Tuesday, January 18, 2011
Today is my father’s birthday. He would have been ninety years old. He died three years ago at the age of eighty-seven. He died consciously, albeit full of oxycodone. He died with his eyes open, searching the ceiling, but he couldn’t tell us what he was looking at. His mouth drew down into a frown of awe, or fear, maybe, or even a great new emotion he had never felt before in his life. I could not read his face at that moment, except that his eyes focused intently on something above, something on or through the ceiling.
The day before, he had lapsed into unresponsiveness, except for an occasional foray into the world of the family surrounding his bedside. My sister had been sitting beside him, when suddenly he looked into her eyes, called her by the nickname only he ever used, and said, “People upstairs are waiting for me.” Then he slid back into his journey.
My sister said, “Yes, Grandma and Grandpa are waiting for you, and Aunt Mary and Aunt Rose.” She named his brothers and sisters who had died ahead of him. I don’t know how she did that, how she sat there and talked to him normally, but she did. She knew that “upstairs” referred to Heaven. That’s how our father always referred to Heaven— Upstairs.
Recently, I’ve been watching a program on cable TV about Near-Death Experiences, which have been documented often enough now to reveal a pattern. The sick or injured people recognize the moment they slip out of their bodies. They feel peace, euphoria, and indifference to whatever brought them to the point of death. They see or feel white light, a tunnel, sometimes, and the presence of God. They might hear beautiful music, or see gorgeous panoramas of flowers or amorphous colors, and relatives who had preceded them in death. The spirits of the dead ones always stand waiting.
This is the point that connects the documented Near-Death experiences with what my father said just before he died. He “saw” his loved ones who had already died, waiting for him.
This phenomenon of seeing dead relatives is also well-documented by hospice workers who sit with people who actually die. Atheists would have us believe that the brain is fooling us, that at the critical moment, it fulfills our dearest wishes, which are to be reunited with dead loved ones. I don’t know; no one knows, and we cannot know, so discussing the phenomenon with respect to learning the truth is pointless.
However, what seems important is that all these stories of near-death experiences have much in common, regardless of whatever religion the person believed before they arrived at the point of death. This fact suggests that the dying process is more or less universal for human beings. It raises the possibility that whatever happens afterwards may also be universal. Whatever occurs to the spirit after the body completes the death process may well be marked by universal qualities, regardless of what a person believed in life.
Adherents of this or that religion will be with me so far, but will say that only their version of the afterlife will apply from that point onwards, and that it will apply to everyone. There’s something inherently wrong with that concept, but I’m not sure what.
What if the dying experience, and what occurs afterwards, has nothing to do with anyone’s concept of God, Heaven, Hell or how one should conduct one’s earthly life? What if no one religious concept of life after death really applies? What if our actual death experience, with its own, unique sequelae, occur pretty much the same for everyone, and that religious matters lose all relevance? The evidence of the Near-Death Experience, coupled with the reports of actual death experiences, suggest that this possibility cannot be overlooked.
Think about your own struggles with religion, if you’ve had them. Think about the conflicts between you and your family or friends who believe differently with respect to religious systems? Could all of that be meaningless? Could none of it come to bear upon our ultimate experience of death and the persistence (or lack thereof) of consciousness? Could our spirits actually unite in the joy so often related to us by survivors of the Near-Death Experience?
What if all our religious dissension, wars, murders, torture and annihilation of entire populations have no ultimate meaning whatsoever?