Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Life After Death

The first time I saw a dead person, I was on the Q53 bus headed south. I must have been fourteen or fifteen. It was a hot Sunday in June and three of us—myself and two friends—were heading to Rockaway Beach. In the seat in front of me was a black woman whom I had noticed when we got on because she was suffering from some version of vitiligo, a skin condition that leaves those who suffer from it with large, pale patches of de-pigmented skin all over their bodies. She was an elderly woman too, someone I would have offered my seat to had she been standing (I was a peculiarly polite teenager), and she was wearing a huge sun hat. But she wasn’t standing at all—she was seated right in front of me when suddenly, somewhere near where Ozone Park turns into Howard Beach, she slumped forward in her seat and then, a moment later, fell to the floor of the bus. The driver pulled over, then came back to investigate, then called for help on the kind of two-way radio provided to bus drivers in those days  for use in emergency situations. (This was long before cell phones, obviously.)  

A few minutes later—it felt like hours, but can’t have been more than ten or twelve minutes—an ambulance and several police cars arrived. I was right there—the action was unfolding in the aisle next to my own seat—while they attempted to revive her, but, even though no announcements were made to the riding public, I could tell that they hadn’t been successful. A gurney was produced; her body was taken off the bus. The best part of the story is that the bus then continued on its route and we ended up spending the day swimming and sunning ourselves at the beach as planned. But that experience stayed with me and, in some extended sense, stays with me still.

More than anything, I remember being struck by how things really can change on a dime. You get up in the morning, decide to spend your day off at the beach. You gather up your things, put on a big hat with a large brim to protect you from the sun, make some sandwiches, fill a thermos with coffee…and then you fall over on the bus to the beach, draw your last breath, and are no more. A few days later, you are buried in the earth…and that, except for the hole your death has left in the hearts of those you’ve left behind, is more or less that. Or is it?

We all wonder about what comes next, if anything comes next. And, as we age, deciding whether death is a wall or a door is the question that comes to rest at the heart of how we think about life itself. As a rabbi, I’m supposed to be an expert on all sorts of things that regular people don’t or can’t know about. And, indeed, people ask me all the time what happens after death, a question made more, not less, poignant by the fact that it is almost invariably asked by people who have no real expectation that the answer they receive will be more than the answerer’s personal fantasy. And yet ask it they do, using a thousand different ways to express that same thought. Is death a gate in the fence, a door in the wall? Is it a transfer to the next bus, a portal to whatever lies beyond, a ladder to the next level? Or is it none of the above and just the last scene before the credits roll, the last chapter before you close the book, the final chord before the orchestra packs up and goes home? Our Jewish tradition is bit vague about the aftermath of the individual, preferring instead to train its gaze on the death of death itself that the prophets promised the messianic era will bring in its redemptive wake.  But what of the individual who lives and dies in a pre-redeemed world? Where does that person (or, to make the question sound less loony, that person’s soul or self) go, if indeed he or she or it goes anywhere at all? What, to ask the question slightly more sharply, do people mean when they say that they are saying Kaddish for some deceased person? For them, how?

I peruse the bestseller lists in the Times’ Book Review every weekend and have been long struck by the number of bestselling books by authors who purport to know exactly what happens after the curtain only appears to fall on human life as we know it, on our individual human lives. Some of these books are almost unbelievably successful: Pastor Todd Burpo’s book, Heaven Is For Real has sold a cool one million e-books since it was released in 2010 and is still on the Times’ list of non-fiction paperback bestsellers. I’ve been watching it there now for years—when it slipped off the top ten into the top twenty last month, it had been there for an unbelievable 206 weeks.  Dr. Eben Alexander III’s book Proof of Heaven spent 94 weeks on the list and keeps re-appearing in the top twenty even now. This week, I finally gave into my own sense of curiosity and read both books.

Heaven Is For Real is the odder of the two. Written by a pastor about his young son Colton’s experiences in heaven during an emergency appendectomy, the book has the strange feature of presenting the personal testimony of someone who only speaks to the readers through someone else’s voice. 
It’s an odd voice too, the father’s, one so given to using babyish euphemisms for basic body functions that it feels as though a shy child unused to speaking to adults were addressing the book’s readers rather than a grown man. It’s hard to take an author seriously who uses words like that in written prose, yet the enormous success of the book speaks for itself…and also for the degree to which it apparently addresses a need felt keenly enough by its million-plus readers to warrant actually buying the book and not waiting for a library copy to become available. Some of it is a bit silly—the author seems inordinately impressed that his son reported that he could “see” his father, a Christian pastor, praying for him when he was in the O.R. while his mother talked to someone on the phone in another room, two actions that he must have “seen” countless times before—and some of it sounds somewhere between ghoulish and delusional. (I’m thinking of the boy's parents’ ecstatic response to the news, delivered by their four-year-old, that while wandering around heaven he had run into the fetus his mother had miscarried before he was born, now grown up to be a happy little girl fully alive in death. But creepier still is the parents’ playful banter about how each now hopes to predecease the other so as to garner the right personally to name their heavenly daughter before the other one can get to it. Did I mention this guy has sold more than one million e-books?)

