We all avoid thinking about it or talking about it because it's unknown and scary. But there's something about winter that makes me think more about death than other times of the year. During winter, the world seems cold and dead, as nature hibernates and cold weather takes over. Statistically, humans are more likely to die during the winter than at any other time, probably because of increased flu viruses but also I think because of the lack of light, warmth, and hope as cold dreary days pile on top of each other.
There's also something to be said about the Coronavirus epidemic, which has made all of us feel just a bit more mortal, knowing that there's even the teeniest chance that we could get deathly ill and pass away hooked up to a respirator. My thoughts and prayers go out to anybody reading this who has lost someone during this pandemic. The funny thing about death is how it motivates us to appreciate life much more.
The Pixar movie Soul came out this winter, and it's a fitting study of death, birth, and all of life's important questions. Funny we would rely on an animated feature to help us appreciate life, but that is what Soul was all about. In the movie, Joe, a middle aged musician, dies suddenly and tries to escape death because he feels like he didn't live up to his promise as a great jazz musician. An hour later, after hilarious subplots involving a cat and an unborn soul, Joe realizes how precious life was and how little he knew the people around him. He is given a rare second chance at life and learns to marvel at the small things and not stress so much about his unrealized career.
The thing that really got my thoughts moving this winter was a Netflix documentary, Surviving Death, which covered research from a paranormal researcher Leslie Kean. (There is a also a book from 2017 that I've put on my list to check out.) The documentary covers many fascinating topics regarding death and a possible after-life, using scientific research and testimonies from people who have experienced both. Like most people, I have a lot of questions regarding death.
- Do we have any influence over when we die?
- Does some part of us live on after the moment of death, and what happens to our memories?
- Do we meet people we knew who passed on before we did in the after-life?
- Is there karma or a reckoning for those who cause misery while alive? Or reward for people who do good during their lives?
- Can the dead communicate with the living?
- Can the dead reincarnate into new lives and what's the ultimate goal there?
Full disclosure- I am not an atheist, nor am I particularly religious, but I try to keep an open mind on the supernatural, even though I realize there could be a lot of fakers out there and my intense desire for there to be a life after death could cloud my judgement about what the reality is.
Surviving Death covers five fascinating phenomena in six episodes, and it raises a lot of questions that tug at the skeptic in all of us. The three sections that most affected me were about near-death experiences, signs from the dead, and reincarnation. The two that made me skeptical were about mediums and ghosts.
Mediums are people that can claim to speak to the dead, and I can't help but think that most of them are fakers looking to make money off of the grieving and desperate. The mediums of this episode weren't particularly convincing. Still, there is that 10% of mediums who may have solved murders or discovered secrets that only a dead person would know, so I remain divided on the subject. I've never seen a ghost personally, and the lack of physical evidence such as clear photographs, audible recordings, meaningful messages, and tangible proof bothers me. Ghost hunting remains a popular hobby for many, and far be it from me to deny that some spirits may still reside in places where traumatic things happened. But consider me skeptical on the existence of ghosts- my guess is that most of the dead leave earth far behind for good reason.
I have read about near death experiences before, and the evidence on these is convincing. Many people report pretty much the same experience- floating above their body and traveling towards a warm, loving beam of light, meeting familiar people along the way. Scientists have tried to throw water on the experience saying that the brain can come up with hallucinations when deprived of oxygen, but the facts on many of the cases show this to be impossible. It does make me wonder, however, why some people get to come back from these types of experiences, and some get no choice and have to die. The cases shown in the documentary are vivid and convincing, and repeat things I have heard before.
Surviving Death tells several compelling reincarnation stories, including stories about a child who recalls a life in Hollywood, and another who recalls a death being shot down during World War 2. The documentary introduces is to several people and tells the stories of how the children remembered facts they couldn't possibly have known, prompting their families to seek out the old relatives that would remember the deceased people who may have reincarnated. Apparently children are the most likely to experience memories of past lives, because once you pass puberty they fade away completely. It makes sense that if souls are eternal and bodies are mortal, that some souls would find their ways into more than one body. But why do most of us not remember past lives? It's probably a good thing, because too many memories can confuse us. It's hard enough just dealing with one life's worth of memories. What's the purpose of all this learning we're doing now if we're just going to forget it all once we die? Hopefully, the most important lessons follow us all along our journeys.
Perhaps the best segment of the documentary deals with signs from the dead. While ghost hunting captures the imagination, there seems to be no meaningful communication from the ghosts to the living. In this phenomenon, people who have passed on are sending concrete messages from beyond the grave to comfort those they left behind. These are the messages we need to hear- "you are loved, I am okay, don't worry- be happy". It's not like the spirits can just appear and talk to you, (though apparently that happens), but more often it's subtle things they can make happen that bring great meaning.
- A father finds a penny after feeling a communication with his dead son- the date on the penny matches the birth year of his son.
- Another parent sees a butterfly flying in a Broadway theater as Penn from Penn and Teller tells the audience that psychics are bullshit.
- A dying lady promises her friend that she would send a message through a cardinal. They find a red bird after the woman passes and it jumps on her finger and her shoulder tamely- something a live cardinal would never do. And the video is right there.
- Several survivors recount stories of lights coming on randomly and flickering for no reason, a sign to them that their loved ones were nearby. I had this same experience with a vibrating hairbrush and an electric birthday candle, both of which spontaneously turned on after my mother passed away.
Probably the first thing we want to know after someone we know dies is if they are okay and still existing on the other side. The thought of a permanent loss forever is too painful, and I realize that a lot of wishful thinking could cause our minds to create meaning where it doesn't exist. Still, this semi-spiritual science major remains convinced that death is not the end, and that we are here for a purpose that involves love, learning, and growth.
For those scientists out there, recall the first law of thermodynamics, which states that energy is always conserved, it cannot be created or destroyed. In essence, energy can be converted from one form into another. We are in some way islands of consciousness, put here in these temporary bodies to learn some lessons and then move on to the next one that will help us grow in love and appreciation for ourselves and others. The alternative reality- that we are all biological organisms that have no purpose and will eventually vanish forever- ignores a huge, unexplained swath of human experience that documentaries like this cover.
I'm in no particular hurry to die, but I fear it less than I once did. It's inevitable, as is my profession, collecting taxes. No point in worrying about it too much. Still, in the dead of winter it's nice to think about the warmth, greenery and growth that's right around the corner once Spring gets here. Like Joe from Soul, I'm taking it one day at a time, appreciating all the small moments and creating beauty when and where I can. I've survived a pandemic, survived another winter, learned a few things, loved a few people, and am ready for what comes next.