The woman who died and lived to tell the tale

Back from the dead: Doctor Mary Neal says she went to heaven after a freak accident.

Is there life after death? For centuries, people have believed that consciousness continues long after our hearts stop beating. Now a new Netflix series searches for scientific proof.

Mary Neal knew she was dying.

It had taken just moments for the New Yorker’s dream white water rafting holiday to descend into disaster. Now, her kayak was trapped underwater and her body wedged into rocks metres below the surface.

She could feel her bones breaking and her lungs filling with the freezing water. So it was strange that she felt more alive than ever before.

“I could feel my spirit peeling away from my body, and my spirit went up towards the heavens.”

As she was guided by the spirits to heaven through a pathway exploding with the vibrance of thousands of multicoloured flowers, Mary turned back and took one final look at the friends battling to save her. She knew this was the end of her life on Earth.

But incredibly, even after half an hour without any oxygen, Mary survived.

Dr Neal is just one of dozens who tell their stories in Surviving Death, a new Netflix documentary series.

Based on a book by journalist Leslie Kean, the series takes a scientific approach to the study of the afterlife, searching for definitive evidence that consciousness extends even beyond our final breaths.

Over six episodes, the documentary cross-examines mediums who call on the dead, those who try to contact their loved ones at seances and even somebody who claims to be a reincarnated murder victim.

Belief in the afterlife has a long history. The Ancient Egyptians famously saw death not as the end of life, but as a temporary interruption. They placed food near burial chambers, told spells and prayers and mummified bodies to ensure their relatives’ safety on the perilous journey to the Afterworld.

Much later, death and rebirth were common themes in the poetry of 20th Century Irish Nobel Laureate William Butler Yeats, a firm believer in ghosts and a friend of the occultist Madame Blavatsky.

In some places, belief in life after death is actually growing. One 2014 survey found that 80% of Americans believe in an afterlife – up from 73% in the 1970s.

Kean is not the first person to search for answers. In 1893, Sherlock Holmes author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle joined the Society for Psychical Research, carrying out a series of experiments on telepathy.

And in 2011, a study by academics at the University of Oxford concluded that humans are natural dualists. Across many cultures, it found, people find it instinctively easy to conceive of the separation of mind and body. Today, students at Edinburgh University can even take a degree in Parapsychology.

It is hard to be genuinely objective on the subject of death. Conan Doyle’s faith in spiritualism was influenced by the tragic and untimely death of his son. For Kean, her work took on new significance when a close friend died.

Indeed, as one interviewee in Surviving Death neatly summarises: “For those who believe, no proof is necessary; for those who don’t believe, no proof is possible.”

So, is there life after death?

New beginnings

It is possible, say some. It is important to keep an open mind. The accounts of near-death events and communications from beyond portrayed in Surviving Death are compelling. We should not be so quick to dismiss people who claim to have otherworldly experiences. Nobody has ever disproved the idea of the afterlife, or reincarnation. As Leslie Kean herself says: “maybe death isn’t the end”.

Of course not, say others. It is easy to understand why people want to believe in life after death, but the stories of heavenly embraces told by people like Mary Neal remain just that – stories we tell ourselves to ease our fear of dying. Seances were a popular pastime in the 19th Century, but many mediums were later unmasked as con artists. It is an uncomfortable truth, but death is final.

You Decide

  1. Would you want to be reincarnated?
  2. Is death something to be afraid of?

Activities

  1. Write a short story about a person who witnesses the afterlife after a near death experience.
  2. In groups, choose a major world religion or philosophy. Then research and make a presentation about followers’ attitudes to death, the afterlife and reincarnation.

Some People Say...

“We die only once, and for such a long time.”

Molière (1622 - 1673), French playwright, actor and poet

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
It is generally agreed that although there has been a surge in the number of books and films made about life after death and near death experiences (NDEs) in recent decades, people have believed in such phenomena for centuries. In 2014, the oldest written record of an NDE was found in an 18th-Century medical text in an antique shop. The 1740 text, written by a French doctor, describes the experience of a patient who falls unconscious and sees a pure bright light they interpret as Heaven.
What do we not know?
One main area of debate surrounds the cause of near death experiences. The author of the French report thought the visions were caused by an increase in blood flow to the brain. Today, some experts think out-of-body sensations are actually caused by a lack of blood to the brain, which puts it into “panic mode.” But a study of 63 heart attack patients by Southampton University found that those who reported NDEs during their cardiac arrest actually had higher oxygen levels than those who did not.

Word Watch

Perilous journey
Ancient Egyptians had to overcome many challenges to achieve immortality, including passing through the serpent infested underworld and facing the “weighing of the hearts” at the place of judgement.
William Butler Yeats
Yeats was fascinated by Irish pagan myths and folk stories, and was also a member of the Order of the Golden Dawn, an English occult group.
Madame Blavatsky
Helena Blavatsky was a Russian spiritualist and occult writer and the founder of the Theosophical Society, which suggested that people could contact a deeper spiritual reality by transcending normal human consciousness.
Society for Psychical Research
A British society, which still exists today, was first set up in 1882 to investigate events described as “psychic” or “paranormal.” Its founders included several prominent Cambridge University academics.
Telepathy
The direct transference of thoughts into another person’s head. After carrying out his experiment, Conan Doyle was convinced that telepathy is real.
Dualists
People who believe human beings are made out of two separate elements such as mind and body.
Parapsychology
The study of psychic phenomena and other paranormal claims related to near-death experiences.
Con artists
The surge in interest in seances in the 19th Century Western world began when two teenage sisters claimed they had communicated with a spirit. The girls later revealed they made the noises with their feet.

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