What Do We Know About When We Die?



What Happens When We Die?

That netherworld we enter when our bodies fail and must be discarded remains mostly a mystery. Strangely, no one really knows for sure what happens when we die, but it seems like everyone has an opinion.

Religious and spiritual leaders try to convince us of their special knowledge, but they can't be right, if for no other reason because they don't agree. The more passionate the pitch, the more quickly comes up my "no sale" sign.

Although the old Christian idea of a trip to a harp-filled heaven has been dismissed, guides and preachers now spin tales of a love fest or a place of kindness and healing.

All are attractive in their way, but none tell us enough to create as believable or as attractive a reality as that made up by the average novelist – a practitioner, by the way, more likely to be close to the truth.

(Note: I'm an average novelist and may not be objective.)

Through near death experiences, the haunting, tantalizingly incomplete NDEs, we may get a glimpse passed the membrane separating here from there. As such, we see only the moments that escape in compromise as the tether is broken. We see the first steps of language and object recognition, each – just as when we were children – to be replaced by a more consequential reality as we learn to mesh our senses with our new surroundings.

Two unavoidable truths are nearly always neglected in discussions about death, but each leads to unexpected understandings.

A fundamental thing we must always keep in mind is that, while alive and, if there is anything after death, during that too, we are always part of nature. Enormous confusion arises when we imagine death to be an escape from reality. To what? There isn't anything existing outside nature, traditional religious beliefs aside. After death, whether conscious or void, we remain in nature.

The second truth is that, whatever comes next must be as different as life is from death. In other words, in an afterlife experience, there must be a universe of things that are unlike any we know now. We are not going to drive cars or nestle in suburbia. No Starbucks in the Hereafter, and I can only wish for a reasonable alternative. Even the best marketers can't cross the line.

Life as we know it is, well, life as we know it. Death must be, well, death as we can't possibly know it and much, much different, as different as light is from dark, as day is from night.

Setting aside, for the moment, the beliefs of many who think they have connections with friends, loved ones and even strangers who are gone, the question about the afterlife most pertinent would seem to be more if than what. Is there really some next thing we participate in or does it all cease?

The most widely accepted scientific thinking is that the self is an illusion created in our brains as a command post to manage all the sensory inputs and functions that require too much judgment to go on autopilot. There is no independent soul or spirit, just a highly evolved and very capable electrically charged apparatus that provides the illusion of an eternal me.

This argument, as magical as any religious case, brings up Jill Bolte Taylor's My Stroke of Insight. In her book as well as on a popular TED Conference presentation available on line, Taylor tells the story of her stroke.

As a brain scientist, she was able to extract great insight in observing what was happening to her brain as it turned to mush. Funny thing is – and she never comments on this – some rational, detached something was watching all the while, apparently unaffected, and taking notes.

Now, who was that? I don't care if we don't know, just as long we don't simply ignore the fact of it.

More philosophically and, for that reason, more important to me, is an understanding that nature – evolution, the nuts and bolts of development–does not waste energy, certainly not on fantasies unhooked from reality.

There is no good argument for why humans would invent Gods or stories about afterlives. Early stories may have been crude attempts to explain phenomena we felt ourselves losing touch with as we evolved into more conscious creatures.

Early home cooking wasn't anything to brag about either. But there is nothing, except the convenience of argument, to make us think these understandings were made up from whole cloth as a hedge against fear or whatever.

Avoidance of death seems a characteristic of nearly everything in nature, at least until a reproductive mission has been achieved.

The single lifetime orgasm of a male praying mantis must be like the crescendo of a Mozart symphony, but then, it's over, Johnny.

Avoidance is not the same thing as fear. And even so, why would nature cook up the idea of an afterlife? We take this concept for granted now, but it must have come from somewhere. Whole cloth creativity seems the wishful thinking of a debunker.

For me, even without the reinforcement coming from channels and survivors of NDEs, the truth is unavoidable. First, we are more than a congealing of sensory inputs, memory and expectation resulting in – Voila! – a mind.

There is something apart from but connected to the physical here. It goes on, maybe even absorbing us. Where we go is unknowable, just as it is impossible for us to understand a language in which not a single syllable is recognized.

We owe a great deal to those who have returned from near death experiences and volunteered tales of "the other side," but these can't be taken as the whole story or even anything close to it. Life is, after all, life, and death is not.

We know we survive, but the discoveries and adventures in that unvisited realm of nature must wait. Our time will come, and we have nothing to fear. Even if I'm wrong and only a void awaits, we still have nothing to fear. Remember the old saying that, What you don't know can't hurt you? Neither can a void, as unlikely as it is that you will ever fall into one.

I've added some links below for further research as well as some other ideas worth considering.

David Stone

Find all my books on my Amazon Author Page

Let's take a reading on life after death.

Do you believe there is another life, before birthvor after death?

