Back from the Afterlife

Misadventures in near-death experience

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I saw Heaven, or some version of it, in the late 1990s. This was on the days I stayed home sick from school, bingeing on Corn Pops and reruns of Unsolved Mysteries. Back then, the show was hosted by Robert Stack, a sort of Clinton-era Rod Serling with a raspy old-man voice and scary eyes who broke the fourth wall at the beginning of every episode. The show’s narrative staples, then as now, were murdered moms and missing children. Standard true-crime stuff. But occasionally, you’d catch an episode featuring first-person accounts of the afterlife. In the one I recently rewatched, a guy named Dannion—silky little mustache, strong southern accent—gets struck by lightning in his own home. We see it all play out in a (very bad) reenactment. Dannion’s shoes melt; his heart stops; his soul drifts skyward. He finds himself in an otherworldly tunnel, awash in blue light and bad computer graphics. The ambience recalls the misty hours before dawn and early Microsoft screensavers. But before Dannion can meet any angels, a mysterious force shunts him back into his body. He jolts to life on a hospital gurney, scaring the shit out of his best friend Tom and shaping, in some subliminal way, my understanding of mortality for the next twenty years.

I’m not saying that I believed these stories then, or ever. But they seemed as believable as anything else on basic cable at the time. Maybe life and the afterlife really were just a bandwidth apart, different channels that you toggled between. If you were to peer into the corners of my subconscious, you’d find lots of this sort of stuff: rerecorded VHS tapes and the standard tropes of death-denial. You’d also find scattered pages from Life After Life by Raymond Moody, which I discovered on my parents’ coffee table a few years after first seeing Dannion on Unsolved Mysteries. The book, originally published in 1975, was the first to collect testimonies from people who claimed to have been to Heaven while clinically dead or gravely imperiled. These journeys into the afterlife—what Moody termed near-death experiences, or NDEs—were described in scrupulous detail, and seemed to confirm the sorts of stories I saw on TV.

Since its publication, Moody’s book has sold more than thirteen million copies. It established NDEs as both a cultural phenomenon and an area of academic research. Moody was not, as you might imagine, a fringe personality or aspiring mystic but a psychiatrist-in-training. The book drew on interviews that he conducted with over 150 experiencers while a graduate student at the Medical College of Georgia. It piqued the interest of Bruce Greyson, one of Moody’s graduate supervisors, who later wrote that he became “immediately intrigued” by the phenomenon after reading letters that Moody received “from experiencers all over the world.” Soon, Moody and Greyson formed a sort of supergroup with two other researchers, John Audette and Ken Ring. The organization they founded was called the International Association for Near-Death Studies; Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, famous for her formulation of the five stages of grief, later served on its board of advisers. Greyson and Ring would eventually author their own books on NDEs, while the IANDS would later publish the peer-reviewed Journal of Near-Death Studies.

Knocking on Heaven’s Door

In recent years, partly out of nostalgia for the entertainments of my youth and partly out of lapsed-Catholic curiosity, I’ve developed a quasi-fascination with NDEs and their attendant literature. Every few months, I would waste an afternoon by noodling around on the IANDS website, where I could read the newest issues of its journal. That’s how I learned, in August 2019, that the group was hosting its annual conference an hour away from my house.

It was scheduled to take place in a tony Philadelphia suburb called King of Prussia, best known for its eponymous luxury mall: a monument to suburban decadence with a Gucci store and charging stations for Teslas. The mall drew people from all over the region, including where I had grown up. I have pleasant memories of wandering under its glass ceilings as a kid, feeling as enclosed and enchanted as a figure in a snow globe. The local priests did their Christmas shopping there, and I used to imagine them flapping around the food court in their silken vestments, administering Chick-fil-A to each other like the Eucharist.

