What is death like? It’s been the question on everyone’s mind for millennia. While some have gotten a short little glimpse and others think they might have, most of us have little more to go on than hearsay and old stories.
There is plenty of conjecture but not much hard proof because, well, most who die don’t come back to tell about it. Between books, a few recorded near-death experiences, and stories that have been passed down, we still have a shot at trying to understand what will happen after we bid our final farewells.
1. Transition to Afterlife
Most major religions believe in some kind of life after death. It is in death, therefore, that a transition to the afterlife occurs. Depending on your beliefs, the transition will look differently. Here is a small sampling of what major religions around the world believe when it comes to an afterlife.
Christianity, Judaism, and Islam all hold to a belief that life after death might result in paradise or in a form of torment. Where you go will depend on your beliefs during life, as is explained in Christianity or in the case of Judaism and Islam, based on the sum total of what you’ve done on earth.
All three religions believe in an afterlife that results in:
- Judgment - a time of weighing what was done on earth.
- Heaven - a place of eternal peace in the presence of God.
- Hell - a place of torment without the presence of God.
- Purgatory (in Catholicism) - a place of judgment and semi-torment where a person works off bad deeds done during life.
2. Return as a New Being
For Buddhists, Hindus, and Sikhs, life after death is merely a transition period from one bodily experience to the next. Members of these religions believe in reincarnation.
Unless you’ve truly ascended to become one with the universe, you can expect to come back as a new being for a whole new life. This pattern repeats itself until a soul has learned every lesson they need to learn in order to reach enlightenment, also known as Samsara in Buddhism and in Hindu philosophy.
Atheists generally don’t believe in life after death. Rather, death simply results in nothingness. There is no state of being, no state of awareness — there is only the end of one’s life. Once a person ceases to exist, there is nothing more beyond the grave.
4. Slow Fade
James Hallenbeck, a palliative care specialist, has attempted to describe what the process of death is like. According to his study of our bodies and brains, the process of death is most often like a slow fade as opposed to a rapid experience that ends with a blinding white light. So, what happens when you die? Because our brains start to slowly phase out functions we normally use, you can expect the following in this order to occur as your body begins its final descent:
- Loss of appetite
- Loss of thirst
- Loss of speech
- Loss of sight
- Loss of hearing
- Loss of touch
Sounds rather frightening, doesn’t it? On the upside, James Hallenbeck also believes that our brains make this time one of peace rather than despair. Our emotional state doesn’t seem to be impacted negatively and his patients don’t seem to be disturbed by the increasing loss of normalcy.
5. Bodies Cease Functioning
It’s one thing to understand what happens during the dying process, but it’s another question entirely to try and understand why people die. We all know that people might die early, tragically, and in many unexpected ways. The reason behind these deaths can never be fully understood and that makes them difficult to deal with.
However, if everyone was able to live out their full lives and die at a ripe old age, then the technical reason would be that their bodies simply stopped functioning. Our heart beats because of an electrical current that tells it to beat. We breathe on our own because our brains send signals to our bodies that control lung function and other motions. When our bodies become worn down and unable to properly function, the end of it all is an eventual complete ceasing of functions.
Over the years, there have been several types of death used by the medical field to decide when someone dies. In the 1600s, death was thought to occur once a person stopped breathing. During the same time, another doctor determined that it was the human heart that kept blood circulating and, thus, alive. So, it was determined that when breathing or the heart stopped, life had ceased, as well.
Two developments occurred to change the definition of death. In 1891, an English doctor resuscitated a child’s heart who had been given too much chloroform during surgery. Then, in 1952, the respirator was invented and suddenly, someone who couldn’t breathe on their own was able to keep breathing.
With these two developments, a heart could be restarted or a person could be aided to breathe until they could do so on their own. By 1952, therefore, neither the ceasing of lung function nor a stalled heart alone was enough to determine someone’s death.
Today, there are two primary definitions when it comes to determining death: cardiac and brain death.
Cardiac death is death that occurs because the heart ceases to pump and no amount of medical intervention can restart it. Cardiac death is rather cut and dry due to the fact that nothing can medically keep the person’s heart pumping.
