Hey dead people, seriously, is there anyone out there? I’m almost 70 and I’ve never seen a ghost. I feel a little cheated. Not to mention disappointed. I asked my dad when he was dying what he thought might be out there. He’d always been adamantly empirical in his ideas of the universe. If you can’t lift it, see it, smell it, hear it, measure it, smoke it, pet it, saw it, sand it, glue it, fly it, hit it, kiss it, drink it, eat it, give it to somebody for Christmas or sail it to Honolulu it doesn’t exist. Maybe, now that he was nearing the afterlife, he could sense something. Something transcendent, otherworldly. Maybe he had changed his mind. “So what do you think, dad, what do you think you awaits us when we die?” “Black velvet,” he answered, an empiricist to the end.
I tend to think he’s right. Like I said, I’ve never seen a ghost. I have not had an inkling of otherworldly visitation. I sometimes dream of my father still being alive but I don’t invest dreams with supramundane significance. It could be a beginning, but I’m not there yet. Not ready to make that leap.
So I ask you, dead people, where are you?
I’ll tell you what’s suddenly got me wondering: delta waves.
Some Canadian doctors recently studied brain activity in four patients in intensive-care after their life-support machines had been turned off and discovered in one of the patients that single delta wave bursts persisted after the heart had stopped and the person was declared clinically dead.
Delta waves are the waves we generally get in deep sleep. They have a frequency oscillation between 0.5-4 hertz. They can arise in either the thalamus or in the cortex. During delta wave sleep, neurons are globally lulled by gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA). Anti-anxiety medication such as the benzodiazepines (Valium, Xanax, Ativan) enhance the effect of GABA. That’s how they work.
So I don’t know, are these delta waves just neurological hiccups in a dead brain, or evidence that our minds continue to be active in some marvelous way after our bodies shut down?
I need some dead people to come and let me know what’s going on. In the meantime, we have Emanuel Swedenborg.
At age twenty-eight, Swedenborg was made Assessor of the Board of Mines by Charles XII. He was a brilliant engineer. He was also a theologian of renown. At age fifty-four, in 1743, he experienced his first ecstasy and began his Journal of Dreams. In June, 1747, he resigned his post as assessor of mines and devoted himself to the writing and publication pf his voluminous theological works. He died in London, England, in 1772, at age 85 of a stroke. “He is described,” wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson,
when in London, as a man of quiet, clerical habit, not averse to tea and coffee, and kind to children. He wore a sword when in full velvet dress, and whenever he walked out, carried a gold-headed cane. There is a common portrait of him in antique coat and wig, but the face has a wandering or vacant air.
Swedenborg affirmed that he could see “with the internal sight, the things that are in another life, more clearly than he sees the things which are here in the world.”
What did he see?
He claims to have visited the other world, the place we go when we die, while still living. He describes the experience of dying as not actually dying. We don’t die. We go elsewhere. We are resurrected. Here are some excerpts from Swedenborg’s book Heaven and Hell:
When someone’s body can no longer perform its functions in the natural world in response to the thoughts and affections of its spirit (which it derives from the spiritual world), then we say that the individual has died. This happens when the lungs’ breathing and the heart’s systolic motion have ceased. The person, though, has not died at all. We are only separated from the physical nature that was useful to us in the world. The essential person is actually still alive. I say that the essential person is still alive because we are not people because of our bodies but because of our spirits. After all, it is the spirit within us that thinks, and thought and affection together make us the people we are.
We can see, then, that when we die we simply move from one world into another. This is why in the inner meaning of the Word, “death” means resurrection and a continuation of life.
The reason our spirit is not separated from our body until the motion of the heart has stopped is that the heart answers to affection, an attribute of love, which is our essential life, since all of us derive our vital warmth from love. Consequently, as long as this union lasts there is a responsiveness, and therefore the life of the spirit is [still] in the body.
At first then a connection was established between my heartbeat and the heavenly kingdom, because that kingdom corresponds to the human heart. I also saw angels from that kingdom, some at a distance, but two sitting close to my head. The effect was to take away all my own affection but to leave me in possession of thought and perception. I remained in this state for several hours.
Then the spirits who were around me gradually drew away, thinking that I was dead. I sensed a sweet odor like that of an embalmed body, for when heavenly angels are present anything having to do with a corpse smells sweet. When spirits sense this, they cannot come near. This is also how evil spirits are kept away from our spirit when we are being admitted into eternal life.