The conference cost $600 and took place over Labor Day weekend. I applied for press credentials and figured I would go for a few hours each day, record some dispatches from heaven, and reward myself with a trip to Shake Shack. And so, in the dead heat of late summer, I walked into the lobby of a conference center full of ambient lighting and aging bodies. Around me streamed a throng of conference attendees sporting lime-green lanyards, all retirement age or older. As they passed, I took note of their name tags, most of them trimmed with an emerald ribbon bearing the word EXPERIENCER in fine gold font. A delicate older gentleman—his name tag sported an additional ribbon reading VETERAN—scraped by on his walker. There were a few hundred people here, I estimated. All of them, it seemed, had been to Heaven or to war, and all of them seemed happy, moving through the lobby with the cheerful lassitude you see at theme parks and restaurant buffets.

As I waited for my press pass, I downloaded the conference’s special app by scanning a QR code on my phone and scrolled through the massive color-coded schedule. There were workshops like Kelvin Chin’s “Overcoming the Fear of Death” and a screening of Powell and Pressburger’s 1946 film A Matter of Life and Death, which happens to be one of my favorites. Dr. Eben Alexander, author of 2012’s bestselling Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Afterlife, was one of the marquee speakers at this year’s conference. While IANDS positions itself as a scholarly association, the programming seemed mostly therapeutic. Every night there was a performance by Kevin Kern, a self-described Steinway Artist who performed musical “sound paintings” that apparently reminded many experiencers of their NDEs. There was a class on “Kundalini Awakening,” and something called a Healing Room in the basement where you could enlist the services of reiki practitioners, numerologists, and other specialists.

I made a quick stop at the coffee station, where I chatted with two friendly redheaded ladies about crop circles. Then I headed to my first session: a presentation by Robert and Suzanne Mays, self-described NDE researchers and frequent contributors to the IANDS journal. I studied them from the back of a high-ceilinged, windowless room. They were a bespectacled couple in their seventies with small, kind faces, as perfectly matched as a pair of doves. I liked them instantly. They radiated the plaintive wholesomeness of Quakers and people who sell jam at farmers’ markets.

It seemed appropriate that the first interesting PowerPoint I had ever seen would augur the end of civilization.

Robert, in coat and tie, took to the podium. In recent years, he explained, he and Suzanne had turned their attention to the prophetic visions that a number of experiencers have undergone during, and sometimes after, their NDEs. While the visions themselves were invariably apocalyptic, the Mayses spoke of them with an almost clinical detachment. Their work encompassed several methodologies: “an extensive literature review of prior research,” surveys they had sent to twenty-two subjects, and analyses of fifteen accounts by “published NDE authors.” From this material, they had identified five categories of NDE-related prophetic visions, including “current political conflict and civil strife in the United States”; “economic and social chaos caused by widespread power failures”; “severe tsunamis, earthquakes and natural disasters.” My favorite was the fourth category, described as “reset of the Earth, millions to billions of people die: supervolcano, asteroid hit, or nuclear war.” (The fifth was “post-reset world.”) It seemed appropriate that the first interesting PowerPoint I had ever seen would augur the end of civilization.

Robert described how some of these scenarios might play out: a woman a lot like Hillary Clinton is foiled by a Trump-like antichrist who presides over a Boschian tumult of unrest. Before the end of December 2020, a wall of shattered glass bursts through the streets of Los Angeles as an earthquake with a magnitude of 9.0 demolishes skyscrapers, collapses power lines, and leaves corpses decaying in the street for days, and a resulting tsunami on the Oregon coast turns Sacramento into a lake. To illustrate this narrative, he did a little flourish with his hand, as though uncorking a genie.

But, Robert emphasized, we could still prevent these disastrous futures. “The visions are real, but the outcome does not have to be,” he said, determination in his voice. Beside me, a woman burst into applause.

