To the eternal question -- "What happens when we die?" -- the human species has searched for answers in a wide range of spiritual and scientific realms. Though I am not affiliated with any organized religion at the moment, I have always tended to think something happens, if only because of our inability to grasp the complexity of the question. I have an uncle who is of the belief that nothing happens, that we should enjoy the here and now because we end up as food for earthworms. Science has persuaded him of this, yet I am just as certain that there are aspects to our existence that are unknowable.
So I came with an open mind to Judy Bachrach's book, Glimpsing Heaven: The Stories and Science of Life After Death. But I also approached it with the eye of an experienced journalist, which is to say I held the author to high standards of reporting and writing. Happily, she exceeded both. Drawing on interviews with an array of people who have had what is commonly called "near death experiences" -- but what she refers to more accurately as "death experiences" -- Bachrach exhibits the same journalistic skill that has distinguished her as a contributor to Vanity Fair. All had been declared legally dear, yet they retained a consciousness that existed outside of their bodies. They came back and spoke of experiencing "pure unconditional love," of seeing deceased relatives and being overcome with enlightenment. And, yes, they remembered being drawn to a "white light."
One "experiencer" Bachrach spoke with was Bill Taylor, a computer analyst who had suffered a heart attack. "The next thing I knew, I was out in space, looking on all the stars and planets ... There were threads connecting all of the bodies in the universe. And I am also connected to all these forms ... The threads were energy -- and it was love that connected everything to everything."
Interviews with doctors and scientists who have explored this subject are woven into the narrative, which Bachrach moves along at a highly readable pace. There would appear to be agreement among them that something indeed happens when we die, although it is not yet clear how or why. No book of this sort could possibly answer all of our questions, but it does give us the "glimpse" it promises into a realm that exists beyond the wall of time. And it reminds us again how little we know.
Mark Kram Jr. is the author of the PEN/ESPN Award-winning narrative Like Any Normal Day: A Story of Devotion.