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Where Do We Go After We Die?

Updated on November 27, 2012
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The standard, commonsense answer to this question is, “No one knows, but all of us will find out eventually.”

Given the fact that from a scientific, rational perspective the question, “What happens after we die?” can’t be answered beyond the mechanics of bodily decomposition, most people still have surprisingly intense opinions about it.

Christians generally believe some variation on the Divine judgment followed by Heaven or Hell. Atheists are intensely committed to, “Nothing. We’re just not here anymore. The end.”

New Agers, native peoples, and pagans have a variety of answers, any of which are perfectly plausible, whether or not they can be proven beyond a shadow of a doubt by today’s standards of inquiry.

What might surprise all of these groups is that a fairly large literature about what happens to individual consciousness after death has existed for a long time. All of this literature is based on direct experience, meditation, and spirit contact.

Of course these ways of understanding the human condition are considered invalid by both the scientific community and many religions.

That doesn’t mean the process described in this literature is wrong.

Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t.

We’ll all find out eventually, right?

So, having made the necessary disclaimers and framed the issue in terms with which I am most comfortable, let’s take a look.

I don’t pretend to have any deep personal knowledge of what happens after we die, but all of the following resonate with my own life and my own experience for different reasons.

Maybe some of them will resonate with yours.

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The Spirit Leaves the Body

Death comes to us all, but not in the same way. Some people slip away after a long illness and have lots of time to contemplate their life and its impending end. Others die suddenly and unexpectedly as the result of an accident, a critical health emergency, or a spontaneous tragic event.

Still others die violently, under difficult negative circumstances.

No matter how death comes, at some point breathing stops, systems shut down or are destroyed, and the spirit leaves the body.

At the moment of separation from the body, spirits experience varying degrees of confusion and distress. Helpers greet some spirits and guide them into the Light. Many people in our culture call this Light God, but it is recognized by most other cultures too, even though it is not always called by the same name.

Once a spirit crosses over into the Light it is faced with various choices depending on the life that it has just completed.

At the moment of separation, just before it, or just before crossing over, many, many spirits visit loved ones to say good-bye. So many people have had these kinds of visits, even before they knew the person was dead, that I don’t even question whether or not they are real, although I know the psychologically-correct explanation of the moment is that they are part of the grieving process.

How can that be though, when they sometimes happen before the living person even knows the visitor is dead?

Sometimes the most obvious explanation is the correct one.

Many traditions hold that the dead hang around for about three days, no matter what their destination, just to wrap things up.

Maybe they do!

In a less happy outcome, however, some spirits remain confused or attached or distressed, and so they remain close to earth and the material dimension for a long time. This dimension or level (or whatever you choose to call it—it also is recognized in many different cultures and goes by many different names)—is not a great place to be.

I think it’s worth taking a little time to describe this closest dimension in detail, since it is populated by many elements that make up what the general public thinks of as ‘the paranormal’.

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Shadow Realms: The Umbral

The famous Brazilian Spiritist writer Chico Xavier channeled a series of books in which the spirit of a deceased physician describes his life in the spirit world after death. In these books, this doctor refers to the realm closest to earth as ‘the Umbral’, a term taken up by Brazilian Spiritists.

The Umbral is similar to the Catholic notion of purgatory, and in fact, unlike Western Spiritualism (which is more directly tied to Eastern religious ideas and practices), Spiritism is very similar in the structure of its beliefs to Catholicism.

Today, Spiritism is mostly practiced in Brazil, where Chico Xavier remains a popular and revered figure, even though he died in 2002. Before his death, he regularly appeared on Brazilian television and was a respected commentator on popular culture and personal life choices.

He never accepted any money for his writings, healing, or channeling.

What is interesting to me however is how much agreement there seems to be across religious and occult traditions on the specifics of the after death landscape. The descriptions of what Xavier called ‘the Umbral’ resonate with my own personal experiences as well, giving me some confidence in the descriptive veracity.

Of course, we can’t know any of this by today’s standards of knowledge.

But in my estimation it’s likely fairly accurate.

The Umbral is home to what most people call ‘ghosts’, as well as a number of unpleasant and downright horrible creatures and creations.

Some of these beings are made up of energy that reflects what is happening on earth that is negative or counterproductive—rage, dependency, greed, etc. Some are fragmentary energies that persist in the way insects do—they are parasitic and annoying but not truly dangerous.

Some of the spirits in the Umbral are addicted to power and have become grotesque and horrible. They stay by their own choice and they are truly frightening and vicious.