Until then, I had imagined—stupidly!—that believing in Heaven would shield a person from feelings of apocalyptic foreboding. I had not imagined Hillary Clinton as some sort of benighted messiah. But what did I know? I learned nothing of paradise during my eight years of CCD: essentially Catholic night school for kids, in which we’d blearily color in pictures of Jesus to prepare ourselves for the gift of the sacraments. I had watched The Passion of the Christ with an audience of preteens in puka-shell necklaces and Blink 182 T-shirts; I had eaten His flesh and drank His blood; I had said the Lord’s Prayer as penance for half-assing chores, but I still couldn’t tell you what happens to us when we die. The closest I had come to broaching the subject was in conversations with my dad. He was an agoraphobe who spent most of my adolescence parsing Aristotle, listening to Enya, and slowly dying from cancer. When I was in college, he told me his interpretation of Thomas Aquinas’s theory of Heaven: it exists, but we lose our memories when we get there. He thought Aquinas was right and hated him for it. I hated him too. After my dad died, I pictured him shuffling around eternity in his bathrobe, trying to remember his address and my name. I didn’t believe in an afterlife, but still I hoped for something better than endless forgetting or the end of the world.

Sometimes You Feel Like a Nut

For all the talk of Heaven, the IANDS conference felt less like a tent revival than a taping of The Dr. Oz Show. One of Oz’s repeat guests, Mark Anthony, the Psychic Lawyer®, was even slated to give a talk. NDEs apparently functioned as a sort of gateway drug for occult practices and New Age beliefs, most of them descended from old American ideas. You could sense the ghosts of Spiritualism and Emersonian shades of “experience,” summoned here by the dark id of daytime television. But even if Anthony and the other IANDS celebrities were scammers, I still preferred them to so-called “transhumanists” like Ray Kurzweil or Peter Thiel, Silicon Valley plutocrats who believed that technology would soon fulfill the promise of eternal life for the lucky few. The prospect this conjured—Heaven as a chorus of angel investors, the pearly gates thrown open to anyone with seed money—filled me with despair. And so there was a kind of satisfaction in the idea that New Age grifters had already proven that Heaven was real: an actual place accessible not only to those with mountains of private capital but to any lucky prole who took a tumble down the stairs.

Or, as in the case of Chris Kito, to anyone who ate the wrong nut. I saw Chris speak at a panel discussion between three local experiencers, sitting at a long table with two other men of grandpa age. He appeared to be in his mid-thirties, neatly bearded and radiantly bald, with an air of smoothie-drinking good health. His NDE had begun with a slice of cake at a birthday party. Unbeknownst to Chris, who has a terrible nut allergy, it contained a tiny peanut fragment. (Actually, he later learned, it was a peanut butter cake. How, I wondered, does a man not recognize the taste of his own allergy?) His mouth started itching, but he went home, took a couple Benadryl, and went to bed. When he woke up a little over an hour later, his entire body was covered in welts. “Maybe I need to take another Benadryl,” he thought, “because if three don’t work, I guess maybe four will solve it.” We all laughed at the memory of this inner monologue. The story, in his telling, was a lightly comic escapade, a series of pratfalls into the afterlife.

Alexander has been singing the same song for years—the story of his fantastic journey from Harvard to Heaven—and even I know it by heart.

His EpiPen, when he found it, had already expired. It was Sunday night in Los Angeles. He figured, with the clarity of anaphylaxis, that he should simply drive himself to the hospital. By the time he stumbled into the ER forty-five minutes later, he was “half-dead,” gasping for breath and barely able to pull out his ID. At this point he had “no concept of time.” Nurses were rushing all around. A doctor gazed down at him and said: I’m sorry, I can’t save you. But by then, Chris already knew he was dying. “It was beyond euphoric and peaceful,” Chris said. There was no pain—just a rush of tenderness and love. A sudden epiphany that “material things don’t matter.” And then he saw them: both his grandfathers. His voice wavered at this point in the narrative; he sounded like he was about to cry. “My mother’s father goes, ‘You can’t die yet, you have work to do.’” So Chris went back to his body and his unfinished life. They gave him those “little blue socks” and sent him on his way. By any account, he said, “I should be dead or severely brain damaged.” Instead he’s spent the last eight years of his life trying to process the beauty and shattering strangeness of what happened to him.

