There’s nothing like a catchy title to get the reader’s attention, of course, but it remains a fact that in our Western society especially – even in our Latter-day Saint culture – we all too rarely think about, or talk about, Death. We all know it is inevitable, but few of us engage with the subject in any deep way until it touches us personally. A loved one dies; reality intrudes and for a time we face the fact that life is fragile and can end at any moment. In my experience, few mature people, in or out of the church, have not had some experience assuring them that we survive physical death.
The fact that we tend to focus on living our lives, however, sometimes leaves even people who have received the Gospel with uncertainties and misconceptions. Although the subject is vast, this article hopes to address some of these. Let’s begin with some foundational statements.
How should we view death? Death is the conclusion of our physical life in this world. It comes when our spirit, which incorporates our consciousness and memory, separates from our mortal body. It comes to us at all ages. It is inevitable. It is not, however, the end of our mortal probation. And, as my subtitle and opening paragraph implies, it is a subject that I believe we should learn more about and become more comfortable acknowledging.
Where do we go? The terminology common among Latter-day Saints, the Spirit World, sometimes masks the fact that it is the spirit of this world. This earth was first created as a spirit earth, a world made of more refined matter than this one. In common with all other living entities, whether human, animal or vegetable, the earth had its spirit clothed upon with physical matter. Thus, we don’t go “up there” or to “heaven” when we die, as I have occasionally heard members say. We stay here, within the spirit of our probationary planet. This is the sphere for us to work out our salvation. The Spirit World is right here, all around us.
The Spirit World is not the Pre-existence. Our spirits once lived in the presence of our Heavenly Parents in the celestial worlds. We come down to this earth, created as a Terrestrial globe and, since the Fall, a Telestial world, to receive our mortal bodies. After we die we do not return to the Pre-existence but remain here in earth’s spirit dimension until our resurrection.
What is the world of spirits like? As it is the spirit of this planet, we can assume that it is quite like the world we are familiar with, but without death and without physical restrictions such as sickness, for example. It has forests, hills, rivers, gardens and cities. It is just as “real” and tangible to its occupants as this world is to us.
It also has degrees and divisions – the wicked, for example, are in a “Spirit Prison,” that is, they are imprisoned, in the sense that they do not mingle with the righteous. During the three days Christ’s body lay in the tomb, he organized the righteous of all ages to preach the Gospel to the unrighteous in the Spirit Prison. The church operates in the Spirit World, coordinating the missionary work that lets countless spirits accept the Gospel and the sacred ordinances performed on their behalf. After describing the abode of the righteous after death, The Book of Mormon names it as “Paradise” (Alma 40:11-12).
The Veil of Forgetfulness.There is sometimes an expectation that the veil is removed when we die, an assumption that may have originated some decades ago with the landmark film, Man’s Search for Happiness. Near its conclusion, the grandfather in the film dies and his spirit is depicted emerging into a circle of loved ones who pre-deceased him. Juxtaposed over this scene the commentary mentions that the veil over our memories will be removed and that we will recall our pre-mortal existence. While it is true that we will eventually have the veil of forgetfulness removed, that does not take place when we leave mortality. Not until the day of our resurrection, when our physical and spirit bodies are inseparably joined, will our pre-existent memories be restored.
Our time in the spirit-world is, therefore, a continuation of our mortal probationary period; a time when we continue to progress, repent and serve. The principles of faith, repentance and obedience will be as significant there as they are here. There would be no point in one of the major activities there – missionary work – if we had our pre-mortal memories of God and of pre-existent councils about agency and so on restored. There would be no need for the correspondingly vast work for the dead underway in our Family History libraries and Temples.
Having experienced life in a physical body, once we are in the Spirit World we will no doubt come to appreciate what a blessing that having a body was; but, in reality, we will know only one thing more than we did during mortality: the obvious fact that there is life after death. I suspect that a committed atheist may still be inclined to see even the survival of their consciousness after death as a “natural” function of an accidental universe. Certainly, other faiths and belief systems – Christian and non-Christian – continue there, hence the need for the Gospel to be taught to the “dead.” We should not have an expectation that we will enter a place full only of Latter-day Saints or even of Christians generally.