  • Yes, for sure.
  • No way. It's wishful thinking.
  • I admit I really don't know. I'll just have to wait to find out.
See results without voting

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What do you think? 16 comments

C.J. Dufty profile image

C.J. Dufty 5 years ago from united states

sounds like these were ideas you got from month-long studies of death, rather than just "straight out of your head". enjoyable.

David Stone profile image

David Stone 6 years ago from New York City Author

I read somewhere that no God worth having would stand for proof. By the same token, uncertainty energizes more than it flattens. I've always thought that the presence or absence of an afterlife (or a prior life) should have no influence on choices made now. If one needs that reinforcement, then one's values are a little shaky.

Thanks for the thoughtful comment.

Freeway Flyer profile image

Freeway Flyer 6 years ago

I don't know if there is a divine plan or if some afterlife awaits us. (If there is an eternal afterlife, then what's the point of this transitory, imperfect one?)

I wonder if uncertainty, however, is part of the point. Not knowing keeps things interesting. Having no guarantee of a reward gives us a chance to be truly sacrificial and ethical.

David Stone profile image

David Stone 6 years ago from New York City Author

I will check it out. I think your tag, Squirrelchaser is delightful as well as funny. Thank you.

You are right that you have to find your own inner wisdom, your intuition, which I will write about someday when I feel it's a bit more substantial in my head. Everyone seems to get an individual message, and in the end, we are all feeling around for a way of describing reality as we experience it. It's a great adventure and exceptionally personal.

Squirrelchaser profile image

Squirrelchaser 6 years ago from Leesburg, FL

I wish you'd check out my hub page on "I Have A Problem With Powerlessness.........." and give me some feedback. I would like to write a hub about atheism (that is separated from this hub group). I'm just looking for some inspiration and an angle to inspire me. You are obviously an intelligent and educated person and I enjoyed your article. I can learn a lot from you, but I have to write from my own experience and intelligence and educational level. We may have those difference and still be close to the same track on this philosophical issue or nonissue. (smile) I'm not sure how all this works so, just in case, here is my web address:


David Stone profile image

David Stone 6 years ago from New York City Author

Already clicked the link. Thanks, Jewels.

Jewels profile image

Jewels 6 years ago from Australia


Check this out David. Very comprehensive, and reputable.

David Stone profile image

David Stone 6 years ago from New York City Author

Jane, Jewels, thanks for the reading suggestions. The ideas expressed were straight out of my head, without any special reading. Maybe these books can help me take my understanding a bit further. Always ready to let insight take a step up.

Jewels profile image

Jewels 6 years ago from Australia

The works of Samuel Sagan may interest you. One includes Death the Great Journey and is a phenomenal collection of years and years of study not only of peoples experiences with death but esoteric writings from many spiritual traditions.

Jane Bovary profile image

Jane Bovary 6 years ago from The Fatal Shore


I very much enjoyed this. Have you read Future of an Illusion? Freud believed religion was invented as a response to the shock of consciousness...which is an interesting idea.


David Stone profile image

David Stone 6 years ago from New York City Author

Well, mine doesn't, but I still expect to die. Mission accomplished.

barbaz21 profile image

barbaz21 6 years ago from Highland Park, NJ

He left something out. Life sucks .... then we die. Not the other way around.

David Stone profile image

David Stone 6 years ago from New York City Author

There is no such NEED. Unless you can demonstrate in what way evolution found an advantage in installing this need, like a genetic meme, it remains a cliche that is too easily accepted.

The greater likelihood is that the concept of a powerful God or, more commonly, Gods, evolved as way of recognizing a powerful nature that, as cognizant beings, we increasingly saw ourselves separating from. The Gods were symbols used to explain phenomena. As control was sought, rituals and humanization followed until today we have Gods who are just like you and me, except smarter and wiser. Those will dissolve, I predict, and the idea that we ever needed a God for anything more than the most effective symbol available to an emerging species will go with them.

De Greek profile image

De Greek 6 years ago from UK

With respect, your statement “There is no good argument for why humans would invent Gods or stories about afterlives” may not be accurate. The fact that since time immemorial humans have had the NEED to believe in a Higher Being, should in itself be a sufficiently good argument that humans invent the gods that suit them best. A God is a crutch to both the weak and the strong in times of difficulty.

David Stone profile image

David Stone 6 years ago from New York City Author

I felt the same way when I read your cat piece. I did a hub called "Happy Cats" a while back, but it wasn't as rich as yours. In my book, A Million Different Things, I used cats as examples of how to live.

Are you on Facebook, by the way?

Leafy Den profile image

Leafy Den 6 years ago from the heart


Wow, we are so much on the same wavelength here!

This is the first that I have read of you and am left excited to read more. As someone who was raised in a very strict fundamentalist Christian household, I have gone through several identity crises just to finally realize and be comfortable with the idea that it is okay to not know.

It is a fascinating subject and one I enjoy reading about but (thankfully) I no longer feel that knowing what happens after we die is a pre-requisite to enjoying life as we are living it.


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