His NDE was a story of reunion and revelation. It was also, perhaps, a story about the delights of oxygen deprivation. Affiliates of the IANDS often rebut insinuations like mine, refuting the arguments of scientists who dismiss NDEs as deathbed hallucinations. Chris never claimed, as many experiencers do, that his NDE was some kind of medical mystery—just that his recovery was medically unlikely. He did not seem to think of himself as an accidental prophet or a spiritual scientist. He was just a guy who ate a peanut and saw the beloved faces of the dead. His experience seemed hapless, wounded, sincere. It made me sad. What would it be like, I wondered, to see the family you lost like this, when regaining your life meant losing them again? It seemed heartbreaking, and yet Chris, like most NDEers, understood what had happened to him as transformatively joyful. It seemed that such joy was worth dying, or almost dying, to achieve.

A Poof of Heaven

The following morning, I crab-walked through rows of snowy-haired seniors to find my chair in the hotel ballroom where Dr. Eben Alexander was giving his keynote lecture. The crowd gave off an energy I had never experienced before: a mix of submerged mortal sorrow and friendly curiosity. It felt like a TED Talk in a hospital chapel. A banner across the stage read One Giant Leap for Mankind—a nod, for some reason, to the recent fiftieth anniversary of the moon landing. Under it was Alexander, a tall, tan man in his sixties with salt-and-pepper hair and gently oversized ears. He looked like a humbler, less taxidermied Mitt Romney.

I was familiar with Alexander from YouTube clips of his appearances on Fox and Friends and Oprah. A neurosurgeon with a fancy Ivy League pedigree, he briefly rose to celebrity in 2012 after the publication of Proof of Heaven, which chronicled his near-death experience. Then a damning profile in Esquire revealed that his NDE had been preceded by a series of malpractice scandals. While the article torpedoed his mainstream media career, he remains a regular on the alternative spirituality circuit, putting in more or less yearly appearances at the IANDS conference. On TV he usually wears a bowtie, but even without one there’s something of the barbershop quartet about him, a practiced patrician hamminess. He’s been singing the same song for years—the story of his fantastic journey from Harvard to Heaven—and even I know it by heart.

After some disparaging remarks about the “faith-based religion of materialist science,” Alexander embarked on the familiar narrative of his NDE. In 2008, he contracted a rare form of bacterial meningitis and was placed in a medically induced coma. In his telling—disputed, in Esquire’s reporting, by his doctor—he was effectively “a dead man.” And yet he found himself conscious, struggling through some dark passage, a cramped, uterine space with the “roots of blood vessels all around” him. He emerged into a vibrant meadow full of dancing people and “children playing, dogs jumping, incredible festivities.” Above him were “swooping orbs of light, pure, golden light,” each one full of “an individual pure spiritual essence.” He rode on the wings of a giant butterfly with a “beautiful guardian angel,” who communicated with him telepathically. Later, he writes in Proof of Heaven, he would learn that this woman was his biological sister, from whom he had been separated upon his adoption as an infant.

I sensed that there was some overlap between Alexander and those Silicon Valley pseudo-mystics working to upload their consciousness into the Cloud.

This experience was necessary, Alexander believes, for him to see beyond the “reductive materialism” that had blinkered his perspective as a surgeon. And yet, he said, “I’m more of a scientist now than I’ve ever been.” He predicted that NDEs would transform the scientific establishment as totally as his own near-death experience had transformed him. “By the year 2028,” he said, “I don’t believe any self-respecting, scientifically minded, well-read person on Earth will doubt the reality not just of the afterlife, but of reincarnation.” Society, in his view, was “on the verge of the greatest revolution in human history that will make the Copernican revolution look like child’s play.” Soon, we would look beyond the “puny little” ideas we had mislearned from Darwin, the ideas of “competition and survival-of-the-fittest [that have] pervaded our economic models.” We would come to understand that we are all connected through “the reality of the one mind,” an infinitely loving cosmic consciousness.

