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The woman who died and lived to tell the tale

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. KeywordsTelepathy - The ability to send information into someone else’s mind without talking to or interacting with them physically. There is no good evidence that telepathy exists.

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