something behind to be certain that they and their lives are not forgotten.

Humans leave behind physical evidence of their lives and their work: 

  • the human handprints alongside the 25,000-year-old Lascaux cave paintings 
  • the ancient ruins of buildings, statues, and cities built by lost civilizations as well as works of art and literature such as:
  • the clay tablets and ziggurats of the ancient Sumerians 
  • the graves of Chinese Emperors, 
  • Egyptian and South American mummies and pyramids 

These all prove a people existed. However, this is not the kind of life after death we seek. We want to personally exist to live and love and enjoy the world whether it is this one or another.

So, a modern man tries to cheat death. 

Scientists hope to use technology to guarantee life after death. The “ghost in the machine” is the upload of one’s “mind” from a dying body and digitally downloading it into a new, healthy body or machine to guarantee the mind/consciousness of the person will continue living in a new “shell.” 

Though the body decays, the personality, spirit, knowledge, consciousness can be reduced to code and transferred to a better body and the “person” lives on in a new body or in a machine as it does in the 2014 film Transcendence, where Johnny Depp’s character dies, but not before his mind and personality is uploaded into a computer program. However, much like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the moral of the story is to be careful what you create.

Another scientific method for cheating death is to be cryogenically frozen in hopes that future scientists will discover a cure for your disease and you can be revived and healed and continue to live. Organizations like the Neural Archives Foundation operated by former biomedical researcher Philip Rhoades exist to preserve a person’s body through freezing. If the body cannot be cured, the organization’s hope is that future scientists can reanimate the brain, decode it and upload it into an artificial body.

How many people would be willing to relinquish their body if their “self” survives death?

No one alive today knows for certain whether there is an afterlife. I choose to believe that there is something more. I have read the arguments against it, but I choose to believe in the existence of an afterlife anyway. What can it hurt?

What do you believe? Will we survive death or not?

Adiswarananda, Swami. “Facing the Restless Mind — Part 1.” Vedanta Society of Southern California, 1 Aug. 2009, vedanta.org/2009/monthly-readings/facing-the-restless-mind-part-1/.

Bernstein, Evan. “Survey: 32% of Atheists & Agnostics Believe in an Afterlife.” Survey: 32% of Atheists & Agnostics Believe in an Afterlife, The Skeptics Guide to the Universe, 6 Jan. 2015, www.theskepticsguide.org/one-third-of-atheists-agnostics-believe-in-an-afterlife.

“Burial of Sacrificial Objects with the Dead.” Ethnic Groups, China.org, 2004, www.china.org.cn/english/features/atam/115026.htm.

“Death And Afterlife In Ancient Egyptian Beliefs — Death As Transition To Another Reality.” Ancient Pages, Ancient Pages, 27 May 2018, www.ancientpages.com/2018/05/28/death-and-afterlife-in-ancient-egyptian-beliefs-death-as-transition-to-another-reality/.

Tang, Thich Nguyen. “Buddhist View on Death and Rebirth.” A Buddhist Approach to Patient Health Care — Kusala Bhikshu, 1999, www.urbandharma.org/udharma5/viewdeath.html.

Life isn’t easy, but I wouldn’t trade it for the alternative. I have lived many lives in my lifetime and intend to live many more. Visit Laura at .
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Life isn’t easy, but I wouldn’t trade it for the alternative. I have lived many lives in my lifetime and intend to live many more. Visit Laura at .

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