Our sources of information.While much of what we will ultimately understand about our next estate awaits our arrival there, we can know in general terms what is ahead. We have sufficient scripture and credible commentary by faithful members of the Church to be assured of the broad outline. Outside of those sources we need to be very cautious. There are those who peddle stories for profit to the curious, credulous and the grieving. Sadly, even our own ranks are not immune. One very profitable scheme by a nominal member and her Utah ghost-writer gained great publicity a few years ago, targeting the LDS market and then – minimizing the LDS background (seen, for example, in a revealingly evasive interview on Oprah) – repackaged for non-LDS readers. 1-The extravagantly appealing claims and the underlying motive for the books are easily exposed, 2– but they did a lot of damage among members and non-members alike.
Fortunately, we do not have to rely on invented accounts motivated by profit. In addition to scripture and the experiences of faithful people, we can also learn from the accounts of people who have died briefly and then been brought back to life. As a universal experience that comes to all, the process of death is independent of our religion, our cultural background and our understanding. Scientific research is providing still more evidence that something survives physical death.
The NDE. The term Near-Death Experience (NDE) has entered our popular culture, referring to a broad range of experiences reported by those who have been pronounced clinically dead and then brought back to life. Detachment from the body, feelings of levitation, greatly heightened senses, total serenity, travel through a “tunnel” and meeting deceased family members are among the most commonly reported.Increasingly, Thanatology or the study of death, has become of interest for many researchers. Many studies are worth reading.
One of the earliest researcher was psychologist Dr Raymond Moody who published a seminal book called Life After Life (1975) that is still worth reading today.
Dr Kenneth Ring and a colleague published a fascinating two-year study in 1999 called Mindsight, examining 31 cases of blind people who described, at the moment of death, seeing for the first time in their lives, giving details of medical procedures in an operating theatre for example.
A leading research group is The Near Death Experience Research Foundation (www.nderf.org ) which has complied over 3000 NDE case studies from around the world demonstrating the consistency of what people report, regardless of their culture, religion or education. Its director, Dr Jeffrey Long, an oncologist, has recently published Evidence of the Afterlife: The Science of Near-Death Experiences (2010) which summarizes the evidences that point to the reality of life after death. His book convincingly refutes arguments that what people report is merely the brain shutting down.
And at King’s College in London, Dr Peter Fenwick studies not just what happens at death, but what takes place up to 48 hours before and after death. Although it is beyond the scope of this article, there are some suggestions from his and other studies that death may be a more complex process than simply the separation of body and spirit that we normally see it as.
Everything we see and experience in this life is just a prelude for what lies ahead. Death transitions us into another dimension of activity where, free of mortality’s physical restraints, we can continue perfecting ourselves and serving in a vaster field of opportunities. As a continuation of mortality, our time in the spirit world is a place where God’s mercy and justice will balance the injustices and deficiencies many of us experience in this life. Greater, more expansive truths about God, about the Atonement of Christ, the universe and our possibilities await us, coupled with the joys of family associations.
One of life’s great challenges then is to gain, and then maintain, an eternal perspective. Our modern culture makes it easy to forget who we really are and what is really going on. When we transcend our environment, however, we realize what is of greatest value in life. Hint: it’s not a large house, the latest fashions, positions or titles. It’s what we can take with us – our family bonds, knowledge, testimony, covenants kept and memories of a good life where we served others.
When the time of our own death comes we will accept it as “our time” to move on. Without regrets for our life we can then take the next step forward in our eternal journey with confidence and anticipation.
Betty J. Eadie with Curtis Taylor, Embraced by the Light (London: Aquarian Press, 1992).
One of the best critiques is Douglas Beardall, Embarrassed by the Light (Provo: LDS Book Publications, 1995).