Brain death occurs when all regions of the brain have ceased to function. When brains no longer send signals to our body and there is no hope of our brain ever coming back online, then doctors will declare a person to be “brain dead.”
Brain death is more of a grey area when it comes to declaring someone dead. Since a person’s heart can continue beating and machines can breathe for a person, their body can be kept “alive” even though they are technically dead. If this is the case for a patient, it often falls to family members to decide when to turn off the ventilator and let their loved one breathe their last.
6. Experience Extreme Clarity — or Not
Thanks to numerous recorded near-death experiences, people can provide some small insights on what it felt like during the time they were pronounced dead.
Jill Bolte Taylor, a neuroanatomist, went through a near-death experience of her own when she suffered from a stroke. The event caused her left brain hemisphere to shut down and she experienced a complete lack of ability to do much of anything from walking and talking to reading and writing. While en route to the hospital, she felt herself “surrender” and knew that she might not live to see another day.
Upon waking but not yet back to reality, she felt both clarity and a suspension of reality, a kind of “nirvana” as she puts it. She could distinguish nothing but felt like she understood everything, all at once.
7. Vivid Dreams
In one palliative care study in New York, a majority of patients reported incredibly vivid dreams prior to death. These dreams were so vivid they felt like real life and some patients experienced holding onto the dream state even while awake. Nearly every person stated that they believed the dream they experienced to be real and most found them comforting.
What did they dream that provided such comfort during their final days? Many dreamt of deceased relatives, loved ones, and friends. During these dreams, they interacted, talked, laughed, and shared memories together.
8. Incredible Visions
In many near-death experiences or NDEs, as they’re called by those who study the phenomenon, people tend to describe the same kinds of sensations. One of those is visions of incredible realities that have little to no basis in the reality we all know and love — life on earth.
Many NDEs have been documented whereby people have visions of heaven, of paradise-like places, of serene nature scenes, colors more vivid than anything we can imagine, glorious song, and visions that go beyond description. These visions have occurred during NDEs for people of all ages and geographic locations. Prior religious leanings also seem to have no effect, as many who were formerly atheist declare belief in God after having such a vision.
What are these visions like?
Many talk of visiting with an angel or other ethereal being. Others talk about visiting with God or an all-loving, compassionate being. One scientist gained instant notoriety and derision from the scientific community after he released his vision and talked about being a speck on a butterfly’s wing.
No matter what the vision is, one thing no scientist can agree on is whether the person is experiencing an alternate reality or simply an altered state of mind. There are many books about life after death and in Visions of Heaven, author Lisa Miller explains that each vision can likely be explained rather easily.
She believes that the visions are experienced, but in the mind and not on a separate plane. Prior to death, the brain releases numerous chemicals which can lead to visions and hallucination-like experiences. These are often described and experienced as if reality, however, they are simply due to the dying process itself.
Attempting to Pull Back the Curtain
While there are numerous theories and stories about death, we may never fully comprehend what happens during the transition from life to death, and during death itself. Rather than trying to pull back the curtain, perhaps the best takeaway from what little we do know is that life is a precious gift and should be lived to the fullest.
- Dear, Jennie. “What it feels like to die.” Health, The Atlantic, 9 September 2016. theatlantic.com/health/archive/2016/09/what-it-feels-like-to-die/499319/
- Ghose, Tia. “Clinically dead? The blurred line between life and death.” News, Live Science, 19 June 2014. livescience.com/46418-clinical-death-definitions.html
- Taylor, Jill Bolte. “My stroke of insight.” TED 2008, Ted Talks, February 2008. ted.com/talks/jill_bolte_taylor_my_stroke_of_insight/transcript?language=en
- Otminski, Clarice. “Study conducted by The Palliative Care Institute indicates dreams and visions provide a profound source of meaning and comfort for the dying.” News, Hospice and Palliative Care, 2020. hospicebuffalo.com/newsroom/study-conducted-palliative-care-institute-indicates-dreams-and-visions-provide-profound-source-meaning-and-comfort-dying/
- Miller, Lisa. “Beyond death: The science of the afterlife.” Faith, Time, 20 April 2014. time.com/68381/life-beyond-death-the-science-of-the-afterlife-2/