I’ll be honest: a lot of this hippie stuff appealed to me. I loved that little diatribe on Darwin and our, uh, “economic models.” And yet I also sensed that there was some overlap between Alexander and those Silicon Valley pseudo-mystics working to upload their consciousness into the Cloud. They operate on the same principle of what Alexander called “nonlocal consciousness”: the idea that the mind is a nonmaterial reality. But that reality, as Alexander described it, seemed unforgivably corny. I always thought that, if it existed, Heaven, like God, would be abstract and incomprehensible, like a video installation at the MoMA. It would chasten my mortal mind and wrench open the narrow doors of perception, or whatever. Alexander’s Heaven, by contrast, was all platitudes and primary colors, a paradise for preschoolers and people on acid. It was so unsubtle—so stupid, honestly—and so at odds with Alexander’s paean to the powers of mind. If human consciousness really is a portal to the infinite, then why does the infinite seem like a portal to an episode of My Little Pony?

At this point in the conference, the sadness had begun to set in. I wanted to go home; I wanted to go to the mall. I wanted to rifle through polyester halter tops at Forever 21 until I felt like I would never die. In other words, it was as good a time as any to go to the Healing Room.

Back in the basement, a woman with a little purple streak in her hair let me flip through a binder of all the spiritual practitioners on offer. I decided that I wanted a numerology reading, if only because I couldn’t fathom what it was. I was led into a room with green carpet and a little tropical-printed welcome mat in front of the door. Low flutey music played in the background. I sat across from a lady in a pink sweater set and fine gold jewelry who appeared to be in her seventies. There was nothing conspicuously New Age-y about her; I imagined a home full of doilies and grandchildren, glass-fronted cabinets full of Hummel figurines. She asked for my birth date, then drew a little chart on a piece of paper, sort of like a sudoku grid. She explained that “there are only nine energies” because “when you come to ten, one and zero make one again.” Apparently I had “a six, in the top, in [my] soul position, and here in the challenge position.” This meant that I had been “a healer and a teacher many times in the past.” The whole experience filled me with a posthumous calm; it was like getting my taxes done while overhearing my own eulogy.

The August heat outside felt welcome after the mortuary chill of the conference center. As I drove home, the suburbs played on loop outside my windshield: church, school, Chipotle; church, school, Chipotle. I was too deflated to go back to my apartment. Instead, I drove to my mom’s house some forty-five minutes away. My dad’s pickup truck was still rusting out in the driveway; scrappy little plants had started to grow, green and hopeful, in the crannies of the truck bed. Boxes of his papers were waterlogged and rotting on the porch: copies of the weird stories I had written as a kid, his unfinished treatise on Aristotelian aesthetics. His dog had finally died a few months before, but her bed still lay in the kitchen. She had outlived him by eight years. The book died when he did.

My dad believed that there was no good philosophy after Thomas Aquinas and no good poetry after John Keats. Even Keats, in his estimate, only wrote “a few good poems.” An avid bird-watcher, he would often recite bits and pieces of “Ode to a Nightingale,” in which the young Keats, in good Romantic fashion, listens to birdsong and muses on the pull of oblivion: “Many a time,” he confesses, “I have been half in love with easeful Death.” Keats was twenty-three when he wrote that. By then, he was already sick with the tuberculosis that would kill him. I learned, in the course of writing this piece, that Keats is sort of the poet laureate of the IANDS. Bruce Greyson uses a phrase from his poem “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer” to describe NDEer’s reunions with the recently deceased in Heaven. The website for the University of Toronto Libraries has a little commentary on “Ode to a Nightingale,” which likens it to classic “out-of-body and near-death experiences.” Indeed, the poem seems to capture the queasiness that I felt at the conference—the worry that these people who didn’t believe in death were in fact half in love with it.

Late Awakenings

If I, like Raymond Moody, had learned to my own satisfaction that the soul is real and life is eternal, would I really rush to convene an association of “interested researchers”? I didn’t think so. I’d take up skydiving or scripture. I would not submit my divine revelation for peer review. After all, religious experience has never drawn its power from rational discourse but from the fact that rational discourse has always felt insufficient to explain it. The very notion of “proof of Heaven” is inimical to faith, which depends on the absence of certainty, on a leap into the unknown. Even if you could reconcile epiphanic experience with science, it wasn’t clear to me why you needed to.