The angels who were sitting beside my head were silent, simply sharing their thoughts with mine (when these are accepted [by the deceased], the angels know that the person’s spirit is ready to be led out of the body). They accomplished this sharing of thoughts by looking into my face. This is actually how thoughts are shared in heaven.
Since I had been left in possession of thought and perception so that I could learn and remember how awakening happens, I noticed that at first the angels were checking to see whether my thoughts were like those of dying individuals, who are normally thinking about eternal life. They wanted to keep my mind in these thoughts. I was later told that as the body is breathing its last, our spirit is kept in its final thought until eventually it comes back to the thoughts that flowed from our basic or ruling affection in the world.
Especially, I was enabled to perceive and even to feel that there was a pull, a kind of drawing out of the deeper levels of my mind and therefore of my spirit from my body; and I was told that this was being done by the Lord and is what brings about our resurrection.
When heavenly angels are with people who have been awakened they do not leave them, because they love everyone. But some spirits are simply unable to be in the company of heavenly angels very long, and want them to leave. When this happens, angels from the Lord’s spiritual kingdom arrive, through whom we are granted the use of light, since before this we could not see anything but could only think.
Some people during their earthly lives have not believed in any life of the soul after the life of the body. When they discover that they are alive, they are profoundly embarrassed.
I frequently wonder if this happened to my dad. Was he embarrassed to see angels greeting him rather than black velvet? Or was it just as he said: nada. Nothing. Nihil. Nichts. Rien. Rien de rien.
Nothing can come of nothing, said King Lear. Which first came from Parmenides: nihil fit ex nihilo. If death is simply non-existence, which is to say we simply cease to exist, and since there is no one to experience non-existence, who is to know? When I cease to exist I won’t be there to notice I’m not existing. But if Swedenborg is right, I’m going to be embarrassed.
But not really. I’ll be stunned, but not embarrassed. Why would I be embarrassed? I never insisted that there is no afterlife. Who would do that? Wall Street brokers don’t even do that, and they take insanity to new levels every day.
Clearly, something is going on. I have a sense of the sublime. I know beauty when I see it. Nobody taught me beauty, nobody taught me to tremble with awe when I hear the thunder of a waterfall. So what’s it doing there? Why does a sense of something beyond, something terrific and sublime, swirl around in my neurons? What does the sublime have to do with survival? Isn’t survival just a matter of eating and reproducing? Killing things and eating them? Impressing somebody enough with your skills at gathering food that they’ll want to exchange bodily fluids with you, and maybe stick around long enough to help you raise a kid? Why should there be more to life than that? Why is there art? Why is there dance? Why is there music? What do any of these things have to do with survival? Why is consciousness imbued with such values? Why is there consciousness? Why is there self-awareness? Why is there a sense of otherworldliness?
Everyone has this sense. Don’t they? Am I being presumptuous?
You can see it in their eyes, hear it in their words. There’s more to life than beer and football. I don’t know how it’s possible not to feel the presence of something divine, something transcendent, a glimmer of something fantastic at least occasionally.
Swedenborg describes an afterlife that is identical to that on earth, people have bodies, live in houses, and enjoy community life. The main difference is in its intensity. Everything in the afterlife is more vivid. We become more acutely aware of our inner nature. We become more authentically ourselves.
I picture something like the world of Oz. My old cat Toby greeting me and leading me around and showing me the ropes. If I’m embarrassed, it won’t be for long. There are worse things in life (and death) than embarrassment.
And hey, isn’t a little embarrassment better than not existing? Yeah, I’d say so. Embarrassment doesn’t last. Non-existence does. Non-existence goes on not existing for a long time.
It would be helpful if at least one actual dead person returned to inform us just what to expect, what clothes to bring, what temperature to expect. Will there be miniature golf? All-you-can eat buffets? What do hamburgers taste like in the afterlife? Do dead cows look at you while you eat them? Why hasn’t someone dropped down from the afterlife, or glimmered their way into our dimension like a Christmas fairy and opened a travel bureau next to a funeral home?
Just one dead person to come back and say wow, you know what, heaven is fucking fantastic. But wait. Don’t go jumping off of a bridge. You need to stay in this life and die of natural causes, because…. because why? Why isn’t there a dead person to explain these things?
I know there are a lot of people who claim to have seen a ghost. But I’m not one of them. So hey, dead people, I need to know: should I bring a towel?