Religion & Philosophy

Infidel Sunday: What if we don't want to be greeted by loved ones at death?

Conventional wisdom holds that fear of death is epidemic in the Western world. Whatever the truth of that, cultural commentators are all too willing to chalk it up to everything from our materialistic society to our isolation from one another.

What’s missing though is an honest acknowledgment that fear of death can be a rational response. If you break the fear down to its components parts, it suddenly starts to make sense. Prominent among our fears are eternal punishment and non-existence, not to mention the pain of the dying process. A fourth fear — that of the unknown — essentially incorporates the other three.

Even those of us who believe we’re destined for a better place can’t deny that we’re heading out essentially sight unseen. Not only aren’t we shown a travelogue of our destination, we’re provided with no travel brochures to leaf through. Guide books, such as the Tibetan Book of the Dead, are the exception, especially in the West. Nor is there a map or even an itinerary — inexcusable omissions in the Information Age.

Of course, there’s always word of mouth. On Christianity’s heaven: “God’s crystal-clear light will fill heaven [which is] a city made of pure gold. … Each of the twelve gates of the city will be made of pearl.” On Islam’s jannah: “[A state of bliss where you wear] costly robes, bracelets, [and] perfumes as [you] partake in exquisite banquets [and] recline on couches inlaid with gold or precious stones.” (Note how I refrained from the cheap joke about houri, those translucent virgins used to entice suicide bombers.)

But for those of us who fear death with its concomitant uncertainty about the afterlife, a life rope has been thrown to us. It comes in the form of the comforting notion that when we pass over we’ll be greeted by loved ones.

You didn’t hear this from Christianity or Islam, though. True, you’re assured that you’ll see your family again upon your assimilation into the afterlife. However, you’re gently but firmly reminded that heaven is all about God or Allah. You can be forgiven if that reminds you of a cult.

What then is the source of the “greeted by loved ones” motif? In fact, it’s a product of mediums — one actually titled his book Never Say Goodbye — and those who’ve had near-death experiences (NDEs), as well as those who believe in past lives. According to this belief, not only will you be reunited with your family, but, according to the NDEs of many, its members will appear, not at their cachexic death-bed worst, but as in your most cherished memories of them. Your mother will be at her most maternal and your grandmother will be at her grandmotherly best.

For many who fear death, this may be just what the doctor ordered. But what about those for whom the prospect of meeting their family is a source of little or no consolation?

Many — perhaps more than care to admit it — subscribe to the notion that family is just a group of people, most of whom we’d never spend time with if our lots hadn’t been thrown in together by the luck of the draw. To us, family is, at worst, abusive, at best, dysfunctional. Then there are those of us to whom the idea of family is decent enough, but representative of a commonplace, provincial mentality that we’ve dedicated our youths to escaping.

In other words, the prospect of an afterlife in which we’re enmeshed in the web of family life all over again is even worse than being kept in the dark about the afterlife. Wait, how about if we just give family members we meet up with there an air kiss? I mean, what’s more befitting the incorporeal? Then we’ll engage them in some small talk — “Uncle Harry didn’t make it? Sorry to hear that.” — and move on.

Unfeeling as it sounds, that may be all that’s required according to psychologist and hypnotist James Newton. The author of popular and provocative books about reincarnation like Journey of Souls and Destiny of Souls, he’s at the forefront of the minority who, instead of past lives, explores lives between lives, aka, the afterlife. According to Dr. Newton’s hypnosis subjects, once family greets you, its members fade into the woodwork (or cloudwork, as it were), at least for the time being.

You then move on to your “soul group” — not the Earth Wind and Fire kind, but the type said to account for that “Haven’t I met you before?” feeling. Composed of individuals with whom we’ve reincarnated on a regular basis, we catch up on old times with them in the afterlife. This is where the worst fears of those to whom family has been an albatross around their necks come to fruition.

Soul groups, see, are said to often include family members. Furthermore, when it comes to reincarnation, family roles are interchangeable. For example, your mother in a previous life may be your wife in this life. Good thing we’re not privy to that information on earth — the “ew-w-w” factor would be off the charts.