But most of the spirits trapped in the Umbral are working off what we might call ‘bad karma’ from their most recent incarnation and are confused, angry, or lost. They don‘t know what is happening and they can’t move on because of their mental state. Eventually, when they are ready, most do get out of there.

When Catholics pray for the ‘poor souls in purgatory’, these are the poor souls they are trying to help.

When people here on earth decide they have a ghost and encourage that spirit to “go into the Light” it often doesn’t work because the spirit either 1) isn’t a ghost at all, or 2) is a ghost for a reason and can’t move on yet.

In general it’s not a great idea to strike up conversations with beings that live in this realm. When kids play with Ouija boards, they may be talking to the spiritual equivalent of a stinging insect. They may get the spiritual equivalent of fleas or lice. Ouija boards are not a great hobby for teenagers, even though they are drawn to then like flies to cow poo.

On the other hand, some people are able to easily move from the realm of the living to that lowest realm of the dead, back and forth. In that case, it is important to develop a regimen of what you might call ‘spiritual hygiene’ and protection, so you don’t get into a mess.

Many people access this realm in dreams, and spirits can also contact living people in dreams. Dreams that take place in this realm or that are the result of spirit contact have a unique quality that makes them stand out from other dreams and makes them easy to remember—or impossible to not remember.

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Spirits & Guides, Demons & Monsters

This article is getting way longer than I intended, so I think instead of diving into a complicated list of related subjects here, I’ll write a continuation in a ‘Part II’ version that goes into the topic of demons and possession and so forth.

In the meantime, please keep in mind that if you think this is all rot and nonsense, that’s fine. I’m not telling anyone what to believe, just sharing a tradition that many people in our culture don’t know much about.

You are free to conclude whatever you like, and it won’t bother me a bit.

For my own part, I’ve had enough weird experiences in my life that over time I’ve come to recognize some of this as probably true based on those experiences. I also think some of it as probably true based on the experience of smart people in many different religious traditions.

The trouble with rationality and science as the only basis for knowledge is that it puts human beings in a state of detachment from the world around us and from our own experience. I’m not saying science and reason are not valuable tools, just that both are human constructs and neither explains everything.

Having made all these necessary disclaimers, I look forward to writing the next segment on this topic.

Please feel free to share your own thoughts and experiences in comments.

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    • healthylife2 profile image

      Healthy Life 4 years ago from Connecticut, USA

      Great hub...I find this topic so interesting. After a friend from law school died in a small plane crash I saw him in a dream and asked if he was OK and he gave me the thumbs up but didn't talk. I thought it was just a dream but always wondered. I felt so much better after I woke up.

    • CR Rookwood profile image
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      Pamela Hutson 4 years ago from Moonlight Maine

      Hi healthylife2! I saw my grandfather right after he died. He asked me to take care of my grandmother. I didn't even know he was dead when I saw him, but the next day I discovered he had died shortly before he came to me. I moved in with her for a year and it seemed to help. It always seemed to me like it was exactly as it seemed. I'm glad you saw your friend and it helped. Thank you for reading and commenting!

    • mperrottet profile image

      Margaret Perrottet 4 years ago from Pennsauken, NJ

      Very interesting hub. I've always been interested in this subject - it's fascinating. So many people, including myself, have stories that they could tell that seem to support what you are saying.

    • CR Rookwood profile image
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      Pamela Hutson 4 years ago from Moonlight Maine

      Thank you mperrottet! I appreciate you taking the time to read and comment. :)

    • Nell Rose profile image

      Nell Rose 4 years ago from England

      Really interesting subject, I have had certain experiences but am still not sure exactly what did happen when I saw my friend who died, I dreamed about her, but was it purely wishful thinking? I don't know, nell

    • CR Rookwood profile image
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      Pamela Hutson 4 years ago from Moonlight Maine

      I know what you mean Nell. We can't really be sure of much in this life! Thank you for taking the time to read and comment. :)

    • aviannovice profile image

      Deb Hirt 4 years ago from Stillwater, OK

      Whatever happens in death, I hope I can get some sort of writing implement, and I will tell all exactly what it is like for me.

