American Culture

Hell on earth? How about hell in heaven?

Suffocated by your family? It could be worse in the afterlife.

That we’ll be “greeted by loved ones” at death has become conventional wisdom these days. It’s especially common among those who believe that we not only reincarnate, but we sojourn across the eons in a “soul group.” With each rebirth, the members of the group appear in different configurations.

For example, friends turn up as family and vice versa. Or — worst case scenario — your mother in a previous life is your wife in this life. Were we privy to that information, the ew factor would be off the charts. But, when divulged or coaxed forth by the dulcet tones of psychics or past-life therapists, it’s more palatable. Of course, in the afterlife these kinds of concerns are immaterial –- just like anything material!

The late Dr. Ian Stephenson conducted extensive research on what, for science’s sake, he called “cases suggestive of reincarnation.” Mostly in Asia, he found young children regaling their families with tales that seemed to come from another life. Their accounts often corresponded to the lives and deaths of recently deceased in the family or nearby.

Some of the children even bore birth defects and marks corresponding to wounds or other marks on the deceased person, as confirmed by postmortem exams. Tom Shroder, a Washington Post reporter who traveled with Dr. Stephenson throughout Asia, immortalized his work in his 1999 book, “Old Souls: Compelling Evidence from Children Who Remember Past Lives.”

When it comes to the actual afterlife itself, though, not since the Tibetan Book of the Dead has anybody compiled as thorough an account as Dr. Michael Newton in his books “Journey of Souls” and “Destiny of Souls.” Like a film maker with a camera, he used hypnosis in his Life Between Life therapy to document the next step beyond the usual fare of near-death experiences. Bringing ’em back alive, he documented hundreds of accounts of the equivalent of daily life in heaven.

Retired now from therapy, his work bequeathed to trainees, Dr. Newton, like Dr. Stephenson, cut no corners. After a session with him, one patient said: “He is absolutely the stubborn investigator he describes in his books and challenged the things I said, questioned me during the session, compared to things I had said earlier to make sure I was still saying the same things.”

But there’s no need to swallow Dr. Newton’s accounts whole. What’s important is the preview they provide us of what we’re likely to experience when dead. Like perusing travel brochures and websites before a trip, the reality is often different from how it’s presented to us.

It was in Dr. Newton’s books that this author was first introduced to the concept of soul groups. They’re also central to a new book by medium-to-the-stars Concetta Bertoldi, “Do Dead People Watch You Shower?” As its title suggests, this is an engaging look at life on the other side and the relationship between the living and the dead.*

Ms. Bertoldi assures us that our family members are waiting for us. Not only that, but they’re watching us (read the book to find out if that includes in the shower), monitoring our progress, and cheering us on. It’s comforting fare, especially for those to whom keeping the family together is paramount –- that is, mothers.

We’ve all heard hard-partying types profess to prefer hell over heaven. All angels and clouds and everyone saccharine sweet, heaven suffers from a distinct lack of sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll. But it’s not boring to those committed to working on themselves and circumambulating the cycle of death and rebirth. Still, even some of us who might otherwise look forward to it are ambivalent about the afterlife.

It’s all that togetherness –- is heaven going to be like family get-togethers? (Though minus any strife because it is, after all, heaven.) Are you reduced to rehashing memories because you’ve got nothing else to say to each other since you’ve grown in different directions over the years?

For those of us who define family as people we wouldn’t personally choose to hang around with, heaven will require a significant attitude adjustment.

But, if you believe in reincarnation, you can take comfort from the knowledge that your stay in the afterlife is limited in duration. So, it’s claustrophobic — gut it out. It’s just that, once reincarnated, we’re right back where we started with our family and the rest of our soul group again.

When in heaven, exactly what activities do we engage in with our soul group? Many of us, uncomfortable with small talk, like to keep his or her own counsel. Is our lot in life, I mean death, the same panicked struggle to avoid strained silences and find common ground with those with whom you have nothing in common?

Those who claim to prefer hell –- whether fire, cold, or consignment to rebirth in Darfur –- to heaven are just being dramatic. After all, heaven provides a much-needed break from suffering on earth. Upon rebirth, purged of resentments and world-weariness, your soul comes out all bright and shiny.

But, on earth, grown men and women can, to a certain extent, determine how much time they spend with their families. Are we able to exercise that kind of control in the afterlife or are our destinies pre-ordained?

Great, just what we need –- another reason to fear death.

*Those who consider themselves spiritual, but are uncomfortable with organized religion, are often stumped when it comes to explaining to children that the supreme being is something other than a personal god. With her simple, direct portrayal of God as an energy or intelligence instead of a being, Ms. Bertoldi’s book is perfect for children. Also, since she stands on little ceremony with her matter-of-fact approach to the afterlife, she brings death, as it were, alive for them.

8 replies »

  1. To coin a cliche, I don’t think I’d want to be a soul group that would have me as a member.

    Interesting reading, Russ. Thanks.

  2. See? We can’t even get away from ourselves in the afterlife, Dr. D., never mind others.

  3. I’ve learned that my take on all this is a little disconcerting to some. What happens after you die? I neither know nor care. But a lot of people, even people I’d expect to be less convinced about things they can’t possibly know, profess a need to believe, to have in their heads a concrete idea about what follows that last breath on Earth.

    Interesting stuff, Russ.

  4. Russ,

    I’ve been struggling with afterlife issues as of late. I don’t know what I believe, and it’s causing me great distress. I refuse to read any of the books out there regarding the afterlife, as all of the evidence and case histories are anecdotal. I guess I’ll have to wait to die to see what happens.


  5. All I know is that I can’t possibly know, and the extent to which this pisses me off when I think about it tells me exactly why so many people choose to believe that they do know.

    But if any of you get there before me, save me a table near the band. And tell Robert Mitchum I’m on my way.

  6. I just happened upon this website and good that I did. Many of you don’t seem to know what happens after you die. Well that’s why Jesus Christ came to this world, died and was resurrected — so that we may KNOW that’s what can happen to us. Choose whom you will serve and live with the consequences. Peace.

    • Actually, I don’t know what happens after I die, and given that I’ve logically proven the God of Christianity can’t exist, I don’t think you know either. Not that I expect you to believe me or accept the proof (I’ve heard people suggest that God is beyond logic, for example, but that just opens entirely new avenues to disprove existence), of course.

      At this point, I have to say that if God does exist, all the crap he allows to happen has convinced me that he’s unworthy of my worship.

    • Lucy: You use the word “know” in an interesting way. Specifically, you seem to be using it in a way that’s damned near the exact opposite of what the dictionary says it means. Maybe you can elaborate. And by all means, feel free to provide evidence.

      And please, look up the meaning of the word “evidence” before you reply.