So after the conference, I called up the Mayses, who spoke to me for hours from two different phones on the same landline, to try to better understand. They told me about growing up during the endless, apocalyptic upheavals of the 1960s and 1970s: the Cuban Missile Crisis, the assassinations of the Kennedys and Martin Luther King, the Cold War, Vietnam. Like many young people at the time, they spent much of those tumultuous years seeking out spiritual community. Since childhood, Suzanne had yearned for a less punishing form of belief than the one practiced by her grandmother, a Jehovah’s Witness; she found it at the Rochester Zen Center, where she also found Robert, as well as a lot of others. (When I asked her what drew them to the Center, she laughed and exclaimed, “They were hippies!”) Prior to meeting Suzanne, Robert had been a chemistry student at MIT, depressed by the spiritual hollowness of science, its inability to furnish answers to his most fundamental questions. After a half-hearted suicide attempt, he, too, turned to the Zen Center, which started him and Suzanne on a path of New Age belief systems: transpersonal psychology, the Theosophical ideas of Rudolf Steiner, and eventually the books of Raymond Moody.

One year after Moody published Life After Life in 1975, New York magazine published Tom Wolfe’s “The ‘Me’ Decade and the Third Great Awakening,” about the revitalization of religion across the United States. In Wolfe’s assessment, the rise of evangelicalism and New Age spirituality marked the 1970s as the Me Decade: a cultural retreat from the collectivist politics of the 1960s into self-centered, consumerist spirituality. Wolfe makes no mention of the consolidation of the conservative movement, the politicization of the religious right, or the election of Richard Nixon. Instead, he explains the decline of the left as the inevitable result of the postwar prosperity boom, which made a mockery of the dreams of the “old utopian socialists.” The comfortable salaries of “truck drivers, mechanics, factory workers, policemen” and the like meant to him “that the word proletarian can no longer be used in this country with a straight face.” The “common man,” Wolfe contended, had taken his money and run to the suburbs and self-improvement scams, while the New Left traded Marxism and Marcuse for parapsychology and Jesus Christ. These new spiritual trends, Wolfe writes, exposed the enfeebled New Left as a “religious episode wrapped in semi military gear and guerrilla talk.”

The very notion of “proof of Heaven” is inimical to faith, which depends on the absence of certainty, on a leap into the unknown.

I don’t recognize the Mayses in Wolfe’s analysis of the 1970s. They might have been New Agers, but they certainly weren’t narcissists; Suzanne spent years playing therapeutic music for people in palliative care[*]. I did, however, recognize a familiar brand of cynicism. Permeating Wolfe’s assessment of the Me Decade is a contempt for utopian thinking of any kind. He makes no distinction between left utopianism and old-fashioned holy rolling—both, in his mind, are expressions of the same self-obsessed irrationalism. In Wolfe’s analysis, class consciousness had become a joke by the 1970s; the New Left always was one. The utopian politics of the previous decade—of the previous century—had just been the comedic setup for the punchline of the New Age. It’s not an uncommon view. From the standpoint of secular liberalism, utopian beliefs—whether in a worker’s paradise or the Kingdom of God—all flow from the same cracked pot. Religion, despite the supposed Great Awakening of the 1970s, has been in steady decline for sixty years. Marxism strikes many Americans as, at best, an embarrassing anachronism, not much different from believing in spirit mediums or psychics. And yet wages are more or less the same as they were in 1978; income inequality is on the rise; young generations enjoy far worse financial prospects than their parents; the list goes on. Most Americans have discarded the idea of paradise, and yet we’ve come no closer to achieving it here on Earth.

