I’ve been thinking about death a lot lately. Some would say that it would be natural due to my
age and that I’m living with a neurological disease. And it is more than that. There is a lot more
about death in our awareness these days. We hear a death count every day about covid related
illness. We hear regular updates of the number of deaths related to the contaminated drugs in
the Opioid Drug Crisis. We hear of mass shootings in the US and the trauma of the recent
stabbing of a number of people in North Vancouver. And there are the losses that we all
experience personally; family members, friends, members of our community, who die from
illness, accident, suicide or homicide.
In modern Western society, most people have little direct experience of death, and we don’t like
to talk about it. Our society is organized in such a way that the dead are quickly removed from
us, and those traditions that do encourage viewing the dead do so only after careful cosmetic
preparation by specialized morticians, often resulting in the dead looking more like an elegant
wax model replica of the living person.
What happens when we die? As a psychotherapist and spiritual director I get asked that
question often. My only reply can be “I don’t know.” But as a follower of the wisdom teachings of
Jesus and as a disciple of Christ, I am interested and open to the scriptures as well as many
Scripture, particularly in the Gospel of John says a lot about death. In 5:24 the writer asserts
that for the believer eternal life does not wait until the end of time but is given now, In 8:51 “Very
truly I tell you, whoever keeps my word will never see death.” In chapter 12 in the story of
Lazarus where Jesus claims at the beginning of the story that his illness is not leading to death,
it is about demonstrating God’s glory and power over life and death. 20:30-31 “Now Jesus did
many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these
are written so you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that
through believing you may have life in his name.”
What does that mean to us today?
One way of imagining into the teachings of Jesus, is as Cynthia Bourgeault describes him as a
“master in an ancient spiritual tradition” she calls “wisdom”. That he was one of the souls on this
earth with a very highly developed consciousness with the ability to access the source of all life.
Jesus spoke the language of his day and culture to explain the relationship between the source,
God and humanity.
About death Jesus says, over and over again, that death is an illusion. Not that the body doesn’t
die, because he was very explicitly killed on the cross, but HE didn’t die and he came back to
his disciples to prove it. We call it resurrection.
Where else can we learn about what death may be like? Near Death Experiences, or NDE’s as
they are known, can suggest some possibilities about the experience of death.
Dr. Bruce Greyson, Professor Emeritus of Psychiatry and Neurobehavioral Sciences at the
University of Virginia, has studied near death experiences for over 45 years and is considered
one of the worlds leading experts in their science and significance. In his new book titled After:
A Doctor Explores What Near-Death Experiences Reveal about Life and Beyond, he
shares the insights he’s learned over four decades of research.
He is a self proclaimed skeptic and admits he grew up, like most of us, with the idea that the
mind is what the brain does. And there is plenty of evidence for that in everyday life. For
example when you think of intoxication on alcohol or drugs, the brain is affected and our
cognitive function is impaired. Or if we have a stroke or a concussion our mind is affected. But,
he says, under extreme circumstances like near death experiences that correlation between
brain and mind seems to break down. During an NDE when there is no brain function, people
are still able to think and feel. In fact, he says, most people report that they had more clarity and
their experience was more real than ordinary life.
There are common themes in the NDE such as glorious, radiant light, feelings of wonder, mental
clarity and bliss, out-of-body experiences, travelling through a long tunnel, meeting entities they
think of as God or a great spiritual being, or being met by long-dead family members. Not
everyone experiences all of these things, but most report some.
He tells us that scientific revelations can support an alternative theory of dying as a transition of
one form of consciousness to another.
In an interview with The Guardian newspaper after the publication of his book, the journalist
asks him what his current logical understanding is. He writes;
“…he (Greyson) looks resigned. “It seems most likely to me that the mind is somehow separate
to the brain,” he says, “and, if that’s true, maybe it can function when the brain dies.” Then he
adds, “But if the mind is not there in the brain, where is it? And what is it?”…“I am convinced now, after doing this for 40, 50 years, that there is more to life than just our
physical bodies. I recognize that there is a non-physical part of us. Is that spiritual? I’m not sure.
Spirituality usually involves a search for something greater than yourself, for meaning and
purpose in the universe. Well, I certainly have that.”
There are many descriptions of near-death experiences throughout history including Socrates,
according to Plato and Pliny the Elder in the first century. One of the most well known NDE to us
is Saint Julian of Norwich who lived in the 14th century. She describes her death beginning in
Chapter 2 of her book Showings in the short text. She then goes on to write of her vision of the
revelation of love as shown her by Christ.
A very well known quote is “All shall be well, and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall
be well” meaning that everything is exactly as it must be in the moment. That is a very simplistic
And one of my favourites is “As truly as God is our Father, so truly is God our Mother. What, do
you wish to know your Lords’s meaning in this thing. Know it well, love was his meaning…Who
reveals it to you? Love. What did he reveal to you? Love. Why does he reveal it to you. For
Faith and science coming closer together to show us the nature of death.
Let us pray.
May death come gently toward us,
Leaving us time to make our way
Through the cold embrace of fear
To the place of inner tranquility.
May death arrive only after a long life
To find us at home among our own
With every comfort and care we require.
May our leave taking be gracious,
Enabling us to hold dignity
Through awkwardness and illness.
May we see the reflection
Of our life’s kindness and beauty
In all the tears that fall for us.
May our spirit feel
The surge of true delight
When the veil of the visible
Is raised, and we glimpse again
The living faces
Of departed family and friends.
May our heart be speechless
At the sight of the truth
Of all belief had hoped.
Our heart breathless
In the light and lightness
Where each and everything
Is at last it’s true self…
Prayer adapted from John O’Donohue, For the dying. To Bless the Space Between Us, 2008.
Alex Moshakis. The Guardian, What do near death experiences mean, and why do they
fascinate us? March 7, 2021
Bruce Greyson, MD, After: A Doctor Explores What Near-Death Experiences Reveal About Life
and Beyond, 2021
Cynthia Bourgeault, The Wisdom Jesus: Transforming Heart and Mind - a New Perspective on
Christ and His Message, 2008.