Afterlife

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Engraving depicting the afterlife by J. M. Strudwick, 1891, entitled “The Ramparts of God's House.” Fortean Picture Library.

Afterlife

(religion, spiritualism, and occult)

The earliest evidence we have of early humans, the Neanderthal, consists of grave burials. As early as 25,000 years ago, people began to bury their dead with what appears to be religious intent. Skeletons have been found in graves containing hand axes and weapons, perhaps implying a belief that the dead would need them in a life following this one. An argument could thus be advanced that belief in an afterlife was among the first human religious convictions.

Afterlife is a fundamental belief of most religious traditions, and its interpretation falls into one of three basic categories:

A Place

Probably the first belief in afterlife was that a person goes somewhere when departing this life. Often religions describe this place as an ideal environment projected from surroundings with which the culture is already familiar: the rich hunting ground of Plains Indian culture, the recycled earth of the Hebrew prophets, the "Holy City" of the Christian New Testament, and the heavenly oasis of Islam. Egyptian embalmers went to great extremes to prepare their nobility for this place, not only building great pyramids for entrance halls but also providing wealth to cover traveling expenses and to ensure a continuation of lifestyle in the life to come.

Often this place of eternal joy and contentment is contrasted with a place of torment for those who fail to attain the ethical righteousness a religion calls for. Either a fiery hell or a nebulous place of darkness awaits the unworthy, sometimes preceded by a "waiting room" or purgatory, where debts must be paid or choices made concerning eternity.

In some traditions, the spirit of the deceased stays where he or she lived during life. In Shinto it is not uncommon for ancestors, accustomed to receiving offerings and prayers from their descendants, to speak through the lips of shamans. "Haunted" houses are said to be home to ghosts or shades of previous owners. The famous magician Harry Houdini promised to communicate from the place of the dead if at all possible; after years of seances, usually held at Halloween—traditionally said to be the time when the veil between this world and the next is stretched the thinnest—his wife finally gave up in despair. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, author of the Sherlock Holmes mysteries, spent the last years of his life exploring ways to pierce the barrier between life and death.

Many "after-death" experiences have been recorded by people considered clinically dead and then revived. They commonly report having seen a tunnel of light leading to a beautiful place of fields and flowers, a Being of Light radiating warmth and love, and reunion with loved ones. These experiences have been reported by both religious and nonreligious people, and they are the subject of considerable debate. Some see these descriptions as proof of afterlife, others as a chemical reaction in the brain rendering near-death visions of culturally familiar concepts of heaven.

A Consciousness

Sometimes afterlife is described in terms of a drop of water returning to the ocean. This is the view of the Buddhist Nirvana and New Age thought; it is also found in ancient Hinduism. In this interpretation, universal consciousness has taken on human form. Then, after spending a few years or lifetimes on Earth gathering experience, it returns to the consciousness of the cosmos, uniting again in the wholeness encompassing both time and space.

A Process

As expressed in the Tibetan Book of the Dead, this view of afterlife sees a procession of incarnations. Life is described as the perpetually turning wheel of samsara, in which people live out a series of reincarnations, driven by Karma accumulated in past lives (see Karma). Exploration of past lives helps in the understanding of why things happen in the present life. The process is, for all practical purposes, endless, though the goal is moksha, eventual release of the now fully formed individual into the eternal consciousness. In Hinduism, atman, the individual soul, merges with brahman, the universal consciousness. The Buddha was said to have achieved Nirvana upon his death and is even now drawing unto himself the Buddha consciousness inherent in every human.

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A vision of the afterlife: The Ramparts of God's House, engraving after a painting by J. M. Strudwick, 1891. Courtesy Fortean Picture Library.

Afterlife

(religion, spiritualism, and occult)

Witches believe in a life after death. Individual beliefs may vary, but most Witches think of it as being very much like the present plane of existence. It is, however, a place where the lessons of the life just completed may be reviewed and where (as with the Wiccan belief in reincarnation) the necessary lessons for the next life are planned.

There is no belief in a "Final Judgement," with its rewards and punishments. It is thought that we receive our rewards and punishments in this life, according to how we live it (see Karma).

Gerald Gardner, the "Grand Old Man of Witchcraft," responsible more than anyone for the re-awakening of interest in the Old Religion, was interested in spiritualism at an early age. In spiritualism, the afterlife is known as the "Summerland," a term coined by Andrew Jackson Davis in the mid-1800s. The afterlife is so called in Wicca as well. Whether or not the Wiccan term can be solely attributed to Gardner is unknown, although there seems to be no reference to it by that name prior to Gardner's teachings.

According to a Gallup Poll recorded in 1980, 71 percent of Americans believe in an afterlife. Many religions place that afterlife in one place, without the "heaven" and "hell" of orthodox theology.

The length of time spent in the Summerland, between lives, is indeterminate. Since there is no concept of time in the afterlife, it could be minutes or it could be centuries. Wiccans believe that it is possible for those in the physical body, on this plane, to communicate with spirits in the Summerland by various means.