    • CR Rookwood profile image
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      Pamela Hutson 4 years ago from Moonlight Maine

      I hope you get a writing implement too! Now that's a hub everyone would read. (But let's hope not soon!) Thanks aviannovice. ;)

    • CBartelmey profile image

      CBartelmey 4 years ago from Colorado, United States

      I have kind of popped in and around your Hubs and they are very interesting. The topics however are none that I have ever really thought about in the context that you do. I do like your writing though and I think it could be a journey worth taking to follow you and see what you come up with next. I had an interesting experience of my own the night my younger sister died almost on impact in a car accident. We were always extremely close, like two peas in a pod. That particular night I was lying in bed reading to my youngest daughter and all of the sudden it was like someone was grabbing at the right side of the bed trying to climb up or hang on. I thought it was my older daughter, or son, but I sat up and looked and no one was there. It was kind of unnerving. I really didn’t know what to think so I just brushed it off and went back to reading. That night just after 1:00 in the morning I received a call from my father that my sister had died in a car crash. I came to find out later that the accident happened just about 10:30pm Central time, 9:30pm Mountain, which was almost exactly when I had thought that someone was frantically trying to grab hold of the side of my bed.

      I didn’t know if there was any conclusion to be drawn there, but it almost seemed as if she wasn’t ready to go and was trying to grab hold of any amount of life that she could. I have since also had a dream about her where I was being directed by some individuals and ended up being turned to look down a hall where she was sitting alone in what looked like a folding chair. The joy I felt just to be able to see her again was almost overwhelming. I walked down the hall and instantly threw my arms around her. The hug only lasted seconds before I woke up, but I can tell you this. I woke up and could still almost feel the sense of my arms being wrapped around her; her, not a ghost of her, or an image of her, but her as she used to be. The whole thing still brings me to tears because I feel that she is still out there somewhere, and she was never someone that I wanted to let go of. And again, I have never really believed in ghosts or spirits or things that go bump in the night, but that experience I believe has to mean something.

    • CR Rookwood profile image
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      Pamela Hutson 4 years ago from Moonlight Maine

      Hi CBartelmey! Thank you so much for sharing your story. I think this sort of thing happens so often, and yes it does mean so much.

      When my mother died I never had any experience like that, and I felt bad about it. About ten years later I had what felt like a heart attack at work and was rushed to the hospital, where they kept me overnight and ran a bunch of tests. As soon as I was alone in the hospital room I suddenly had the overwhelming feeling that my mother was present. I hadn't even thought of her in years and it was so intense--finally I said out loud, "thank you, but you're freaking me out!" because I thought she was there to collect me or something. And boom, just like that, she was gone.

      It was very comforting and still is. We had a difficult relationship while she was alive and she also died very suddenly and unexpectedly.

      Thank you for taking the time to read and comment. I really appreciate it and wish you all the best.

    • kittythedreamer profile image

      Nicole Canfield 4 years ago from the Ether

      Can I share with you my experience as far as what happens after we die? Hopefully it's not too boring (as it was a dream, and I know some people's dream stories can be a snooze).

      In this dream, I died. My soul or energy (more or less) left my physical body and shot up into the sky...into space. It almost felt like I was being sucked into space...but it was a feeling like I'd never experienced before...but yet I knew I HAD experienced it. It was so overwhelmingly comforting and warm, that it makes me cry out of happiness just thinking about it. I truly believe that we are all from the same place, or what some call source energy. And when we die, we return to that same place from which we came. I also believe that I've been here before, and that our energy circulates or what some call reincarnation. It is not just a thought, it is something that was so real in this dream that I KNEW without a shadow of a doubt that I had traveled that same path many times before. I woke up feeling invigorated and absolutely certain of where I was going after death.

    • CR Rookwood profile image
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      Pamela Hutson 4 years ago from Moonlight Maine

      Kitty, that is SO beautiful! I am so glad you shared it. I believe something similar, and I also know I have been here before. I remember bits of two past lives, which is weird. I used to second guess myself but over time it has been useful in this life so I just accept it. You know, if it works, don't fix it!~ Thank you for sharing. :)

    • Rain Defence profile image

      Rain Defence 4 years ago from UK

      Interesting hub, I've had a couple of family members say they've had this sort of experience where they've seen a person that have recently died. I've never really known what to think about it and don't usually think about it to be honest. I guess you're right, we'll find out one day, I just hope that I don't get murdered and end up with unresolved business as that wouldn't be cool.

    • CR Rookwood profile image
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      Pamela Hutson 4 years ago from Moonlight Maine

      Hi Rain Defence! I wouldn't want that either! I guess we don't get to choose. Good thing we don't usually know when it is coming. Thanks for your comment.

    • Emanate Presence profile image

      Gary R. Smith 4 years ago from the Head to the Heart

      Hi CR, Very interesting hub. Reminds me of my introduction to spiritism while working with a wildlife photographer / naturalist in Maine in the early 70s. Your hub came to my attention when I read your comment on my HSP hub. Also just published a story around my brother's passing in the early 70s, called Star-Gazing Wanderer. He wrote a song which seemed to foretell his transition.

