On a sunny Saturday afternoon, nine people gather in the Morgan House, a few steps away from the First Unitarian Universalist Church on Woodmont Boulevard, to talk about death. There’s a pitcher of water, a jar of peanuts and some gingersnaps—paltry sustenance for the two hours ahead, which would explore, from half-baked to deeply insightful, what happens when we die.
Among those in attendance, half of us have died and the other half have merely lived, in some cases rather miserably. The group, Friends of the International Association for Near-Death Studies, have been meeting every fourth Saturday for about two years. In the case of the mediator, Rev. Juliet Nightingale, her life has slipped precariously from her hands not once, but three times, from bouts of colon cancer, pneumonia and meningitis. But these folks aren’t concerned with the particulars of how they’d died, but rather, how to live seeing what they’ve seen, knowing what they know.
Present are people who’ve had NDEs, OBEs, STEs and ADCs. That’s Near Death Experiences, Out of Body Experiences, Spiritually Transformative Experiences and After Death Communications, respectively. The group’s been meeting every fourth Saturday for about two years, though not always in this particular mix. This particular meeting has a curious addition, myself excluded—a 70-year-old man who’d been depressed all of his life, until about six months ago. A sickly child, he tells the group he’s been obsessed with death and has gone so far as to collect antique weapons and videotapes of executions. His questions have an oddly evil fascination—everything he discusses seems largely concerned with Hitler, the justice dealt evil people, and of course, the big question: what it’s like on the other side. Now a self-described evangelical Christian, he dismisses most of what he hears this afternoon as chance or coincidence. The group tolerates his skepticism, reassuring him that he has to find whatever resonates with him.
NDE is something of a misnomer, as the experience isn’t near death—it is death. You lose vital signs, you flatline, you experience the stopped heartbeat that spells the end. Most people are only dead for a few moments, but there have been cases of people “waking up” on the autopsy table. For the spiritually uncertain like myself, the weather report from the other side is damn comforting: most people report a sense of profound freedom, deep knowing and fearlessness. Nightingale mentions that she jetted around the universe in death, and while she “saw scenes that were difficult to look at,” she never felt afraid. There is no ego in death, she explains—no attachment to people or things. What keeps spirits around, according to these folks, is the energy of the living, who refuse to let them pass. So the notion that people live on forever in our memory, while comforting to us, may not be that great a shake for those trying to get to more exciting destinations.
The conversations here are primarily abstract, heartfelt and philosophical. Oddly enough, no one speaks specifically about his or her actual deaths. I expect tales of walking toward white light, Jesus appearing with a message to go back—that the person had unfinished earthly business to attend to. Apparently, less than five percent of reported cases involve such tales. Most people experience a life review, an out-of-body hovering in which they often recall conversations of doctors and nurses verbatim, or something like Nightingale’s jet setting. But this absence of explicit retelling may be for any number of reasons. One, the group has probably swapped these stories before, and now they don’t find the need to repeat them for every newcomer. Second, the old guy’s disbelief, it turns out, puts a real damper on the spirit of speaking freely and without reservation about what is conceivably a very personal, delicate matter. It is, after all, a support group, not a debate team.
But it turns out hell isn’t a place (though some NDE’ers report hell-like experiences) and neither is heaven—both are but a state of mind. To these folks, life, in all its complexity, seems best understood through food analogies. Karma is something like a buffet table filled with every sort of food imaginable, one woman says. Choose whatever you like and as much of it as you like, but you must accept the consequences of those choices, whether you choose three squares a day or strawberries all day, every day. In the same way a table is comprised of millions of molecules and atoms vibrating to the pulse of life, so are we swimming in the cosmic soup, says the old guy. Similarly, planes of existence are a bit like an onion, multidimensional and multilayered. We’re all just trying to get out of the onion.
There are discussions of past life regressions, reincarnation, fatalism, a giant oneness, and finally, a telepathic dog. But what strikes me as most comforting are these people—friendly, curious and deeply transformed by something much more powerful than any of us can fully grasp. In the end, I leave hungry, and no surer of what happens when we die, but it sure feels good to be alive.