The rest of the story is what you’d expect. Little Colton meets Jesus. He runs into his dad’s late grandfather. (Pop has, and I quote, “really big wings.”) He comes across the archangel Gabriel and John the Baptist and gets a long, scary look at Satan. He has a brief sit-down with the Holy Spirit. In other words, he has all the “right” experiences that any child raised in his father’s church would be expected to have. He learns nothing surprising (except perhaps that miscarried fetuses grow up in heaven), nothing doctrinally suspect, nothing even remotely upsetting. In other words, he is the living embodiment of theory according to which heaven is where everything you believed but couldn’t prove turns out actually to be right, thus the living epicenter of self-validation that beckons to all in our doubt-riddled, uncertain, unbalanced world.

I also read Eben Alexander’s book, Proof of Heaven. A neurosurgeon exactly my age, Dr. Alexander had the misfortune to contract bacterial meningitis in 2008. The disease left him in a deep coma and it was while he was comatose that he found himself in a place that he later identified as heaven. It’s difficult to summarize the experience, which is described richly and fully, and at great length, in the book; part of it had to do with being mired in a kind of heavy, tangible darkness that was simultaneously brimming with light. There was a beautiful girl riding on a giant butterfly escorting him into an immense void. Different parts of the experience, the doctor labels the Realm of the Earthworm’s-Eye View (it makes sense, sort of, in the book), the Gateway, and the Core. And this author also runs into a dead sister

in heaven, although the story here is more complicated: after finally making contact with his birthparents (Dr. Alexander was adopted as an infant), he discovers that he has a full brother and sister (his teenaged parents eventually married and had more children) but that a second sister had died. And, it turns out, it was exactly her, the late sister, who was the beautiful girl in the powder blue and indigo dress bathed in heavenly light on the butterfly’s wings. It took a while to recognize her when the author was finally out of his coma and saw her photograph for the first time, but he was eventually certain that his late sister, a woman whom he had never met and whose picture he had never seen, was the woman sent to lead him to the Core, to Om, to God. You get the idea.

So the question for me is why I find this all so hokey and unlikely. I am, after all, in the business of encouraging people to believe in the some version of life after death. I regularly chant the memorial prayer in synagogue that concludes with the wish, which I sing out fervently, that the soul of the deceased find repose in paradise, secure and safe beneath the protective wings of God’s fully present reality in that place. I unveil tombstones that have carved into them the prayer that the soul of the individual interred in that grave be bound up in the bond of life everlasting. I talk about ghosts all the time from the bimah, particularly during Yizkor. And, indeed, the notion of the durable soul is a bread-and-butter concept for Jewish theology, one of the foundational ideas upon much of the rest rests.

It is true that, at least technically speaking, neither Colton Burpo nor Eben Alexander actually died. Yet both perceived what happened to them as a kind of dying nonetheless and their perception of the state into which they entered as akin to what most pre-dead people think of as heaven, as the “other” world, as the ultimate reality of which this world of brick and mud we inhabit is the merest and least consequential shadow.  I should be proud that I was right all along, that there is a universe of light behind the door through which all must pass, that all you see is precisely not all you get. And, yes, a little bit I do want to believe that these accounts—and all the other Near Death Experiences you can read about in dozens of similar books—that the Christian symbolism in these books is merely an instance of people singing in their own voice, looking out at the world through their own eyes, interpreting the uninterpretable in terms of their own prior beliefs. But mostly it seems to me that these books, for all I want to believe, prove nothing at all. At the end of the day, neither book explains how its author knows that this wasn’t just a huge hallucination to which its author fell prey. A pleasant, endearing, very attractive hallucination, to be sure…but ultimately just a projection of prior beliefs on the blank slate of a mind at rest either artificially (like the boy under anesthesia) or tragically (like Dr. Alexander in his coma).

Of course, the fact that neither book is especially compelling doesn’t mean that there isn’t a world beyond the world, that death isn’t a door, or that the soul isn’t durable enough to outlast the body that houses it on earth. All of those ideas are part of our sacred tradition…but, at least for the time being, they can be cherished as prayers, as hopes, even as sacred promises, but not embraced as statements of proven fact that none but the wilfully obtuse could rationally deny. But that’s not such a bad thing…prayer is a powerful thing and surely none of us knows in advance which of all our prayers will be answered!

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