    • CR Rookwood profile image
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      Pamela Hutson 4 years ago from Moonlight Maine

      Thanks for coming by Emanate Presence! I'll have to read that story about your brother. Thank you for referencing it. :)

    • Emanate Presence profile image

      Gary R. Smith 4 years ago from the Head to the Heart

      And thank you for stopping by 'my place.' Next time I will have something for us to drink. Coffee or tea? :-)

    • CR Rookwood profile image
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      Pamela Hutson 4 years ago from Moonlight Maine

      Coffee! (And thank you!)

    • rajan jolly profile image

      Rajan Singh Jolly 4 years ago from From Mumbai, presently in Jalandhar,INDIA.

      A very interesting and intriguing topic to choose. Science has not yet reached a stage to explain the different experiences that a person passes through at the point of death or even when a dead person comes back to life after being declared dead for a while.

      I've read quite a bit and heard too of paranormal experiences of others, so I find it believable as those who have experienced it have been from my family.

      Voted up, interesting.

    • Emanate Presence profile image

      Gary R. Smith 4 years ago from the Head to the Heart

      CR, I came back for a more thorough reading and clicked 'Interesting' and 'Up', although it is more than interesting. We will need a whole coffee pot for our visit, so many stories to share. I have hesitated to write about some of my experiences, as people would likely stop coming by. Such as when Kati and I freed earth-bound native American souls in the wilderness who 'came to us' while we were camping. We later learned they had been massacred by U.S. military. In my teens, a great longing was to astral travel. Then, as you wrote so well, I realized that the Umbral or Astral plane, is not necessarily a desireable place to vacation. Also, my one experience with Ayahuasca was enough. Not all visions are from God. I have also experienced higher dimensional beings. You do a great service by bringing the subject out in the open, in a well-informed and level-headed way.

    • CR Rookwood profile image
      Author

      Pamela Hutson 4 years ago from Moonlight Maine

      Thank you Emanate Presence! I realized, after writing about this stuff for a long time, that there is this silent spirituality in the US--people who believe common things based on personal experience but have learned not to talk about these things out of fear of ridicule. The fear is realistic--some people WILL ridicule you if you 'come out', but you'd be amazed at how many people, like you, will say, "thank you so much for saying that out loud!" It makes me sad about the way we treat each other here (I just noticed you are in Germany). It's like we have the 'reality police' here, and they're mostly volunteer. It's crazy! Thank you for your kind comments. :)

    • CR Rookwood profile image
      Author

      Pamela Hutson 4 years ago from Moonlight Maine

      Thank you Rajan Jolly! I think science can't explain everything. Some topics are out of its range. But people have similar experiences and have had them since there have been people. So I trust that.

    • Peggasuse profile image

      Peggasuse 4 years ago from Indiana, USA

      I totally agree with your view. I myself have had a NDE and one OBE. When I died, it was so peaceful. I was in a sort of void, just floating. And then, I looked to the side and saw a point of light. Then suddenly, I was propelled back into my body. I'll never forget that.

      I have a cousin to whom this also happened, but he went further than I did. He saw the light and his deceased relatives and then was taken on a "road trip" through the desert. When he got to the place where there was a house, he heard someone telling the driver to take him back, because it wasn't his time yet.

      It's strange, about NDEs. Afterwards, there is absolutely NO fear of death, anymore. You know what's over there and feel the love and that's all that matters.

      I've had lots of experiences with ghosts too, as a grew up in a haunted house. In my mind, there's zero doubt that the spirit worlds exist.

      Very good article. I think people need to read more information like this, so that they have less fear about moving to the other side. Fear is negative. Love is positive. Think positive...

    • CR Rookwood profile image
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      Pamela Hutson 4 years ago from Moonlight Maine

      Hi Peggasuse! I think lots more people have had these kinds of experiences than we could ever guess. There's such a taboo on sharing them at all, much less believing them to be real. That's too bad because it leaves people feeling crazy when really they are not! Thanks for sharing your perspective--it seems we have a lot in common!

    • philomusic profile image

      J. M. Thompson 4 years ago

      Very interesting ideas, CR. I enjoyed your take on the afterlife. After all, it is logical to assume that the notion of an afterlife is actually plausible, because it makes up such a large part of many belief systems. The Umbral was quite interesting in its similarities to Purgatory.

    • CR Rookwood profile image
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      Pamela Hutson 4 years ago from Moonlight Maine

      Thanks philomusic! I appreciate you coming by and taking a look. :)

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