The NDEers, however, have retained the old utopian dreams of the 1960s, just in a strange, sublimated form. They believe in the possibility of world peace and the power of love; they urgently want to save the world, and think—quite literally, in the Mayses case—that the gospel of NDEs could do so. Dr. Alexander insists that “just knowing” about them could inspire people to conquer hate and heal the planet. It seems that once the idea of paradise took on the tinge of superstition, the International Association of Near-Death Studies came along and simply reinvented it as (pseudo)science. It is a very American turn, given that STEM dorks are supposedly the stewards of our future. It’s also a depressing one. When I spoke to Alexander on the phone, he told me that the “golden rule is written into the fabric of the universe,” a thesis robustly supported by NDEs and the findings of “modern consciousness studies.” A nice thought, I guess. But what do we gain from deciding that the golden rule isn’t just good but also true in some material way? In this view, moral and scientific authority are neither distinct nor opposed; in Alexander’s estimation, moral arguments don’t seem to have authority at all.

The IANDS may exist to give scientific legitimacy to the claims of near-death experiencers, but I suspect most of its members would believe in Heaven even if it didn’t. Their belief isn’t predicated on scientific research but on the essential strangeness of life and death; I thought again of Chris Kito in his little blue hospital socks, almost killed by a peanut and flooded with love. To my mind, NDEs aren’t proof of Heaven, but they do prove that nearness to death changes you, rearranges your sense of the possible. And so it does. I stopped believing in God in my furtive way after my dad died—some switch was flipped, and that high clear tone, a frequency I could once hear, went dead. God was there and then he wasn’t; my dad was alive and then he wasn’t. And yet the world seems vaster and stranger than I had fully accounted for. Even now, I sometimes let myself imagine running into my dad at the grocery store—I turn the corner and spot him in the dairy aisle, wearing sweatpants with suspenders and trundling along with his shopping cart. Just plainly there, unremarkably alive. To see him resurrected in an Acme would confound my sense of reality, but I’m not sure it would be any more confounding than his death. On any scale, death feels arbitrary and inexplicable. It shouldn’t happen, so when it does, you get to thinking that anything might.

From the standpoint of secular liberalism, utopian beliefs—whether in a worker’s paradise or the Kingdom of God—all flow from the same cracked pot.

Maybe it’s true, as the NDEers claim, that physical death unites us in the next life. It’s certainly true that it unites us in this one, though largely against our will. At the conference, I was perplexed by Alexander’s dazzled insistence that “we are all deeply connected” in the glittering web of the universe. Strip away the woo-woo embellishments, and you have a basic account of life on Earth. We are strange animals on a shared planet, tethered to each other by our social and biological dependence, by the complex networks that govern our lives and deaths. Only in a society deformed by individualism could this fact be repackaged as a mystical insight.

Last March, commentators began to echo the same idea as though it were breaking news. The coronavirus, evidently, had proven once and for all that our lives are contingent and interconnected. Ideally, this recognition would generate more robust political commitments, a stronger opposition to human suffering. I doubt, honestly, that this transformation will take place. But NDEs suggest that more mysterious transformations happen all the time. They might not be evidence of Heaven but of something closer to grace—proof that encounters with death can leave you, against all reason, ennobled and longing for goodness. The hope is that, when this wave of tragedy recedes, we will all be so changed.

While I’m still not persuaded by the NDEers’ claims that Heaven is real, I’m moved by their insistence that it’s realistic to believe in Heaven. In their view, you don’t need a special dispensation or an obscene fortune to go there—just a bacterial infection or a bad allergy; just your fragile, finite human life. Paradise need not be posthumous; it can be glimpsed now, before you’re really gone. I think this is right. But to my mind, paradise isn’t a paranormal possibility; it’s a political one, too lovely to cede to the New Age or Evangelicals. In the end, there are common enough explanations of NDEs as the comforting hallucinations of a dying brain, our mind’s attempt to soothe us as the lights go out. It would seem that none of us can die without some vision of a perfect world. I’m not sure that we can live without one, either.

 


[*] Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly identified Suzanne as a music therapist. There is a clinical distinction between music therapists and music practitioners who play therapeutic music.

Emily Harnett is a writer and teacher living in Philadelphia. Her work has appeared in Lapham’s Quarterly, The Atlantic, Broadly, and Lit Hub.

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