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Visions of the afterlife

With a surge of interest in near-death experiences, a new book asks: Are the dying actually onto something?

By Julie McGonegal

At the hour her father died unexpectedly in his sleep, Patricia Pearson’s sister Katharine experienced a transcendent vision of healing and hope. For Katharine, a breast cancer patient and mother of two, the vision was embraced as a gift. It would serve her well as she lay waiting to die, radiant with abundant peace, in a Montreal hospice a month later. Pearson, who describes her sister as a pragmatist, was perplexed in the aftermath of Katharine’s death. How was she to interpret her sibling’s mysterious vision, especially in a secular age that discounts such powerful experiences as fabricated or imagined? Opening Heaven’s Door: What the Dying May Be Trying to Tell Us About Where They’re Going is the cumulation of years of research undertaken in Pearson’s quest for answers. Yet for all its exhaustive scholarship, the book is remarkably readable. It is also profoundly transformative — a work with that rare potential to radically change how we think about life and death.

Recent years have seen a surge of interest in near-death experiences, as a cursory glance through the spirituality section of any bookstore attests. The most popular titles are Todd Burpo’s Heaven Is for Real (recently adapted for the screen) and Eben Alexander’s Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Afterlife — both first-person accounts that derive their respective appeal from the presumed innocence of a child and the staunch authority of the medical expert.

Outside evangelical circles, however, such narratives, which tend to conform to traditional ideas of God and heaven, are largely greeted with skepticism. And rightly so. Earlier this year, the aptly named Alex Malarkey recanted the claims he made as a youngster in the bestselling The Boy Who Came Back from Heaven. As capitalism lays claim to Christianity, deceit casts a shadow over a hugely profitable industry.

By bringing a spirit of sustained inquiry to the subject, Opening Heaven’s Door may just restore readers’ beleaguered faith — in human decency as well as divine mystery. The rigour of Pearson’s research, the power of her storytelling and the brilliance of her prose will appeal to readers of all religious persuasions, including the unpersuaded. Agnostics and adherents alike should, however, be prepared to re-examine their most basic assumptions. If we know anything after reading Pearson’s groundbreaking book, it is that we know very little.

For Pearson, the certitude with which mainstream society rejects uncanny experiences reflects what she has elsewhere called “spiritual bigotry.” In sharing her sister’s story, she breaks the cultural ban on speaking the spiritual — and risks her reputation as a serious writer and journalist — in the hope of reclaiming some of what we have lost in our disenchantment with the sacred.

“Spirituality used to be considered an ordinary part of human experience,” she reflects, “but now it qualifies as an extraordinary state requiring extraordinary evidence.” We squander too much, she worries, when we reduce spirituality to superstition in our relentless demand for empirical data. And the proof isn’t always in the proverbial pudding: the fact that our study-obsessed culture hasn’t shown the soul to exist isn’t sufficient grounds for assuming it doesn’t. Inference and intuition may not enjoy the same status as more objective measures of truth, but Pearson advises against devaluing subjective perception altogether.

Curiously, the science suggests she may be right. Delving deep into cutting-edge research on neuroscience and consciousness, Pearson turns up some fascinating discoveries, including the Ganzfeld technique, a set of experiments that suggest our powers of intuition are far greater than we realize; and a potential human equivalent of the “entanglement effect,” the phenomenon in quantum physics whereby two particles with no physical proximity to one another somehow become entwined. Ultimately, the reader realizes, the brain is as shrouded in mystery as the soul.

Perhaps the biggest ambiguity is this: we know not whether the brain creates knowledge or conveys it. In the context of near-death experiences, the question can be rephrased this way: Something is affecting dying people, but what is it? This something is elusive yet irrefutable.

With the rise of the hospice movement coinciding with advances in pain medication, the dying are now able to express what they are experiencing to their loved ones. These experiences are often characterized by common elements that cut across cultures: prescience regarding the moment of death (many dying people precisely predict the time of decease); a sense of departing on a journey (metaphors of a trip or voyage are widespread); and visions of beckoning ancestors or spiritual beings (which are less likely in impaired or anesthetized patients). The only materialist explanation for such experiences is that they are elaborate hallucinations. Yet this hypothesis not only falls short of the evidence but also involves a fundamental act of hubris: Who are we to insist that someone else’s experience did not happen?

Sadly, as heirs of the Enlightenment’s rational myopia, we are bereft of a conceptual framework for understanding these deathbed encounters, these glimmers of the afterlife. It is this loss at the heart of the modern condition that T.S. Eliot lamented in The Waste Land. Some of that poem’s most haunting lines allude both to the presence of Jesus with the disciples on the road to Emmaus and to the mystery of the sensed presence experienced by Ernest Shackleton and his crew on their voyage into Antarctica. The verses ask: “Who is the third who walks always beside you? / When I count, there are only you and I together / But when I look ahead up the white road / There is always one walking beside you.” Pearson translates the passage thus: “Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?”

The beauty of her book lies in its capacity to bring words to bear on experiences that seem obstinately beyond language, and in so doing to hint at a radically deeper meaning of the human condition.

Julie McGonegal is a writer and editor in Barrie, Ont.

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