I remember getting quite cross at university when the Athiest Society took it upon themselves to put up posters quoting the philosopher Bertrand Russell: "When I die I'm food for worms." I took most of them down - they really annoyed me and it became quite a hobby seeking them out and ripping them up. But that's what the whole subject of death has the power to do, it gets you worked up because we all have a personal investment in it. The one thing we all do agree on is that at some stage we are all going to die.
Even among segmented groups of people there is no agreed truth where the after death is concerned. Take witches for example. Some witches believe in reincarnation, others in an afterlife as a final resting place for the soul, yet more in the return of the soul to a communal ether. And some (like dear Mr Russell) believe in nothing at all.
Religion doesn't have the answers either. Most religions tend to agree that the soul doesn't end with death but again they differ wildly from that point. The Catholic idea of Purgatory is at odds with the Protestant definitions of Heaven and Hell. Hinduism believes in reincarnation, Buddhists in achieving Nirvana ( the state of absolute perfection) and Muslims in a tiered hierarchy dependent on individual merit.
There's no real empirical way of knowing what happens after death. The near death experiences of people who have experienced physical death for a brief time can be explained by scientists as being the product of oxygen depletion in the brain. Yet, equally that experience of the white light tunnel could be evidence of transgression to another astral plane. But we don't have enough evidence to PROVE it. No matter how you look at it, if you want to believe in any form of life after death you need to take a leap of faith.
I do believe in life after death. As a witch I work with the spirits of the dead. As a believer in deity I can't conceive of a creation as alive and vital as the human fading to nothing. I just can't imagine it all.....not being. Possibly I'm either too arrogant or too stupid to imagine simply becoming......nothing.
So last year I took it upon myself to seek out some proof that would convince me (maybe not enough hard evidence to convince anyone else but to convince me) that death is the next step of the journey and not the end.
I sought out a respectable practitioner of past life regression therapy and I asked her to transgress me back to my previous lives and specifically the deaths that ended those lives.
We talked through a couple but the one that really convinced me was when I transgressed through my life as a very elderly black woman dying of natural old age in a hot country. I was convinced by this because I was able to experience emotions that I have not lived long enough in this incarnation to understand. I have not yet learned total acceptance of my own mortality, I cannot comprehend as a thirty four year old what it means to be so old that you welcome death as a release from the effort of living. As a young woman this concept is alien to me. But in the regression I felt these emotions acutely, I felt so tired and so very ready to sleep forever. I felt my time on the earth had come to a natural end and I had nothing left to do but close my eyes and fade away. And I welcomed that with a quiet joy that I simply cannot yet get my head round yet in this life.
So in the same way that some people transgress back to previous lives and speak languages they have not spoken in their current life, I experienced emotions I have not learned in my current life. It was a reassuring experience, it took any fear of death away from me and it confirmed to me that I was right to believe that there is more, that death isn't and doesn't have to be the end.
As I suspected would be the case, I learned nothing through my experience that could be used to prove evidence of life after death to others. Psychologists deny regression on the basis that it does nothing but stimulate the sub conscious mind into recall that the conscious mind is unaware of. Scientifically I have no grounds to dispute that. But it doesn't matter. I set out to understand and confirm my belief, to validate in my own mind the leap of faith I have long been prepared to make. And I achieved what I set out to do. And the rest of my life will be spent without fear or dread of death. That's a powerful payoff for daring to investigate the big questions.
To those of you seeking the answers to the big question, I'm afraid I can't offer you any kind of definite conclusion. All I can say is if you want to spend your life doubting you will always find a reason to doubt. If you want the answers - your answers - go out into the world and find them. They might be different answers to the ones I have found but you'll know them when you find then and they will be right for you. In the end that's all that really matters.
image http://www.sxc.hu/photo/1311447 (robbie_m)