Furthermore, in the afterlife we can expect to hash out our differences with family members who are part of our soul group. However civil the tone — as you can imagine, strife on high is frowned upon — an afterlife encounter group with our family doesn’t sound so heavenly, does it? Not to mention the boundary issues that mind-reading raises.

Still, if you’re among those to whom one of reincarnation’s selling points is that you get to change families, you can take comfort in the knowledge that your stay in the afterlife should be brief. After you’ve enjoyed some r & r, digested your previous life, and drawn up an action plan for your next, your soul will be recycled to earth again. Gut it out in heaven until you get out — just like when you were growing up in a bad or dreary family.

8 replies »

  1. Russ – terrific piece to contemplate with my morning coffee. I hadn’t considered that interaction with prior family members was on the menu after death. I guess I had made an assumption that IF you really had an afterlife, it was to be harmonious – so earthly issues and connections would be removed.

    Religion (the organized sort) baffles me completely. Rather than follow so many rules – how about just live a good life in the here and now… Thanks for the thought provoking piece.

  2. Dawn wrote:

    I guess I had made an assumption that IF you really had an afterlife, it was to be harmonious – so earthly issues and connections would be removed.

    I’m sure you’re right about this, Dawn. We can tell ourselves that all obstacles to loving family will be removed in the afterlife. Still, if we have problems with our family in the here and now, seeing them in the afterlife doesn’t serve as a very good incentive to cast our lots with a belief system that promises that.

    If you’re sensing that I find my family (wife and child excepted!) somewhat, er, wearisome, you wouldn’t be far from the truth.

  3. I have no post-death expectations, nor am I especially afraid of what happens after I draw my last. But the thought of having to deal with all my relatives in an afterlife? Okay, that’s a little scary.

    Dead relatives are like live ones. If I didn’t want to be around them in life, then I damned sure wouldn’t want to be around them afterward…..

  4. Dr. S. wrote:

    Dead relatives are like live ones. If I didn’t want to be around them in life, then I damned sure wouldn’t want to be around them afterward…..

    See, you get it!

  5. A mother is also a wife (or ex) and a daughter. Her husband and mother would, presumably, be in the afterlife as well. Would their perceptions of her change her, or would she be each aspect of her self in totality to those in her family? If it is the former, she’d be just like she is in this life. If the latter, i think that we’re in the territory of Jungian archetypes, projections and the unconscious.

    And perhaps death is as the archaics surmised: a big sleep…which would logically include big dreams.

    I’ve read reincarnation theories/myths that suggest we return with – roughly – the same group of souls life after life. But i’ve never heard of familial configurations remaining constant. Or maybe the group of souls is your celestial (for lack of a better word) family and the real relationships span lifetimes. The celestial You would only recognize the family between lives…making death like a family reunion…because to recognize those sorts of things during life is a sign of big power and the ability to exit the circle of birth and death at will.

    Reincarnation theories end up a lot like heaven and hell: whatever the believer wants them to be.

    Personally, i think that we should great death openly; how else will we find out what’s on the other side? Death is part of the ride and you bought the ticket.

  6. I should add that reincarnation is treated very differently in serious religions than it is in New Age belief systems. The Buddhists don’t believe that any part of you really makes the jump; you dissolve to become a wholly different you the next time around. The Hindus treat it somewhat differently and allow for a You to bridge lives. But the You that they’re talking about is the Atman, not the ego. The Atman is your inner divinity and has nothing to do with your ego.

    The New Age (most of which is greatly influenced by Blatavsky’s Theosophy) generally takes Eastern concepts and then simply applies them to the ego. The only way that we could meet our family is if everyone’s ego is eternal. Honestly, that’s just silly. (and more frightening than any depiction of Christian Hell) But it does point to my personal problem with the New Age: they take complex, esoteric doctrine from afar and ruin it be removing its most important points so that it fits nicely with Western Society.